All conventional wisom is not created equal

Apr 7, 2009

Jacob Weisberg reminds us that conventional wisdom is often wrong, and then isolates seven instances of “received wisdom” that might prove wrong.

A lot of our premises have turned out to be wrong lately. I’m talking not about evanescent bits of conventional wisdom that have shifted but about overarching assumptions that were widely shared across the political spectrum—big things that experts and nonexperts agreed about—until they were proved false.

For instance, before 1989, virtually all Sovietologists agreed that the USSR was highly stable. Before 2001, few Middle East scholars worried that the United States was vulnerable to a major terrorist attack. Before 2003, everyone from neocon hawks to French lefties agreed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Before 2008, few economists wondered about the fundamental soundness of the American financial system. Popular opinion echoed the expert consensus on each of these points. Those who challenged the groupthink—such as Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik, renegade counterterrorism expert John O’Neill, former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, and pessimistic economist Nouriel Roubini—tended to be dismissed as provocateurs, wackos, or (in Ritter’s case) worse.

Some of these examples are pretty darn poor, however.

1. To be blunt, a shitload of people were predicting a major terrorist attack on the United States long before 11 September 2001. I don’t know, of course, about the strange invocation of “Middle East” experts. Maybe Weisberg knows his point wouldn’t withstand scrutiny if it concerned the terrorism scholarly community?

2. Everyone most certainly did not agree that Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction.” Most observers thought Hussein had some kind of residual biological or chemical weapons program. But the ability to produce mustard gas is not synonymous with having WMD, and a lot of people knew it.

The Bush Administration’s great con was collapsing any kind of nuclear, biological, or chemical program into the dreaded “WMD threat,” and a great many people simply didn’t buy it. Weisberg should know better than to perpetuate this fraud six years after the fact.

The rest of the article is kind of enh in an I-need-to-write-an-article-and-I-don’t-have-any-good-ideas-right-now way. Examples include:

“Look, Freeman Dyson says that climate change might not be so bad. The models are uncertain and increased CO2 might lead to better growing conditions for plants” …. “Central authority in China might collapse!” …. “There’s this crazy theory that fossil fuels don’t come from fossils, and the chemical reaction even happens in laboratories!”

That sort of thing.

But, as an international-relations scholar, I feel compelled to comment on one: “Ken Waltz says nuclear proliferation might be stabilizing!”

Well, yeah.

Indeed, as my colleague, Matt Kroenig, has pointed out (PDF), many of the states that actively oppose nuclear proliferation do so precisely because they worry that Waltz is right about the deterrent effects of nuclear weapons.

Such states would, shockingly enough, rather not be deterred from engaging in force projection and various other forms of compellence.


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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.