Hindsight Bias?

Echidne quotes some guy who says antiwar liberals have hindsight bias:

One of the most systematic errors in human perception is what psychologists call hindsight bias — the feeling, after an event happens, that we knew all along it was going to happen. … “Liberals’ assertion that they ‘knew all along’ that the war in Iraq would go badly are guilty of the hindsight bias,” agreed Hal Arkes, a psychologist at Ohio State University, who has studied the hindsight bias and how to overcome it. “This is not to say that they didn’t always think that the war was a bad idea.”

If we didn’t think it would go badly, why did we think it was a bad idea?

Echidne dug out of her archives a prediction from April 2004 that “the net effect of the war and occupation in Iraq is to increase the forces of international terrorists, not to somehow make the world safer.” But was anyone predicting disaster before the war began?

A five-minute web search turned up a Paul Krugman column from September 24, 2002:

Of course the new Bush doctrine, in which the United States will seek ”regime change” in nations that we judge might be future threats, is driven by high moral purpose. But McKinley-era imperialists also thought they were morally justified. The war with Spain — which ruled its colonies with great brutality, but posed no threat to us — was justified by an apparent act of terror, the sinking of the battleship Maine, even though no evidence ever linked that attack to Spain. And the purpose of our conquest of the Philippines was, McKinley declared, ”to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.”

Moral clarity aside, the parallel between America’s pursuit of manifest destiny a century ago and its new global sense of mission has a lot to teach us.

First, the experience of the Spanish-American War should remind us that quick conventional military victory is not necessarily the end of the story. Thanks to American technological superiority, Adm. George Dewey destroyed a Spanish fleet in Manila Bay without losing a single man. But a clean, high-tech war against Spain somehow turned into an extremely dirty war against the Filipino resistance, one in which hundreds of thousands of civilians died.

Second, America’s imperial venture should serve as an object warning against taking grand strategic theories too seriously. The doctrines of the day saw colonies as strategic assets. In the end, it’s very doubtful whether our control of the Philippines made us stronger. Now we’re assured that military action against rogue states will protect us from terrorism. But the rogue state now in our sights doesn’t seem to have been involved in Sept. 11; what determines whose regime gets changed?

Finally, we should remember that the economic doctrines that were used to justify Western empire-building during the late 19th century — that colonies would provide valuable markets and sources of raw materials — turned out to be nonsense. Almost without exception, the cost of acquiring and defending a colonial empire greatly exceeded even a generous accounting of its benefits. These days, pundits tell us that a war with Iraq will drive down oil prices, and maybe even yield a financial windfall. But the effect on oil prices is anything but certain, while the heavy costs of war, occupation and rebuilding — for we won’t bomb Iraq, then wash our hands of responsibility, will we? — are not in doubt. And no, the United States cannot defray the costs of war out of Iraqi oil revenue — not unless we are willing to confirm to the world that we’re just old-fashioned imperialists, after all.

I’m sure if I had more time to look I could find a lot more. Until then, here’s something I wrote on the eve of the invasion that, IMO, holds up pretty well.

16 thoughts on “Hindsight Bias?

  1. There was an Atlantic Monthly cover story (late 02? early 03?) with a title like “Iraq, the 51st State” which, as I recall, was pretty pessimistic (although not pessimistic enough) about the prospect of the US in Iraq post-Saddam.

  2. Some old dude, hasn’t even updated his website in AGES, said “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Now how stupid is that?

  3. Governor Dean was all over the stupidity of the Iraq invasion back in February 2003. Plenty of people were against it, but the good old “liberal media” wouldn’t put any of them on the air.

    Dean’s Foreign Policy Address at Drake University

    If we go to war, I certainly hope the Administration’s assumptions are realized, and the conflict is swift, successful and clean. […]

    It is possible, however, that events could go differently, and that the Iraqi Republican Guard will not sit out in the desert where they can be destroyed easily from the air.

    It is possible that Iraq will try to force our troops to fight house to house in the middle of cities — on its turf, not ours — where precision-guided missiles are of little use. […]

    Iraq is a divided country, with Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions that share both bitter rivalries and access to large quantities of arms.

    Iran and Turkey each have interests in Iraq they will be tempted to protect with or without our approval. […]

    And, perhaps most importantly, there is a very real danger that war in Iraq will fuel the fires of international terror.

    Anti-American feelings will surely be inflamed among the misguided who choose to see an assault on Iraq as an attack on Islam, or as a means of controlling Iraqi oil.

    And last week’s tape by Osama bin Laden tells us that our enemies will seek relentlessly to transform a war into a tool for inspiring and recruiting more terrorists.

    That crazy Howard Dean — what does he know?

  4. I remember driving and crying as I listened to Pacifica Radio (KPFK Los Angeles) doing a special, all day broadcast during the first day of the Iraq invasion.

    I walked out of work early that day over the inspid comments spoken by my right wing coworkers – idiots who were wondering what was going on, sort of like dumb remarks made by morons at a funeral, for that is what it was to me – a funeral for our decency as a country. Something great about America died that day.

    Once I got home, I got inspired and put together a memorial poster about the invasion, photoshopped from an image of a young girl at a protest march, from some months or weeks earlier, who had a peace sign painted over her face (wish I could provide you a link). I wrote a caption that ran something like: “March 22, 2003 – Something died in America Today, but Something Else Was Born”.

    Claiming hindsight bias is a bucket of crap given all the protest marches – millions of people worldwide – that predated the war. The piece about hindsight bias says more about:

    1) How marginalized the left was back then, and how isolated or in denial the right was from any other viewpoint. Talk to a rightie today, and they still think the country of France is the only country in the world who was against the war. They were too in awe over Dear Leader’s Churchillian prescience to notice anything else, and we were still too weak and disorganized to be able to punch very far through their bubble of unreality.

    2) How the right is pretty pathetic and selective when it comes to using psychology. If they don’t get the concept wrong to begin with (they managed to get “hindsight bias” correct this time), their eyes are too glassed over to see anything of any significance when they look in the mirror, if they even glance that way.

    It’s hard to know if the rightie who made the comment was being honest and was merely unaware of the millions who protested against the war before it began, or is simply engaging in revisionism. Either way, the charge of hindsight bias is baseless.

  5. Shoter WaPo hack: if you predict something and it then happens, that’s an error–if you’re a liberal.

  6. Well, you certainly can’t accuse me of hindsight bias. Being a little late out of the starting gate in knowing that Iraq was going south, I didn’t get my first clue until I saw American troops painting numbers on the foreheads of Iraqis and placing bags over their heads in front of their families, and then stacking them in the back of trucks to be taken away for interrogation. Some might have seen this as model of efficiency and professionalism of the new Army, but to me it was a unnecessary humiliation of a population and I knew that America was sowing the seeds of her own defeat in Iraq. You can’t win hearts and minds by placing bags over peoples heads.

    Just to share a life experience.. Years ago in the 70’s I was working in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn and I went to the deli to get something to eat for lunch. When the man behind the counter handed me my order I saw on his forearm a large crudely tatooed number that evidently was his registration number in one of Hilter’s death camps. It freaked me out, I had heard about inmates in the death camps being tatooed, but to actually see the work of such barbarity was chilling. It changed my understanding. When you are tatooed like that, you must know you’re no longer considered a human being… A horrible realization !

  7. I think the WaPo guy has a point. Who would want any part of this “hindsight bias” disease that so plagues this country?

    In spite of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, I’m predicting great success in all future acts of aggression and foreign occupation, including overthrowing and occupying Iran for absolutely no reason. Extreme rendition, cluster bombs and nuclear weapons constitute a predictably winning policy for pacifying innocents.

    What the hell–it may make me morally inferior, but at least some guy I’ve never heard of won’t find a mental disorder for me and scibble it in the pages of The Washington Post.

  8. When I heard Bush bringing up Iraq and the beginning drumming of war I felt like a lead something just sank my stomach. I knew it was not right. I felt very apprehensive. I don’t remember hearing or reading anyone with the same point of view. I only heard rah-rah. I felt very alone.

  9. On the eve of “Shock’N Awe” I was sitting in a bar in South Florida. As CNN broadcast the missiles and bombs lighting up the sky in Baghdad, my jaws clenched in rage, I knew over 60% of the population getting pummeled was under 16 years old, and Iraq had no defenses against what was hitting.as a co-worker sitting next to me gleefully cheered the event, I turned to him and said “our country has done something terrible, we’re all fascists now. This is VERY bad!” he looked at me like a side dish he didn’t order. Even that pig headed idiot now knows it was a big stinkin’ error. Three years, almost 3,000 soldiers and 100,000 dead Iraqis (give or take 10,000 or so) and a quarter TRILLION dollars later.
    Go figure.I saw it coming with 20/20 from the get go.( and I ain’t no rocket scientist)

  10. I think there is a bit of hindsight bias in at least some people, specifically the ones whose prediction were much worse than what actually panned out – like those who predicted an American defeat outside Baghdad (an admittedly small number).

    But, all told, yes – the biggest hindsight bias comes from those who casually predicted an easy victory and now talk, in somber tones, about how “its going to be a long hard struggle”.

  11. Ya want predictions? How about a whole book, Gwyn Dyer’s Ignorant Armies, which was published right on the eve of the invasion? Although he slightly underestimated how bad things would become in Iraq and slightly overestimated how bad they would get in the rest of the middle east, he nailed it about as close as anyone could. Of course, nobody paid attention to Dyer, a military expert, perhaps because he’s a Canadian.

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  13. It is not we who have hindsight bias, it’s the news media and all the pundits who in the last six months have been talking all, “Gee, if only we had known then what we know now.” Makes you want to smack them. Some of us did know.

  14. People often say “hindsight is 20/20” which I’ve always taken to mean that “I should have known but who could anticipate…..?” fill in the blanks. Then there are people who don’t utter a word of skepticism of an action but when it goes wrong immediately shout out, “I knew this would happen.” Quite different from those of us who had rational doubts about the Iraq invasion, not unquestioning overoptimism or wishful thinking. It’s called common sense.
    At least trying to dismiss liberal’s realistic trepedations as “hindsight bias” is a change from hearing we’re just “bush haters”.

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