Thursday, October 6, 2022

Walter Russel Mead Against Ph.D.s

From Tyler Cowen's interview with foreign policy expert Walter Russel Mead:

COWEN: How would you change or improve the training that goes into America’s foreign policy elite?

MEAD: Well, I would start by trying to draw people’s attention to that, over the last 40 years, there’s been an enormous increase in the number of PhD grads engaged in the formation of American foreign policy. There’s also been an extraordinary decline in the effectiveness of American foreign policy. We really ought to take that to heart.

COWEN: Do you think of it as an advantage that you don’t have a PhD?

MEAD: Huge advantage.

COWEN: How would you describe that advantage?

MEAD: I don’t really believe in disciplines. I see connections between things. I start from reality. I’m not trying to be anti-intellectual here. You need ideas to help you organize your perceptions of reality. But I think there’s a tendency in a lot of social science disciplines — you start from a bunch of really smart, engaged people who have been thinking about a set of questions and say, “We’ll do a lot better if we stop randomly thinking about everything that pops up and try, in some systematic way, to organize our thinking of this.”

I think you do get some gains from that, but you see, over time, the focus of the discipline has this tendency to shift. The discipline tends to become more inward navel-gazing. “What’s the history of our efforts to systematize our thinking about this?” The discipline becomes more and more, in a sense, ideological and internally focused and less pragmatic.

I think that some of the problem, though, is not so much in the intellectual weaknesses of a lot of conventional postgrad education, but simply almost the crime against humanity of having whole generations of smart people spend the first 30, 35 years of their lives in a total bubble, where they’re in this academic setting, and the rule . . . They become socialized into the academy, just as much as prisoners get socialized into the routines of a prison.

The American academy is actually a terrible place for coming to understand how world politics works. Recently, I had a conversation with an American official who was very proud of the way that the US had broken the mold by revealing intelligence about Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine, and pointed out how that had really helped build the NATO coalition against Russian aggression, and so on.

So far as he goes, it’s true. But I said, however, if you really look at the total message the US was projecting to Russia in those critical months, there were two messages. One is, “We’ve got great intelligence on you. We actually understand you much better than you think.” It was shocking. I think it shocked the Russians. But on the other hand, we’re saying, “We think you’re going to win quickly in Ukraine. We’re offering Zelenskyy a plane ride out of Kyiv. We’re pulling out all our diplomats and urging other countries to pull out their diplomats.”

The message, actually the totality of the message that we sent to Putin is, “You are going to win if you do this.” It would certainly undercut — not that there may have been any — but any voices inside Russia telling Putin, “No, no, no, this thing is a lot harder than you think. It may not work.” What they’re hearing is, “The Americans, whose intelligence is really, really good, and they know us better than we think — they certainly know the Ukrainians better than we do — and they think we’re going to win fast.”

That is a miserable, miserable combination of policies. The thing is, there was no political mind in the administration that thought in terms of, what’s the overall impact of what we do? That’s, I think, what comes of people who’ve spent their lives in universities rather than spent their lives in the real world. 


I agree with some of this. I feel strongly that in my own life that there was a definite trade-off between education and other sorts of experiences. During the time I spent in graduate school I was very much immersed in the academic world – and not, say, in the publishing world or the business world. The academic world is very much oriented toward producing future professors; that is the kind of connections you make and the things you are taught to emphasize and so on. So when you leave the academic bubble, as I did, you discover that much of what was pushed on you now seems worse than useless.

And in the narrower world of foreign policy, it is worth noting that the US government contains dozens of people who wrote dissertations on how to save failed states, but in practice we had no clue how to save the failing state of Afghanistan. If such wisdom exists, it obviously cannot be found in graduate school.


szopeno said...

"the US government contains dozens of people who wrote dissertations on how to save failed states, but in practice we had no clue how to save the failing state of Afghanistan"


David said...

I'm not necessarily here to defend the academy in principle--see my posts to our just-previous discussion--but a lot of this sounds to me, despite Mead's protests, like the usual, tired sort of academy-bashing. Experience is the best teacher only if you have a good student. And there are plenty of examples of experience teaching terrible lessons to poor students (eg, Paul Wolfowitz, whose fantasies that helped produce the second Iraq War were, as I understand it, born during his experience on the ground in Kurdistan during the first one; and both Rumsfeld and Cheney were men of long experience, and neither terribly academic).

Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest seems to show the men who got us into Vietnam had a *lot* of real-world experience. So did those who advised against it. Experience can feed wise caution, or stupid hubris.

Would things have been better if the Best and the Brightest had asked the opinions of some with experience of Vietnam itself? Maybe. But they rejected that in large part because they were arrogant about what their own experience had taught them, not because they were arrogant about their PhDs.

The Afghanistan example is, as I think you hint, not really a good one either. The problem was not that eggheads were in charge of our operations there. The problems included, first, the fact that the Bush admin had very little interest in what happened there; and second, there was almost no way we were going to rebuild the country successfully no matter how much effort and experience we put into it.

Maybe grad schools in the humanities should teach more about practical issues like publishing; but I'd be willing to bet you learned a fair amount of history while you were in it.

David said...

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I think you can't design a system that produces people who know everything they need to know, will never be stumped, always get everything right, never make mistakes, and never become devoted to dumb ideas or seduced into their own bad attitudes. This means that a lot of arguments in favor of one system or another are really aesthetic.

Perhaps it's worth remembering that Machiavelli didn't say he thought boldness worked best. He said he just liked it better.

G. Verloren said...

"I don’t really believe in disciplines."

So did this guy build his own house? Install his own plumbing? Put in his own electrical wiring? If he gets seriously ill or wounded, will he perform his own surgery? Does he only listen to music he himself composed and performed? Does he only eat food he cooked himself? For that matter, does he butcher his own meat - after hunting or raising it himself? Does he grow his own vegetables? Did he build his own car, and does he keep it running with fuel he synthesizes himself? Sew his own clothes? Etc, etc, etc?

Specialization is the bedrock foundation of civilization, and this putz doesn't believe in disciplines? Give me a break.

And I say all of this as a huge proponent of inter-discipline study. I very much feel that overspecialization can lead to people being narrow minded, and arriving at foolish conclusions and then refusing to back down from them because they make the mistake of thinking their expertise in one area somehow translates into them being similarly competent in another. You wouldn't want a brain surgeon to perform the job of a rocket scientist and vice versa, despite both being stereotypically brilliant individuals.

But the opposite is just as foolish - arguing that you "don't really believe in disciplines", and that lacking a PhD is somehow "an advantage" is equally self-delusional.

Yes, experts get things wrong. But almost always, the things they get wrong are complex matters that extend beyond the scope of their individual discipline.

US military analysts being wrong about Russia's ability to swiftly win a war against Ukraine is not due to faulty analysis - it's due to faulty input data. The analysts were RIGHT, assuming the information they were working from was correct. But it wasn't, and THAT is why the ultimate conclusions were flawed. Their analysis was not flawed - the data to be analyzed was.

Garbage in, garbage out. A perfectly working calculator will still give you entirely the wrong answer if you feed the wrong numbers into it. A perfectly logical argument can produce a wholly flawed conclusion if the givens it is based on are incorrect.

So too with expert appraisals - if you hand an economist a bunch of information and ask them to make financial predictions based off of it, their knowledge and judgement can be beyond reproach, but they can still be totally wrong if the information you supplied to them was wrong or skewed somehow.