Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Thomas Frank on being “too smart to fail”

Thomas Frank has a terrific essay in The Baffler about the failure of experts in the dot-com bubble, the war in Iraq, and the housing and credit crisis, and about

our failure, after each of these disasters, to come to terms with how we were played. Each separate catastrophe should have been followed by a wave of apologies and resignations; taken together—and given that a good percentage of the pundit corps signed on to two or even three of these idiotic storylines—they mandated mass firings in the newsrooms and op-ed pages of the nation. Quicker than you could say “Ahmed Chalabi,” an entire generation of newsroom fools should have lost their jobs….

What I didn’t understand was that these were moral failures, mistakes that were hardwired into the belief systems of the organizations and professions and social classes in question. As such they were mistakes that—from the point of view of those organizations or professions or classes—shed no discredit on the individual chowderheads who made them. Holding them accountable was out of the question, and it remains off the table today. These people ignored every flashing red signal, refused to listen to the whistleblowers, blew off the obvious screaming indicators that something was going wrong in the boardrooms of the nation, even talked us into an unnecessary war, for chrissake, and the bailout apparatus still stands ready should they fuck things up again.

I’m afraid any book about the future and prediction has to take into account the transformation, on a large and very public scale, of being wrong into a badge of honor, and the world-view that has been created around it.

1 Comment

  1. An interesting, if provocative, idea. I’m not sure that being ‘wrong’ is taken as a badge of honor as much as conformity to group norms/models/worldviews that is at issue. So much of society seems to be a contest between rival groups of experts (and expertise). Toeing the line is often very important for being seen as a legitimate group member while closing ranks helps maintain group status during or after what could be constructed as a challenge to authority or position. Of course, as pointed out, these dynamics can have a real social cost. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, I would highly recommend James March’s (2010) The Ambiguities of Experience. March discusses a lot similar themes in the context of organizational learning.

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