Oh, gawd. Bobo’s decided to go all “data man” on us. In “What Data Can’t Do” he opines that data can’t account for everything in our experience, nor serve as the only guide for our thinking, planning and decision-making. (Of course, he opens his column by saying he recently had dinner with the chief executive of a large bank…) Mr. Cohen, in “Beltway Foreign Policy,” splains to us how the first-term Obama White House shunned diplomacy for domestic political calculation. Mr. Nocera LURVES him some big oil. In “How Not to Fix Climate Change” he states that stopping the Keystone XL oil pipeline is actually counterproductive in more ways than one. Mr. Bruni, in “The Pope’s Muffled Voice,” says don’t let the media frenzy fool you. American Catholics pay only glancing attention to the Vatican. Here’s Bobo:
Not long ago, I was at a dinner with the chief executive of a large bank. He had just had to decide whether to pull out of Italy, given the weak economy and the prospect of a future euro crisis.
The C.E.O. had his economists project out a series of downside scenarios and calculate what they would mean for his company. But, in the end, he made his decision on the basis of values.
His bank had been in Italy for decades. He didn’t want Italians to think of the company as a fair-weather friend. He didn’t want people inside the company thinking they would cut and run when times got hard. He decided to stay in Italy and ride out any potential crisis, even with the short-term costs.
He wasn’t oblivious to data in making this decision, but ultimately, he was guided by a different way of thinking. And, of course, he was right to be. Commerce depends on trust. Trust is reciprocity coated by emotion. People and companies that behave well in tough times earn affection and self-respect that is extremely valuable, even if it is hard to capture in data.
I tell this story because it hints at the strengths and limitations of data analysis. The big novelty of this historic moment is that our lives are now mediated through data-collecting computers. In this world, data can be used to make sense of mind-bogglingly complex situations. Data can help compensate for our overconfidence in our own intuitions and can help reduce the extent to which our desires distort our perceptions.
But there are many things big data does poorly. Let’s note a few in rapid-fire fashion:
Data struggles with the social. Your brain is pretty bad at math (quick, what’s the square root of 437), but it’s excellent at social cognition. People are really good at mirroring each other’s emotional states, at detecting uncooperative behavior and at assigning value to things through emotion.
Computer-driven data analysis, on the other hand, excels at measuring the quantity of social interactions but not the quality. Network scientists can map your interactions with the six co-workers you see during 76 percent of your days, but they can’t capture your devotion to the childhood friends you see twice a year, let alone Dante’s love for Beatrice, whom he met twice.
Therefore, when making decisions about social relationships, it’s foolish to swap the amazing machine in your skull for the crude machine on your desk.
Data struggles with context. Human decisions are not discrete events. They are embedded in sequences and contexts. The human brain has evolved to account for this reality. People are really good at telling stories that weave together multiple causes and multiple contexts. Data analysis is pretty bad at narrative and emergent thinking, and it cannot match the explanatory suppleness of even a mediocre novel.
Data creates bigger haystacks. This is a point Nassim Taleb, the author of “Antifragile,” has made. As we acquire more data, we have the ability to find many, many more statistically significant correlations. Most of these correlations are spurious and deceive us when we’re trying to understand a situation. Falsity grows exponentially the more data we collect. The haystack gets bigger, but the needle we are looking for is still buried deep inside.
One of the features of the era of big data is the number of “significant” findings that don’t replicate the expansion, as Nate Silver would say, of noise to signal.
Big data has trouble with big problems. If you are trying to figure out which e-mail produces the most campaign contributions, you can do a randomized control experiment. But let’s say you are trying to stimulate an economy in a recession. You don’t have an alternate society to use as a control group. For example, we’ve had huge debates over the best economic stimulus, with mountains of data, and as far as I know not a single major player in this debate has been persuaded by data to switch sides.
Data favors memes over masterpieces. Data analysis can detect when large numbers of people take an instant liking to some cultural product. But many important (and profitable) products are hated initially because they are unfamiliar.
Data obscures values. I recently saw an academic book with the excellent title, “ ‘Raw Data’ Is an Oxymoron.” One of the points was that data is never raw; it’s always structured according to somebody’s predispositions and values. The end result looks disinterested, but, in reality, there are value choices all the way through, from construction to interpretation.
This is not to argue that big data isn’t a great tool. It’s just that, like any tool, it’s good at some things and not at others. As the Yale professor Edward Tufte has said, “The world is much more interesting than any one discipline.”
Now here’s Mr. Cohen’s screed:
“It is not going too far to say that American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations.”
This stern verdict comes from Vali Nasr, who spent two years working for the Obama administration before becoming dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. In a book called “The Dispensable Nation,” to be published in April, Nasr delivers a devastating portrait of a first-term foreign policy that shunned the tough choices of real diplomacy, often descended into pettiness, and was controlled “by a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers.”
Nasr, one of the most respected American authorities on the Middle East, served as senior adviser to Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan until his death in December 2010. From that vantage point, and later as a close observer, Nasr was led to the reluctant conclusion that the principal aim of Obama’s policies “is not to make strategic decisions but to satisfy public opinion.”
In this sense the first-term Obama foreign policy was successful: He was re-elected. Americans wanted extrication from the big wars and a smaller global footprint: Obama, with some back and forth, delivered. But the price was high and opportunities lost.
“The Dispensable Nation” constitutes important reading as John Kerry moves into his new job as secretary of state. It nails the drift away from the art of diplomacy — with its painful give-and-take — toward a U.S. foreign policy driven by the Pentagon, intelligence agencies and short-term political calculus. It holds the president to account for his zigzags from Kabul to Jerusalem.
It demonstrates the emasculation of the State Department: Vasr quotes Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, telling him of Hillary Clinton that, “It is incredible how little support she got from the White House. They want to control everything.” And it paints a persuasive picture of an American decline driven not so much by the inevitable rise of other powers as by “inconsistency” that has “cast doubt on our leadership.”
Nowhere was this inconsistency more evident than in Afghanistan. Obama doubled-down by committing tens of thousands more troops to show he was no wimp, only to set a date for a drawdown to show he was no warmonger. Marines died; few cared.
He appointed Holbrooke as his point man only to ensure that he “never received the authority to do diplomacy.” Obama’s message to President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan was: “Ignore my special representative.” The White House campaign against Holbrooke was “a theater of the absurd,” Nasr writes. “Holbrooke was not included in Obama’s videoconferences with Karzai and was cut out of the presidential retinue when Obama went to Afghanistan.”
The White House seemed “more interested in bringing Holbrooke down than getting the policy right.” The pettiness was striking: “The White House kept a dossier on Holbrooke’s misdeeds and Clinton kept a folder on churlish attempts by the White House’s AfPak office to undermine Holbrooke.”
Diplomacy died. Serious negotiation with the Taliban and involving Iran in talks on Afghanistan’s future — bold steps that carried a domestic political price — were shunned. The use of trade as a bridge got scant attention. Nasr concludes on Afghanistan: “We are just washing our hands of it, hoping there will be a decent interval of calm — a reasonable distance between our departure and the catastrophe to follow.”
In Pakistan, too nuclear to ignore, the ultimate “frenemy,” Nasr observed policy veering between frustrated confrontation and half-hearted attempts to change the relationship through engagement. “The crucial reality was that the Taliban helped Pakistan face down India in the contest over Afghanistan,” Nasr writes. America was never able to change that equation. Aid poured in to secure those nukes and win hearts and minds: Drones drained away any gratitude. A proposed “strategic dialogue” went nowhere. “Pakistan is a failure of American policy, a failure of the sort that comes from the president handing foreign policy over to the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies.”
In Iran, Nasr demonstrates Obama’s deep ambivalence about any deal on the nuclear program. “Pressure,” he writes, “has become an end in itself.” The dual track of ever tougher sanctions combined with diplomatic outreach was “not even dual. It relied on one track, and that was pressure.” The reality was that, “Engagement was a cover for a coercive campaign of sabotage, economic pressure and cyberwarfare.”
Opportunities to begin real step-by-step diplomacy involving Iran giving up its low-enriched uranium in exchange for progressive sanctions relief were lost. What was Tehran to think when “the sum total of three major rounds of diplomatic negotiation was that America would give some bits and bobs of old aircraft in exchange for Iran’s nuclear program”?
On Israel-Palestine, as with Iran, Obama began with some fresh ideas only to retreat. He tried to stop Israeli settlement expansion. Then he gave up when the domestic price looked too high. The result has been drift.
“The Dispensable Nation” is a brave book. Its core message is: Diplomacy is tough and carries a price, but the price is higher when it is abandoned.
Yeah. And C+ Augustus was SUCH a skilled diplomat… Now, heaven help us, is Mr. Nocera’s cri du coeur for tar sands:
After much back and forth, James E. Hansen and I had agreed on a date to meet. Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is the scientist most closely associated with climate change activists like Bill McKibben, who has led the charge against the Keystone XL pipeline, and Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club. In Hansen’s view, the country needs to start moving away from fossil fuels now, before the damage becomes irreversible.
As regular readers know, I believe the Obama administration should approve the Keystone pipeline, which would transport oil mined and processed from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. Like it or not, fossil fuels are going to remain the world’s dominant energy source for the foreseeable future, and we are far better off getting our oil from Canada than, say, Venezuela. And the climate change effects of tar sands oil are, all in all, pretty small. I had the strong sense that Hansen hoped that once we met, I would begin to see the error of my ways.
The date we set was on Thursday, Feb. 14. The only glitch, he said, is that on the 13th, he was participating in an anti-Keystone demonstration in front of the White House led by his friend McKibben. The plan was they’d all try to get arrested. “It is conceivable that we will be spending the night of the 13th in the clink, in which case it is not clear when I will arrive on the 14th,” Hansen wrote in an e-mail. (He added, “Yes, I know, the merits of this continuing activity may be dubious, but Bill is working his butt off so hard that I can’t refuse.”) I postponed the meeting.
Suddenly, it appears, the Keystone XL pipeline, which President Obama temporarily blocked during his re-election campaign, is back in the news. The State of Nebraska, which had previously opposed the pipeline, recently dropped its opposition after TransCanada, the company hoping to build it, rerouted portions of it to avoid sensitive lands and aquifers. Canada, still miffed by Obama’s rejection of the pipeline last year, is threatening to sell the oil to China if the United States says no again.
In fact, this should be a no-brainer for the president, for all the reasons I stated earlier, and one more: the strategy of activists like McKibben, Brune and Hansen, who have made the Keystone pipeline their line in the sand, is utterly boneheaded.
Brune and McKibben have been very clear about what they hope to accomplish. Oil companies have invested upward of $100 billion to extract the unconventional oil in the sands. A pipeline is the only way to export it. The Keystone pipeline is Canada’s Plan A. Plan B is a pipeline to British Columbia, which would get the oil to China. If the president blocks Keystone, and the First Nation tribes continue their staunch opposition to the western pipeline, then Canada will have the second largest oil reserves in the world — and no place to sell it. The assumption of the activists is that by choking off the supply of new oil sources like the tar sands, the U.S. — and maybe the world — will be forced to transition more quickly to green energy.
Can you see how backward this logic is? As Adam Brandt, an energy expert at Stanford University, pointed out to me recently, so long as the demand is there, energy producers are going to search for new supplies of fossil fuel — many of them using unconventional means like tar sands extraction. “With growing global demand, the economic pressure to develop unconventional resources is enormous and not going away,” he said. “Can environmental groups expect to win a series of fights for decades to come, when the economic forces are aligned very strongly against them in each round?” The answer is obvious: no. The emphasis should be on demand, not supply. If the U.S. stopped consuming so much of the world’s oil, the economic need for the tar sands would evaporate.
On Monday, I finally spoke to Hansen. His knowledge and sincerity are easy to admire, even if his tactics are not. He told me he would like to see oil companies pay a fee, which would rise annually, based on carbon emissions. He said that such a tax could reduce emissions by 30 percent within 10 years. Well, maybe. But it would also likely make the expensive tar sands oil more viable. If you really want to eliminate expensive new fossil fuel sources, the best way is to lower the price of oil, which would render them uneconomical. But, of course, that wouldn’t exactly lower demand either.
In any case, McKibben, Hansen and others were arrested on Wednesday, as planned. They spent a few hours in jail and paid $100 fines. And that was it.
Until the next time, of course.
And now here’s Mr. Bruni:
There were reports over the weekend that cardinals might tweak the rules and begin the conclave to choose Pope Benedict XVI’s successor sooner than March 15, which had been the earliest date mentioned. That would be a blessing. Already in the American news media it’s all pope all the time, a tsunami of papal coverage, and until a new pope is named, the tide won’t quit. You’d be forgiven for concluding that he’ll actually have significant sway over Catholics in this country.
He won’t, not over the majority of them, not in any immediate sense. And it’s worth pausing, amid this hoopla, to remember that. In large parts of the Roman Catholic world, certainly in North America and Western Europe, most Catholics don’t feel any particular debt or duty to the self-appointed caretakers of their church. They don’t feel bound by the pope’s interpretation of doctrine or moral commands. And many regard him and other Vatican officials as totems, a royal family of dubious relevance, partly because these officials have often shown greater concern for the church’s reputation than for the needs, and wounds, of the people in the pews.
The blanket coverage of matters papal is deceptive, a function to some degree of habit and convenience. We in the media love the clear-cut drama of transitions. They’re easy to grasp and frame. And in the case of the Vatican, they come with majestic visual backdrops, colorfully costumed characters: a pageant extraordinaire. It looks splendid on the front page and even better on the nightly news.
We traffic in celebrities, and the pope qualifies as one. We also relish the narrative of any winner-take-all contest in which there are multiple hopefuls, murky dynamics and a familiar brand of suspense. This informs the way we approach presidential elections, focusing on the horse race. It explains all the cook-offs, the sing-offs, the analyses of the face-off between “Argo” and “Lincoln” for Best Picture. The papal selection process is in one sense “Top Chef” without the cooking. It’s the ecclesiastical Oscars. It fits a mold, regardless of import.
There’s import, certainly. The Roman Catholic Church is a worldwide organization with enormous financial resources; with a network of charities and agencies that provide crucial help to the downtrodden; and with parishes in which the prayerful nurture their relationship with God. And the pope is its C.E.O., ultimately responsible for where the money flows and for the placement and policing of its staff. The policing part matters, as the child sexual abuse crisis made agonizingly clear.
But the trend over the last half century has been for the prayerful in this country to feel less invested in that organization, less attached to its traditions. Polls chart a decline in churchgoing among American Catholics and a robust disobedience.
A 2011 survey published in the National Catholic Reporter showed that while 73 percent of American Catholics described their belief in Jesus’ resurrection as “very important” to them, only 30 percent described the teaching authority of the Vatican that way, and only 21 percent characterized an all-male, celibate priesthood in those terms. More than 60 percent supported the ordination of women as priests.
When it comes to divorce, premarital sex, abortion and more, Catholics routinely break with the church’s edicts. Pew polling last year found that more than half of American Catholics support same-sex marriage, which church leaders vociferously oppose. This particular renunciation of church teaching travels beyond the United States. Spain, Portugal and Argentina have legalized same-sex marriage; all have populations that are more than 75 percent Catholic, at least nominally.
A Gallup poll last year showed that 82 percent of American Catholics had no qualms about birth control. Church leaders do, and during the presidential campaign they railed against President Obama’s health care reform for mandating insurance coverage of contraception. He won the Catholic vote anyway.
Andrew Cuomo certainly doesn’t sweat the church’s ire the way his father did. Three decades ago Mario Cuomo felt the need for a major address at the University of Notre Dame to explain the discrepancy between his support for abortion rights and the church’s antiabortion position. Without any such handwringing, his son is plotting to shore up abortion rights in New York. Andrew Cuomo also lobbied for, and signed, New York’s gay marriage law. Divorced, he lives outside of wedlock with Sandra Lee. There’s been no Notre Dame soul-baring about any of this.
Does the pope fully appreciate this drift? Every Sunday, he looks from his window onto St. Peter’s Square and sees adoring, rapt masses. Everywhere he goes, traffic parts and cameras follow him. But here in America, the Catholics watching closely are fewer and fewer. They’re Christian. They’re caring. They’re moral. But they have minds and wills of their own, and no conclave will change that.