I was in a room with two dozen people who think for a living. The meeting was called to discuss potential changes in a largely successful homeland security program. The person leading the meeting made it clear that we were just looking for ideas. No decisions had been made, or would be made. It was just about ideas.
No one in the room believed any of that.
I didn’t speak to everyone who attended, but I did talk to a lot of them. Every one of them thought about what impact any program change would have on their job.
But you could not tell that from the conversation. Everyone was polite, creative, and very cautious.
“If it’s brainstorming you want, then it’s brainstorming you’ll get. But we’ll put some reins on the brain part, and we’ll make sure no one gets wiped away by the storm part.”
I would like to pretend I was immune from the rationalist delusion. But – even though I knew the words and the theory – I got sucked into it as much as anyone else in the room.
As best as I could tell we were all being eminently reasonable. Making claims, providing supporting evidence, listening to counterclaims and evidence – behaving the way people who think for a living are supposed to behave.
I even had a 3 x 5 card to remind me about Haidt’s conjecture:
Our ability to reason “evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasions, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people…. Skilled arguers… are not after the truth, but after arguments supporting their views.”
The 3 x 5 card did not help me much.
On this blog last week, Christian Beckner countered Michael Tanner’s proposal to break up the Department of Homeland Security. Both Tanner and Beckner offered enough material to test the hypothesis that “First comes the conclusion, then the reason for reaching the conclusion.”
“Can I believe it?” when we want to believe something. “Must I believe it?” when we don’t want to believe it.
Arnold Bogis reasoned about Iranian nuclear negotiations. Can I believe his argument that what we’re really talking about is “straightforward risk management?” Must I believe him when he writes the political “climate has shifted to a never never land where… the inability to control events on the other side of the world… is a sign of weakness?”
Phil Palin is such an amazing writer, a poet, that I can’t completely trust his arguments. And I can’t really tell if he’s agreeing or disagreeing with me.
He started his March 12 post with a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
“Men have lost their reason!” Mark Antony cries out.
I have read enough of Phil’s writing to know he is a fan of reason, a diehard optimist about reason, a “creature of reason” – as he writes.
I knew from the title of his post (Reason resurrected from reductionism) he would use the flower of his language to defend reason – even if that meant coming up with his own definition.
“Reason is how we engage the world together, more or less rigorously, more or less effectively, but together.”
Maybe we’re not there yet, he argues. But don’t give up on it.
Must I believe him? Can I believe him?
Palin ends Mark Anthony’s quote with an explanation mark. But the citation Palin provided shows Antony’s words ending with a period.
A small, overly pedantic observation on my part. But I’m suspicious. Is Palin using the explanation point to try to supplant reason with emotion?
When you don’t have evidence, raise your voice?
And why use Shakespeare, Plato, Aquinas and the Old Testament to support your assertions? Why not show how reason works in homeland security?
When you don’t have evidence, cite something from the Western canon?
Last week in homeland security I heard debates about StingRay cellphone tracking, read Martha Crenshaw’s argument that there is no global jihadist movement, heard the 14 to 1 results of a secret Senate intelligence committee vote on the cybersecurity information sharing act, learned about a lawsuit to get NSA to stop spying on Wikipedia users, read an essay about the almost complete absence of empirical studies on the effectiveness of antiterrorism strategies, learned that the great ice sheet of West Antarctic may have become irreversibly destabilized, and saw a study that concluded parental attitudes about vaccines are impervious to evidence.
I read, saw or heard nothing in those issues to reignite a faith that Reason is a winning strategy to advance the security of the homeland. What I did hear echoes what Brutus said, before he turned the stage over to the silver tongued Mark Antony:
Public reasons shall be rendered.
What Brutus did not say out loud is:
“We can’t revel our private reasons; as people will argue for the next 500 years, we don’t even know ourselves why we do this stuff.”
(A belated Happy Ides of March, by the way.)
My central observation last week remains the same this week: when it comes to homeland security policy, politics, or strategy, reason at best is a delusion, at worse it is a siren call to keep staring into the sun.
The social intuitionist perspective – the circle and arrows chart Palin featured in his March 12th post – is (in my opinion) an accurate depiction of homeland security’s dominant mode of inquiry: First comes the conclusion. Then comes the reason.
Must I believe that? Can I believe that? Or do I hold on to a delusion that any day now Reason will be resurrected and all will become clear?
Nonetheless, I remain optimistic about how to thrive amid the cacophony of delusion and intuition. I think we can do better.
And I think Palin may be on to something with this relationship business.
But this post has gone on much too long, so I’ll postpone the optimism for next week.