The selection, education, and training, of those making crucial decisions about our civilisation are between inadequate and disastrous. The institutions they work in are generally dysfunctional.
First, our mentality. We often are governed by ‘fear, honour and interest’ (Thucydides). We attribute success to skill and failure to luck: ‘The movement of events is often as wayward and incomprehensible as the course of human thought; and this is why we ascribe to chance whatever belies our calculation,’ said Pericles to the Athenians. We prefer to enhance prestige rather than face reality and admit ignorance or error. ‘So little trouble do men take in the search after truth, so readily do they accept whatever comes first to hand’ (Thucydides); ‘men may construe things after their fashion / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves’ (Cicero, Julius Caesar). As Feynman said, if you want to understand reality, ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.’
Robert Trivers, one of the most influential evolutionary thinkers of the last fifty years, has described how evolutionary dynamics can favour not just deception but self-deception: conflict for resources is ubiquitous; deception helps win; a classic evolutionary ‘arms race’ encourages both deception detection and ever-better deception; perhaps humans evolved to deceive themselves because this fools others’ detection systems (for example, self-deception suppresses normal clues we display when lying). This is, perhaps, one reason why most people consistently rate themselves as above average.
Children display deception when just months old (e.g. fake crying). There is ‘clear evidence that natural variation in intelligence is positively correlated with deception... We seek out information and then act to destroy it... Together our sensory systems are organized to give us a detailed and accurate view of reality, exactly as we would expect if truth about the outside world helps us to navigate it more effectively. But once this information arrives in our brains, it is often distorted and biased to our conscious minds. We deny the truth to ourselves... We repress painful memories, create completely false ones, rationalize immoral behavior, act repeatedly to boost positive self-opinion, and show a suite of ego-defense mechanisms’ (Trivers). Roberta Wohlstetter wrote in Slow Pearl Harbors regarding ignoring threats, ‘Not to be deceived was uncomfortable. Self-deception, if not actually pleasurable, at least can avoid such discomforts.’
Tales of such self-deception are legendary. ‘I don’t know how Nixon won, no one I know voted for him’ (Pauline Kael, famous movie critic, responding to news of Nixon’s 1972 landslide victory). ‘The basic mechanism explaining the success of Ponzi schemes is the tendency of humans to model their actions, especially when dealing with matters they don’t fully understand, on the behavior of other humans,’ said Psychiatry Professor Stephen Greenspan in The Annals of Gullibility (2008), which he wrote just before he lost more than half his retirement investments in Madoff’s ponzi. ‘But for self-deception, you can hardly beat academics. In one survey, 94 percent placed themselves in the top half of their profession’ (Trivers). ‘Academics, like teenagers, sometimes don’t have any sense regarding the degree to which they are conformists’ (Bouchard, Science 3/7/09). Even physical scientists who know that teleological explanations are false can revert to them under time pressure, suggesting that such ideas are hardwired and are masked, not replaced, by specific training.
Also, it is depressingly possible that those who climb to the top of the hierarchy are more likely to focus only on their own interests. Studies such as Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior claim that the rich are much more likely ‘to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people’ (Piff) and even just thinking about money makes people more self-centred. Not only are richer people healthier (less likely to have heart attacks or suffer mood disorders), but they also produce less cortisol (suggesting lower stress levels; cf. studies suggest those at the top of hierarchies suffer less stress because they feel a greater sense of control), they are less attentive to pedestrians when driving, and less compassionate when watching videos of children suffering with cancer. This article touches on these studies though it should be remembered that many studies of such things are not replicated. Further, one of the most important studies on IQ, personality and scientific and financial success also shows a negative correlation between earnings and agreeableness. (Cf. piece by Mary Wakefield here.)
Most of our politics is still conducted with the morality and the language of the simple primitive hunter-gatherer tribe: ‘which chief shall we shout for to solve our problems?’ Our ‘chimp politics’ has an evolutionary logic: our powerful evolved instinct to conform to a group view is a flip-side of our evolved in-group solidarity and hostility to out-groups (and keeping in with the chief could lead to many payoffs, while making enemies could lead to death, so going along with leaders’ plans was incentivised). This partly explains the persistent popularity of collectivist policies and why ‘groupthink’ is a recurring disaster. Such instincts, which evolved in relatively simple prehistoric environments involving relatively small numbers of known people and relatively simple problems (like a few dozen enemies a few miles away), cause disaster when the problem is something like ‘how to approach an astronomically complex system such as health provision for millions.’
Second, our education and training. The education of the majority even in rich countries is between awful and mediocre. In England, few are well-trained in the basics of extended writing or mathematical and scientific modelling and problem-solving. Less than 10 percent per year leave school with formal training in basics such as exponential functions, ‘normal distributions’ (‘the bell curve’), and conditional probability. Only about 2-3 percent are taught about matrices and ‘complex numbers’ (which many children can grasp between the age of 10-14 but they are not given the chance unless they do Further Maths A Level). Less than one percent learn hard skills necessary to grasp how the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ provides the language of nature and a foundation for our scientific civilisation. Only a small subset of that fraction of one percent then study trans-disciplinary issues concerning vital complex systems the failure of which cause chaos.
This small subset has approximately zero overlap with powerful decision-makers. Generally, these people are badly or narrowly educated and trained. Courses offered by elite universities are thought to prepare future leaders well but are clearly inadequate and in some ways are damaging (see below). Those who scramble to the apex of power are sometimes relatively high scorers in tests of verbal ability (like Cameron) but are rarely high scorers in tests of mathematical ability or have good problem-solving skills in cognitively hard areas such as physics or computer science.
MPs and officials have to make constant forecasts but have little idea about how to make them, how the statistics and computer models underlying these forecasts work, or how to judge the reliability of their own views. A recent survey of 100 MPs by the Royal Statistical Society found that only 40% of MPs correctly answered a simple probability question (much simpler than the type of problem they routinely opine on): ‘what is the probability of getting two heads from flipping a fair coin twice?’ Despite their failures on a beginner question, about three-quarters nevertheless said they are confident in their ability to deal with numbers. Issues such as ‘how financial models contributed to the 2008 crisis’ or ‘intelligence and genetics’ cannot be understood in even a basic way without some statistical knowledge, such as normal distribution and standard deviation, yet most MPs do not understand much simpler concepts than these. They also have little knowledge of evolutionary systems (biological or cultural), and little understanding of technology. (How many of those at a senior level dealing with Ebola discussions or financial market disasters recently have any idea about the topology of ‘scale free networks’, cf. here? The basic concepts, as opposed to detailed modelling, are not hard to grasp but they do not appear in the typical education of ministers or senior officials.)
A mismatch on a scale of 104 between the experience of MPs and the responsibilities of ministers. Further, ministers have little experience in well-managed complex organisations and their education and training does not fill this huge gap. Even most of the ones who have good motives – and there are many, though they struggle to advance – have a fundamental problem of scale. The apex of the political system is full of people who have never managed employees on the scale of 102 people or budgets on the scale of 106 pounds, yet their job is to reshape bureaucracies on scales of 104 (DfE) – 106 (NHS) employees and 1010-1011 pounds. The scale of their experience of management is therefore often at least 104 off from what they are trying to control. Some unusual people can make jumps like this. Most cannot. For example, Cameron never worked in a highly functioning entity before suddenly acquiring large responsibilities – he went straight from PPE to Conservative Central Office – and never had responsibility for anything on a significant scale so he could not acquire the experience that he so needs now (and, perhaps more importantly, he has never understood how unprepared he and his gang were). The only minister in the DfE team 2010-14 who had significant experience of dealing with budgets on a scale of £108-109 was Nash – unsurprisingly, he was the most effective minister at dealing with DfE budgets / capital / property deals and so on. John Holland, the inventor of ‘genetic algorithms’, points out that ‘changes of three orders of magnitude or more usually require a new science’. It should be no surprise that politics is a story of repeated administrative failure.
Many of these problems can be seen particularly starkly in those who did courses like Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE). PPE is treated as a cross-disciplinary course suitable to educate future leaders. It is failing. Part of the reason for this is that the conventional economics that is taught often gives students a greatly misplaced confidence in their understanding of the world. They are taught to treat some economic theories as if they are similar to physical theories, and there is often spurious precision involving mathematical models but no explanation of the conceptual problems with these models, or the critique of them by physical scientists. I have watched many PPE graduates give presentations of forecasts, complete with decimal points, of economic numbers years into the future, then dismiss arrogantly those who point out the repeated failure of such predictions. PPE also teaches nothing about project management in complex organisations so they have little feel for how decisions will ripple through systems (including bureaucracies) into the real world.
At its worst, therefore, students leave university for politics and the civil service with degrees that reward verbal fluency, some fragments of philosophy, little knowledge of maths or science, and confidence in a sort of arrogant bluffing combined with ignorance about how to get anything done. They think they are prepared to ‘run the country’ but many cannot run their own diaries. In the absence of relevant experience, people naturally resort to destructive micromanagement rather than trusting to Auftragstaktik (give people a goal and let them work out the means rather than issue detailed instructions) which requires good training of junior people. This combination of arrogant incompetence is very widespread in Westminster and responsible for many problems. When such people surround themselves largely or solely with advisers who are very similar to themselves, we know from large amounts of research that the odds are high that groupthink will make these errors and problems even worse.
These gaps in education and training are not a ‘natural’ product of the concepts’ difficulty but because of deep flaws in a) school and university education and b) training programmes.
Third, our institutions and tools. Unlike science and markets, politics has no comparable institutional architecture that provides reliable processes for limiting the predictable trouble caused by our mentality combined with a lack of education and training.
Large bureaucracies, including political parties, operate with very predictable dynamics. They have big problems with defining goals, selecting and promoting people, misaligned incentives, misaligned timescales, a failure of ‘information aggregation’, and a lack of competition (in normal environments). These problems produce two symptoms: a) errors are not admitted and b) the fast adaptation needed to cope with complexity does not happen. More fundamentally, unlike in successful entities, there is no focus of talented and motivated people on important problems. People externally ask questions like ‘how could X go wrong?’, assuming that millions are spent on X so everyone must be thinking about X, but the inquiries usually reveal that nobody senior was thinking about X – they spent their time on endless trivia, or actually stopping people working on X.
These dynamics are well-understood but are very hard to change. Bureaucratic institutions tend to change significantly only in the event of catastrophic failure (e.g. 1914, 1929, 1945, 1989) – catastrophes that they themselves often contribute to. However, these dynamics are so deep that even predictable failures that lead to significant loss of life can often leave bureaucracies largely untouched other than a soon-forgotten media frenzy.