Knowledge of Knowledge

People who are often consulted for advice are aware of the following rule: If you want to give someone direction in such a way that they follow it, you need to allow them to arrive on their own to the conclusion you think is the right one.

Sure, you can direct them. But that’s all you really can do — direct them. Because when people are told what to do, they are generally reluctant to accept the instruction. But if they can be made to realize the proper course of action on their own, they will embrace it.

Nobody likes being told what to do. Having to listen to someone else means that one’s sense of self is diminished; an acknowledged limitation is placed on one’s own intellect.

The interesting thing is that the more one is confident in one’s own intelligence, the more one is ready to accept that others might know more. The inverse is what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, after the two psychological researchers, David Dunning and Justin Kruger. In a series of studies first conducted in 1999, the pair found that people who aren’t all that bright tend to think more of themselves than those who are.

Or, as Dunning said in a 2010 interview with The New York Times, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.”

This brings to mind a teaching that I heard Harav Mordechai Joffen, shlita, repeat in the name of his father, Harav Yaakov Joffen, zt”l: The study of Torah in the proper way leads one to become a humble person, because the more one learns the more one is able to appreciate how vast the Torah is, and how little of it one really does know. That itself breeds humility.

These thoughts crossed my mind when I read an interview which has been subject to a lot of discussion over the last two weeks. Ben Rhodes, whom The New York Times describes in their interview as “the Boy Wonder of the Obama White House” and who is, according to insiders, “the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from” Obama, described in extreme detail how the administration got the Iran Deal through.

Whether or not the deal was a good idea or not is something that has already been debated ad nauseam. I don’t intend to revisit that question here again, only to make one point. If the deal was, on its own merits, a good thing, why did the administration feel the need to be as duplicitous about it as Rhodes somewhat arrogantly admits to having been?

And he does more than just admit to it; he all but brags about it. There is an admission that the White House was working on the deal before the “moderates” (who are hardly moderate) were elected in 2012 — despite the fact that the president’s stated rationale for pursuing the deal was that they were finally able to deal with a “moderate” government. Rhodes also admits that he doesn’t have much confidence that Rouhani and Zarif are “real reformers,” but that they decided to talk that up when selling the deal anyway.

But what struck me most was a quote in the middle of the piece, which author David Samuels said was delivered “laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of [Rhodes’s] private utterances.”

“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

And that’s just it. Their “knowing nothing” made it easier for Rhodes to manipulate them into thinking that they know everything. It’s why, for example, during the days that the deal was being debated, you saw think-tank scholars, who devote their lives to studying Iran, finding their concerns about the supposed “moderate nature” of the new Iranian government falling on deaf ears. The reporters, who were of the impression that they were indeed moderates (after all, the White House had told them that was the case), had no need for their expertise.

In short, they are like the prototypical subjects of the Dunning-Kruger studies; they don’t recognize their own incompetence and wildly overestimate their own intelligence.

And, true to form, they persist in their inability to recognize their own incompetence. The reporters who were named in the story still insist that they were right all along, and that Samuels somehow must have ulterior motives for writing it.

Rhodes, to his credit, hasn’t backed off any of the statements he made to The Times which served as the basis for the article — he just insists that nothing he did was wrong, as his job is to advance the policies of the president by all necessary means. But the facts that he did this, is unapologetic, and that the media figures who abetted him don’t want to recognize how they were used, ought to lend perspective to how much we can really rely on the media.