Monday, October 02, 2006

Hindsight

From the WaPo:
One of the most systematic errors in human perception is what psychologists call hindsight bias -- the feeling, after an event happens, that we knew all along it was going to happen. Across a wide spectrum of issues, from politics to the vagaries of the stock market, experiments show that once people know something, they readily believe they knew it all along.

This is not to say that no one predicted the war in Iraq would go badly, or that the insurgency would last so long. Many did. But where people might once have called such scenarios possible, or even likely, many will now be certain that they had known for sure that this was the only possible outcome.

"Liberals' assertion that they 'knew all along' that the war in Iraq would go badly are guilty of the hindsight bias," agreed Hal Arkes, a psychologist at Ohio State University, who has studied the hindsight bias and how to overcome it. "This is not to say that they didn't always think that the war was a bad idea."

He added: "It is to say that after it was apparent that the war was going badly, they assert that they would have assigned a higher probability to that outcome than they really would have assigned beforehand."

The hindsight bias plays an important role in public debate, because it gives people a false sense of certainty. When people convince themselves that they knew something would happen, what they effectively ignore is how much that outcome may have been unpredictable.

In place of accuracy, what the hindsight bias seems to offer is a form of comfort. It is easy to be confident about the past, because one cannot be proved wrong.

While the hindsight bias is obviously self-serving, it may also be how the brain makes sense of past events, Arkes said. Once something happens, we plumb the past for pieces of evidence that led to that outcome, while ignoring all the factors that could have led to different outcomes.

I've been opposed to this war since the beginnings of sabre rattling by this administration. Did I know that the were going to prosecute this war on the cheap? No. Did I know that BushCo would endorse torture that would get out of hand and taint our national image even further? No. Did I know that the facts were being fixed around the policy. I suspected, but evidence pointing to that wasn't fully available in late 2002/early 2003. Did I know there were no WMDs or nuclear program in Iraq? No, but the evidence that was being gathered by Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei in the window leading up to the war certainly was pointing to that. Did I know that Iraq would erupt into a sectarian civil war that seems to be inflamed by US troop presence? No, I was told we would be greeted as liberators.

I didn't know many of the outcomes of this war, but I had suspicions. I can't remember all of my exact suspicions, but I hoped that the BushCo administration was telling the truth -- that really is the least we can ask of our government. If things had gone very differently than my suspicions, I would have gladly given props. But they didn't. The BushCo Admin lied to the American people from the start and they continue to do so, and I find it a little offensive to be belittled as a liberal whiner who knew says he knew everything that would go wrong back from the start of this escapade. I didn't. Very few did. And those that did within government circles (or provided warnings of dire outcomes that have since come to bear) were denigrated, marginalized, bullied, or just ignored.

I worried about the consequences of our movement toward war in early 2003, but I didn't foresee the clusterf**k we'd be in today. I can see it clearly now, and we desperately need a change in leadership in the House and Senate this year if we are ever going to come up with rational strategies for getting us out of the shit we're in.


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