Monday, March 28, 2005

Pundita impressed me today with some observations. Not because I have not heard them before but because the only people with whom I discussed such things were themselves exceedingly bright - as in the uppermost tier of what can be reliably measured on the standard psychometric scales for fluid intelligence. One of them went into government service (for a time), the other is a particle physicist and the third was heavily recruited ( unsuccessfully) to go into the type of research now carried out by DARPA. So, since she managed to raise my eyebrows, I thought I owed it to Pundita to comment on a few of her points.

" I wasn't involved with the computer field but one day I expressed my concern that the US government would eventually abuse computer technology to create a Big Brother society. The Guru looked at me as if I was a child and replied, "You don't understand. If they get too far out of line we'll shut them down."

About sixty years ago, the USG took a portion of the top intellectual tenth of the top tenth of 1 % of humanity and gave them several years and a few billion dollars. In short order, the group came up with nuclear weapons, control over which the political elite swiftly removed from the hands of the cognitive elite after contributing little other than money. Much of that financial support went into security procedures that amounted to a net loss, hobbling the scientific collaboration but unfortunately not the Soviet espionage. If anything, absent Leslie Groves, the Allies probably could have nuked Berlin instead of Hiroshima.

Interestingly enough, the sub roas lesson that the cognitive elite took from the experience of the Manhattan Project was not to make that kind of a bargain with the political elite ever again. While nuclear weapons have since been refined and their possession has proliferated, they have not been exceeded in order of magnitude by an entirely new class of weaponry. This is not an accident or a result of some limitation of theoretical physics.

" I did not understand the import of his words until a week after 9/11. Then it hit me that for the first time in recorded history the pyramid of society is turned upside down. Except for a very few pockets around the world, the government does not represent the smartest and best-informed people in the society. This situation is crashing the Machiavellian School of government (exemplified by Henry Kissinger in modern times), which has been the linchpin of civilization going back to the ancient times. "

9-11 is not even a good example of the possible. The United States has been very, very, fortunate that our Islamist enemies have been, by and large, merely above-average but conventionally concrete thinkers enmeshed in a rigid, horizon-limiting ideology. Or like the brilliant Ted Kaczynski, handicapped by mental illness and a commitment to sending a peculair " message" that made sense decoded through the Unabomber's warped perspective. A committed group of truly bright but ruthlessly nihilistic people could have wrecked ten times the damage of Mohammed Atta's crew. Or a hundred.

"That solution to the problem of the masses getting above their station came crashing down on 9/11. Nineteen guys with box cutters outfoxed NORAD, bombed the flagship building of the most powerful military in history and destroyed the symbol of world trade. Granted, the 19 had financing and planning behind them that trace back at least in part, and by many twists and turns, to a few governments. Yet that doesn't invalidate the fact that possession of a standing army no longer guarantees the ruling class a secure berth. "

Human systems can be awesomely strong - but only in the direction from which they were designed to meet resistance. Hit them from an unexpected direction in an even mildly innovative fashion and you can tip the system to move in a new direction or bring it down into an anarchic heap. The danger of course is that the number of people and the parameters of technology able to do this is vastly increasd from even a generation ago, which is what probably is alarming Pundita about the emerging contradiction between the governing elite and the cognitive elite. Now for the brief detour:

"Make no mistake; even the governments in the wealthiest, most powerful nations are very slow. Pundita has received letters asking why she never returned to discussing what she learned from Yossef Bodansky's* seminar at the National Intelligence Conference. We're working up to it--trying to find a way to discuss what we learned without plunging the sensitive reader into a steep depression. "

I like Bodansky's work. Juan Cole, for example, cannot stand him because Yossef Bodansky is accurately representing the probalistic terror threat posed by Islamism and Rogue states as opposed to the confirmed, multisourced, record that a historian would use. The important point is that Bodansky's decision-tree potentialities methodology based upon a mosaic of intelligence that yields worst-case scenarios is the only basis for national security contingency planning - and on occasion, preemptive action.

And yes, the scenarios can be hair-raising. About four or five years ago I spent some time looking at just a couple of the potentially traumatic shifts society was facing and decided that my optimism could be maintained by considering a couple of countervailing considerations:

1. Of the supremely bright cognitive elite with the greatest potential to initiate destabilizing scenarios, most are pretty nice people or at least operated on the principle of enlightened self-interest. That's why Ken Alibeck is here and not in Pyongyang or Teheran.

2. Those trying to initiate destabilizing scenarios were often plagued by far, far, greater degrees of systemic incompetence than are we.

3. To focus disproportionately on worst-case scenarios is inherently distorting to your analysis and to base policy primarily upon them has extremely high opportunity costs for society. The range of unknown scenarios is always greater than the known so you cannot be overly rigid with your disaster or preemption planning. Worst case scenarios are best aborted before they begin to get started with speed, precision and stealth.

Pundita writes on our elected officials:

"But without going into gory detail, you need to stop and think about the people you elect to represent you in Congress. Why do you elect them? For their ability to plow daily through 200 page reports with footnotes on geopolitical situations? For their ability to analyze and synthesize data in a flash? Or so they could sit on congressional foreign relations, defense and intel
committees? "

Pundita understates her point. The cadre that is our political elite additionally suffer most from what Herman Kahn called " educated incapacity", they cherish their illusions more than most because to a large extent their power and position is based upon cultivating these illusions in the rest of the population. Most of them are not smart enough to rise above or smash through such mental " boxes" absent a traumatic shock. So when a national security expert comes along and describes quite reasonable ( from a statistical standpoint) threat outcomes and the actions required by the USG to prevent them, they must do so with great diplomacy to avoid being painted by unhappy politicos as a Stragelovian maniac. This modulation to preserve the credibility of the national security expert inhibits the impact of such briefs to the point that nothing usually gets done until a 9-11 or Pearl Harbor punctures the self-referential bubble in which the politicians prefer to dwell.

I'm not certain if I was one of the trio of bloggers Pundita considered to be critical of her " Democracy kit" essay - I think our differences are primarily tempermental ( I'm optimistic on outcomes) rather than analytical ( I agree with large parts of her essay's description of the mechanics) but I'm definitely loooking forward to her next two pieces.

You should be too.
"Cognitive elite?" Been reading a little Bell Curve? Great insights by the by. I hope to be one of those Strangelovian experts someday myself even if I am only in the top decile instead of the top 1% of the top 1% etc.
There are some good insights here, but there's one big thing that Pundita has wrong. She doesn't allow comments, so I'll comment here.

The Guru looked at me as if I was a child and replied, "You don't understand. If they get too far out of line we'll shut them down."

I can imagine people I know saying something like this. I can also imagine them not being serious.

However, a computer Guru probably has more reason to say this than other cognitive elite types. (BTW, I share nemesisenforcer's skepticism on this.) But it was still a joke, Pundita! Ha, ha!

Mark goes on to speculate on the reasons for the lack of fundamentally new weapons since the development of thermonuclear weapons in the 1950s.

It's pretty simple, actually. Nothing quite as good as Einstein's equivalence of mass and energy has come along.

Death rays and gamma-ray lasers are very difficult for technical reasons that are well understood. Perhaps someone will use string theory to unwrap those microscopic dimensions, and then, POW! But we're a long, long way from that.

Werner Heisenberg tried to make a case that he had deliberately miscalculated critical masses for a nuclear weapon under Hitler, to avoid giving him the bomb. Most people no longer believe this. It's something like what Pundita's Guru was trying to imply.

No, if some great new weapons principle had been discovered, the motives of fame and fortune (not to mention the third "f"!) would have been too powerful for it not to have gotten out. Note that the folks who synthesized the polio virus published that little feat.


I agree with you that Heisenberg was full of it regarding " deliberate miscalculation" - what H. lacked was not motivation but a crowd of relatively equally bright people to identify and correct his errors.

Of course, H. lacked the resources of Manhattan but without the intellectual feedback of a large peer group the second point was moot.

I'm not entirely certain we've exhausted the weaponization potential of Einstein's principle yet - nor should we try to. Being able to uncork a genie from a bottle by itself communicates that the uncorking is possible to everyone else.
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