- Special Projects
Sorry to tell you this, but when it comes to decision-making, all of us are like Donald Trump — willfully ignorant.
I guess I got your attention, so let’s maintain it with this: The difference is that Trump is not just some overly confident loudmouth who lies a lot and denies facts he does not agree with.
As president he represents a political institution, and there is a big difference between institutionalized and individual ignorance.
It’s true that, as a writer considering the president’s easy-come, easy-go view of the Saudis’ murder of Jamal Khashoggi put it, “In the battle between Donald Trump’s gut and contradictory evidence, it’s a safe bet which will win the president’s favor.”
But the focus on the president is too narrow.
The problem with the Trump administration goes far beyond Trump’s individual willful ignorance. It’s become part of the solution, which threatens the essential functions that federal agencies perform.
Consider the vision of Wilbur Ross, as he approached his new cabinet position as Trump’s secretary of Commerce.
Neither Ross nor other Trump high-level Commerce appointees showed much interest in learning their new job. They blew off the agency’s carefully planned briefing sessions that are traditionally part of every presidential transition.
Trump appointees to other agencies did the same thing.
When Ross finally showed up for a briefing, which he ultimately ended in less time than it takes to teach your 4-year-old how to run her lemonade stand, a Commerce official described the agency’s work this way:
“Its (the department’s) mission is science and technology.”
Ross’s reply: “Yeah, I don’t think I want to be focusing on that.”
It’s as if we are talking about junior high school science projects or some small isolated lab somewhere with a solitary introverted scientist and a rotary phone.
So institutionalized willful ignorance has pervaded. In order to understand fully the its insidious influence, you first need to consider the valuable work of federal agencies that seldom gets the attention it deserves.
You need to, as Michael Lewis shows in his excellent new book “The Fifth Risk,” appreciate the role that federal agencies play in helping us understand and mitigate risk.
And that brings us back to how we are all like Donald Trump and what the federal bureaucracies do to mitigate these tendencies.
Much of our lives involves risk assessment though we seldom do this self-consciously. In fact humans are not very good at it.
We overly rely an immediate event to determine what’s likely to happen in the future. People in Tornado Alley commonly believe that a tornado won’t hit them because it hasn’t hit them in the past, even if it previously destroyed a building right down the street.
People are much more influenced by a narrative, a single story, then we are by comprehensive statistics.
And confirmation bias, the tendency to have undue faith in information when it supports our values? Don’t even ask.
Probably the most difficult obstacle, though, is the erratic and limited power of our imaginations. As Lewis points out, the great risk comes from things that we have not been able to imagine.
Lewis’s book features the Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy, both of which are in the risk and predictability business.
The Department of Commerce is one of the most important gatherers and repositories of information not just in the United States but in the world.
It includes the National Weather Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the census, and sub-agencies that collect an enormous amount of economic data.
The weather science alone has changed our life. Without NOAA, air travel would be less safe. Natural disaster warnings would be far less timely.
And all the economic data that the department generates makes business decisions more accurate.
This mitigates the risks in at least three ways.
First, agencies gather and analyze valuable data that cannot be obtained anywhere else.
Second, they look for risks that are beyond most people’s imagination. No one knew that there was a national opioid problem until some researchers mucking around the data discovered the numbers.
Third, they focus on long-term reduction of risks when most of us typically turn to short-term solutions.
There is no way the market could or even wants to do all this. Much is not profitable.
Ignorance is becoming institutionalized in several ways.
One is through suppression of information. This gets the most attention, especially in regard to climate change, but as Ross’s no-to-science comments indicate, the suppression is pervasive.
Valuable data no longer gets collected, or, like the proposed changes in the 2020 census, it is collected in ways that threaten its accuracy and utility.
Overall, this knowledge reduction greatly limits the possibilities of innovation. In Michael Lewis’s words, “It is what you never learned that might have saved you.”
Finally, this institutionalization of ignorance threatens to destroy basic norms of inquiry, which involve nuance and doubt. Doubt becomes weakness and explanations become zero-sum.
That sure sounds like the institutionalization of Donald Trump’s willful ignorance.
But it also sounds more like our own way of thinking than we choose to recognize, especially in light of the country’s social and political polarization and our increasing disdain for opposing views.
This brings out our Trumpian instincts to believe in our own gut and to succumb to the temptation of relying too much on the power of our own visions and stories and on our own powerful but limited imaginations.
This is an existential threat. What Trump people are doing to federal bureaucracies threatens our survival, maybe not in the scary, visceral way that North Korea does, but in ways that get to the heart of how we live and how we think.
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