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Knowing Too Much

We found more than thirty official or authoritative studies of American public diplomacy compiled after 9/11.   This doesn’t even include the whole cottage industry producing popular speculation, magazine articles and general gnashing of teeth about “why they hate us.”    Maybe we know enough to draw conclusions.  Maybe we even know too much.   This is what I am thinking about as my group prepares to make our own contribution to this huge library. 

You have to be careful not to gather too much information.   Theoretically, the more information you have, the better decisions you could make.  Theoretically that is true.  In fact it is not. For that to be true, you would need to have near perfect recall, wonderful understanding and supernatural ability to assimilate the diverse data points.   The capacity of our computers to gather and store information leads us to a kind of hubris that we CAN use all of it.  We cannot.   And that also makes the erroneous assumption that the information is knowable. In the case of something like public diplomacy, we are dealing with conditional facts, a kind of game theory where any move we make provokes reaction which change the fundamental realities.  

 It is like one of those sci-fi movies where someone goes back into the past to correct some mistakes, right some injustice or just take advantage of his knowledge of the past to make money in the present.   It never works out because changing conditions in the past creates a different reality in the present.    This is no mere artifice.  We are doing it all the time.   Of course, we cannot change the past.  We can only make plans in the present to affect the future, but the real world principle is very similar.  Maybe that is why we like those fictional time paradoxes or the similar literature scenarios where trying to avoid the consequences of a prophecy create that outcome (e.g. Oedipus).     Our attempts to achieve a particular future alter the conditions we are studying.

Sci-fi scenarios aside, we still can be easily overwhelmed by information.    At some point, more information doesn’t improve conclusions.   In fact, it begins to create confusion.   This seems counter intuitive and people in the midst of information gathering are usually fooled.  Studies show that decision making does not improve and even gets worse, but the decision makers themselves have more confidence in themselves.   Bureaucrats also like to gather information perpetually in order to delay the moment where they have to take a risk and come to a conclusion and provide more cover if they make any mistakes.   This is a variation of the paralysis by analysis problem.  BTW – most people have the cognitive capacity to can juggle around seven chunks of information; really smart people can do maybe nine and the cognitively challenged can handle fewer, but at some point enough is enough and more is too much.

Next week we will be reading reports and talking to experts.   I believe in going through the process and that is what I am supposed to do, but we have to recognize when we are done and move along.   It will hard to let go.


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