Thursday, June 4, 2009

I Like Cake (but prefer pie)

. Thursday, June 4, 2009

A clarification of my views of the "IR scholars in the public sphere" debate in response to Dr. Oatley:

1. When I reference knowledge-as-value-added, I wasn't talking about specific knowledge, of the sort acquired by area studies scholars. I was talking about more theoretical knowledge like being able to interpret signals, or being able to predict the strategies of insurgent groups, or being able to interpret the coordination difficulties in trade disputes. This is the type of research done by most IR scholars, and expertise in these areas can help an administration navigate the international system.

2. Outsiders may not have better information than insiders, but they may have better tools for making use of that information. In any case, are we sure we're getting a high bang-for-buck from our intelligence services? I think that's an open question.

3. This may be opening a can of worms, but the way I look at the concept of "bounded rationality" is as a heuristic device to measure people as they actually are rather than as automatons. In other words, nobody is perfectly rational but we all operate as if we think we are. Under that condition, people can seek new knowledge, biased people can seek to become less biased and improve their decision-making abilities over time, and "incomplete information" does not have to be equal to "private information". Remember "rational ignorance"?

Think of it this way: I know very little of particle physics, despite the fact that much information about particle physics is not held privately. However, if I were forced to make a judgment on some issue related to particle physics, I could improve my ability to make the best decision by taking the advice of experts who possess the knowledge I lack. If the issue is contentious, then the best I can do is hear both sides and make the best decision possible given the informational constraints I face.

So bounded rationality is distinct from both irrationality and true rationality, but has more in common with the latter than the former. But perhaps we should ask the Less Wrong folks about this.

4. Dr. Oatley wrote:

We seem to think that we can develop models that accurately explain politicians' choices and then use these models to encourage politicians to adopt policies other than those our models predict they are about to adopt. We seem not to recognize that the better our models explain the choices politicians make, the less they produce policy advice that differs from the policy governments plan to adopt.

This is a strange statement to make. Surely we can agree that the nature of international diplomacy has changed over time. And surely we can agree that some of these changes are due to the fact that policymakers have changed their strategies to accommodate new knowledge. We can also agree that policymakers are not infallible, and in fact make poor decisions all the time. One reason for this is that they are operating under much uncertainty. If IR scholars can reduce that uncertainty, then they can help improve decision-making.

I do not think, as Dr. Oatley apparently does, that the only advice IR scholars can give is "iterate the game, and play tit-for-tat".


I Like Cake (but prefer pie)
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