10 April 2014


Victor Bogorad, The Moscow Times
Somewere I read that the number of students of Russian language in the USA is about a quarter of its peak during the cold war. It's certainly true that Russian has not been offered at my Chicago-area high school for a long time, and the Russian-language faculty at my university is roughly a third of the size I remember.

The theme of a decline in Russian expertise in the West (in language, economics, politics, and so on) has been around a while. Controversy swirled, for instance, around the defunding of the USA's "Title VIII" program of support for Russian studies last fall. And now this deficit of experts is blamed as a factor behind the USA's recent supposedly inept handling of relations with Russia.

Sean Guillory's Facebook page just posted a link to The Moscow Times's article "Getting Russia Wrong" by Peter Rutland. The article itself offers three purported examples of botched policy resulting from "shallow and schematic misunderstanding of Russian politics...." Comments on Sean's post, taken together, provide a compact review of the things area experts can and cannot provide. Given experts' fondness for "nuance" and lack of practical policy guidance, Mark Schrad confesses that he's "just a little cynical about the role of 'expert knowledge' these days and in these circumstances." Andrew Gentes responds, in part, "... But the idea that we have to have an all or nothing approach (either we really know what's in Putin's head or we're just playing a random guessing game) seems to be an expression of frustration with the realities of geopolitics. Oh, and I will continue to defend nuance over mere insight or (gasp!) Ultimate Truth."

What should we reasonably expect from experts?
  • Facts and thoughtful interpretations of the past
  • A professional vocabulary adequate to communicate the details and nuances of their field
  • Concrete data about the correlation of forces in a given situation
  • Balanced sampling of participants' voices in all the constituencies involved
  • Linguistic and cultural context
  • Honesty about sources and methodology
  • Recommendations for action.
What are we unlikely to get from experts? (Surprise me!)
  • Exact predictions
  • Perfect ability to communicate their findings to nonspecialists
  • Mind-reading
  • Perfect objectivity
  • Total honesty about past errors; complete disinterest in career advancement
  • Fair descriptions of competing or opposing points of view.
What work is required of the experts' audience members (the end users of their expertise)? (Can you add to this list?)
  • Respect experts and support their work; they're part of the team, perhaps not as important as they might think, but as essential as our own five senses
  • Don't depend on just one expert, and take special care to identify contrasting viewpoints; discount snarky descriptions of rivals!
  • Don't expect experts to reveal all their biases
  • Make the effort to get an adequate command of their jargon, but don't be afraid to request plain English
  • Take their recommendations into account, but don't allow or expect them to do your priority-setting work for you
  • Ask whether they are at all invested in the well-being of the people they study (it's much easier to be glib about people and places you don't care about)
  • Beware of fashions and trends in the field
  • Be at least as honest as you expect your experts to be; don't feign certainty; don't hide behind your experts when you fail
  • Above all, know your own enduring goals and values, and apply expertise accordingly.

Russian and Ukrainian Baptist leaders meet in Kiev on April 8.

Christian stewardship: Quaker "Options" (part one--excellent!) and Basil the Great, "Woe to the Rich."

"Faith for the Post-Christian Heart: A Conversation with Francis Spufford."

Irina Khrunova on the latest Pussy Riot court decision. Meanwhile, "Russia Pulls Voice of America Radio Off Air" and "American Councils Statement on NGO Status in Russia." (News story here.)

Martin E. Marty on the "End of Elite Denominational Headquarters." The article made me nostalgic for the "elite" offices of Friends United Meeting on Quaker Hill in Richmond, Indiana, USA. FUM's modest premises share a beautiful little campus with the Quaker Hill Conference Center, and now also serve the Right Sharing of World Resources program. In an odd coincidence, the Right Sharing program occupies the very same office I used in my time at FUM (1993-2000). My job before coming to FUM? Coordinator of Right Sharing! But then it was based in my home office in Wilmington, Ohio, from where it moved to Cincinnati for most of Roland Kreager's tenure.

Today's antidote to the scourge of false-witness-bearing: Big Daddy Wilson pleads, "Walk a Mile in My Shoes."


Erik said...

I would like to add something to this discussion. Research on prediction in the social sciences shows that there is a big difference between "experts" or pundits on the one hand, and social scientists who work with data on the other. The former are about as good as predicting as monkeys throwing darts, i.e. not very good. This is because they are repeating subjective opinions and biases and not systematically analyzing data. So I would not be surprised if some Russian "area experts" don't have a clear understanding of what is going on. Where we can find useful insights is in research that utilizes data in a systematic and scientific way and that does comparative research. Last year pundits made all kinds of statements about the presidential election outcome in the US, and many of them got it wrong. The people analyzing data, like Nate Silver, predicted every state right, and did it long before election day. So, my point is that I think political science has a lot to say about what is unfolding in Russia and Ukraine, but this is not the same as all the "experts" necessarily.

Erik Cleven

Johan Maurer said...

Nate Silver patiently explained his methodology to many bemused and skeptical commentators. We do have a right to know an expert's methodology. It turns out that pundits too often draw from a ready-made set of talking points. I think we'll find out that, in contrast to the social scientist, there is no methodology at all in some cases. They are either hired to speak persuasively in favor of some predetermined strategy or ideology, or their own identities are wrapped up in those predetermined approaches. Yet, they ooze familiarity with their subject and with the power players.

But even genuine social scientists often do not arrive at consensus recommendations--which is why long-term values and goals play such a crucial role. A leader is someone who keeps that perspective while remaining in a dynamic dialogue with those experts and thoughtfully assessing their methods.

George F. Kennan was such a great role model in those early postwar years in part because he remembered the anchoring power of values. He was neither seduced by his own expertise nor distorted by fear.

Thanks, Erik! I'd love to visit and talk some of this over with you. [To be continued by e-mail.]