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What if we're wrong?
A modest proposal
"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: think it possible that you may be mistaken," Oliver Cromwell said to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland. They declined, and Cromwell’s army smashed the Scots in the battle of Dunbar.
Cromwell was on the right track but going the wrong direction. It's not the fallibility of our foes we should be worried about, but our own.
Every plan to save the world is born in the self-confidence of its progenitors. Every plan so far has failed; the world remains stubbornly imperfect. The odds are overwhelming that the next plan will fail too. And so its promoters should be asking themselves, What if things don't work out the way we project?
Hedging the downside is a useful strategy in personal life as well. It's not always an easy thing to do. Writing a prenup risks spoiling the mood of an engagement. And confidence on the part of the conductor of an enterprise, even if it's faked, can be useful in persuading others to get on board.
But self-doubt is useful if only as a mental exercise. Since the financial panic of 2008, big banks are required to undergo stress tests—hypothetical worst-case scenarios—to see if they have sufficient resources to weather a storm. Valuable as these are today, they would have been much more valuable if applied before the panic. Organizers of war games regularly throw wrenches into the plans of the players, on the understanding that military plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy.
Deliberate self-doubt is no guarantee against foolish action. Lyndon Johnson kept undersecretary of State George Ball on staff precisely because Ball was a skeptic on Vietnam. Ball's warnings that Johnson could send half a million troops to Vietnam and still not win the war didn’t keep the president from doing precisely that.
Ball's failure reflects the fundamental challenge facing the skeptic in the context of group decision. People rise to the top of the Pentagon and other institutions by having can-do personalities. Presidents, for that matter, don't get elected by being doubters. "Yes, we can," was Barack Obama's slogan and it worked— which was to say, it got him elected. It didn't help much with governing, given the relentless "No, you can't" he heard from Republicans.
We humans respond to optimism. We want to be told there are solutions to our problems. We want to believe there is hope. So time and again we fall for hucksters, scam artists, and even the honestly self-deluded. George W. Bush seems to have truly believed Iraq could be made democratic by force of American arms. And among many Americans he still gets kudos for his sincerity, even after the invasion of that country destabilized half the Middle East and expanded the influence of Iran, the country America most wanted to contain.
Skepticism isn’t the same thing as negativism. Questioning needn’t always deliver a veto. Nor should it. If the downside risk is small, an uncertain course might well be worth taking. The Trump administration threw billions of dollars into a crash program to develop vaccines against COVID. The program might not have succeeded, and the money would have been wasted. But the billions were a small amount to risk when millions of lives were at stake. In this case, the program succeeded and the money was well spent.
Human nature being what it is, skepticism is most needed where it is least likely to be found. The powerful tend not to doubt their wisdom; they often assume it was part of what made them powerful. They’re not always wrong. But the powerful are prone to hubris, and precisely because they are powerful they have the capacity to do great damage. Waging a twenty-year war, ultimately futile, in Afghanistan would not have occurred to lesser powers than the United States. Even the Soviet Union, right next door to Afghanistan, lasted only ten years there.
The greatest value of asking what if we're wrong is that it grounds us in humility. When we humans make progress at all, it comes slowly and painfully. The important problems we face are all hard ones; the easy ones we've solved already. We keep wishing it were otherwise. We keep following and voting for people who promise simple answers and swift results. We keep dreaming that this time it will be different.
Maybe this time it will be. But what if it’s not? What if we're wrong?