Surowiecki and attribution error

by Henry Farrell on July 28, 2006

Via “Dan Drezner”:, this fun little “article”: by James Surowiecki in the _New Yorker_.

bq. Airbus’s woes are being held up as proof that it is, in the words of one columnist, “a textbook example of how not to run a commercial enterprise.” The Wall Street Journal explained that Airbus was failing because of its “politicized management,” while the Times suggested that Airbus had to decide whether it was a company or a European “employment project.” … What much of the talk about the inherent weakness of Airbus ignores is that, just a few years ago, it was Boeing that looked fundamentally flawed, while Airbus was seen as the future of the industry. … The problem with such prognostications is that they infer basic truths about a company’s prospects from its short-term performance. … People are generally bad at accepting the importance of context and chance. We fall prey to what the social psychologist Lee Ross called “the fundamental attribution error”—the tendency to ascribe success or failure to innate characteristics, even when context is overwhelmingly important. … Because we underestimate how much variation can be caused simply by luck, we see patterns where none exist. It’s no wonder that management theory is dominated by fads: every few years, new companies succeed, and they are scrutinized for the underlying truths that they might reveal. But often there is no underlying truth; the companies just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

This applies not only to judgements about the success of companies, but to judgements about the success of countries. A few years ago, the political scientist Peter Katzenstein went through a couple of decades worth of those special issues that the _Economist_ runs on particular countries for his own amusement. He found that there wasn’t any long term consistency in judgement – a country cited as a model of how to create a thriving economy in one special issue might be cited as a prime example of political dysfunction the next time round, and back in the good books a few years later. This isn’t a problem that’s specific to the _Economist_; it’s a more general one of how the political wisdom on the sources of economic success is incredibly unstable. A couple of decades ago, the shelves were filled with books on Japan Inc., and nasty xenophobic bestsellers like Michael Crichton’s _Rising Sun_ claiming that Japan was going to gobble up America unless it fought back. Before that, there was a lot of talk about _Modell Deutschland_ as the way forward. _Und so weiter_. We don’t know very much at all about the root reasons why economies succeed or fail, for some of the reasons that Surowiecki cites. Countries too can happen to be in the right place at the right time, and may find their luck running out unexpectedly when conditions change.

Tommie Shelby II

by Jon Mandle on July 28, 2006

A few months ago, I wrote about Orlando Patterson’s rave review of Tommie Shelby’s book, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. I’ve now read the book myself, and the praise is entirely deserved. Shelby indeed “knows how to ask all the right questions.” And his answers are always thoughtful, clear, insightful, and he shows almost unbelievable patience with his many mistaken rivals. I admit to being pre-disposed to his position, but I learned a lot. My review is below.
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Frederick Mosteller Is Dead

by Cosma Shalizi on July 28, 2006

Via everyone in the profession: the statistician Frederick Mosteller has died. Mosteller was one of the great leaders of the generation of statisticians in which our field went from being an annex of mathematics (as it was when he attended Carnegie Tech) to an autonomous, institutionalized discipline. He had an astonishing range as a researcher, but is perhaps best known for his work on stochastic theories of learning theory and the authorship of the Federalist Papers. He was also a notable teacher, as his essay “Classroom and Platform Performance” suggests, and in the later part of his career tried to bring elementary inferential hygenie to educational research. More anecdotes are available from Tales of the Statisticians, or this brief sketch by his student Stephen Fienberg.

Hezbollah’s war crimes

by Daniel on July 28, 2006

Not so much in the interests of spurious balance, but because it provides a way to deal with a number of general issues of international law in a more neutral framework, I thought I’d consider what war crimes have been committed by Hezbollah in the course of the present conflict. I am not an international lawyer, though I have had reasonable luck in the past arguing points of international law on the Internet. I am leaving comments enabled for the time being, though I would like all commenters to respect the principle that the blame game is not zero sum, and in specific application to this case, the fact that one side is committing war crimes does not absolve the other side from their obligation to obey the law.

Throughout this post, I am assuming that Hezbollah can be considered as a separate military entity and that its troops are being judged according to the law of war rather than as civilian criminals (or for that matter, as “illegal combatants”). I think that this is fair enough; the Geneva Conventions are rather vague on what constitutes a legitimate military entity, but my opinion is that if state sponsorship was a necessary condition this would have been explicitly stated and it seems to me that it would be hard to argue that Hezbollah are not guerillas under Protocol I. Although the Conventions seem to mainly be considering cases of civil war rather than cross-border aggression by parastates I personally believe that they apply. More under the fold.
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Billmon on Lebanon

by Chris Bertram on July 28, 2006

If you aren’t reading “Billmon”: on the war in Lebanon, well you should be.

From one of his “more recent posts”: :

bq. I’ve been watching events in the Middle East off and on for the past 25 years, and I’ve seen the Israelis get ugly before. But I can’t remember a time when I’ve seen them this ugly — Ariel Sharon’s scowling mug excepted, of course. It’s almost as if bits of Sharon’s DNA have been duplicated and injected into the entire Israeli cabinet and the general staff: Massively disproportionate use of force (as defined in the Geneva Conventions, not the fevered war porn fantasies of Right Blogistan) reprisal terror bombings, an if-it-moves-shoot-it mentality on the ground:

bq. “Over here, everybody is the army,” one soldier said. “Everybody is Hezbollah. There’s no kids, women, nothing.”

bq. Another soldier put it plainly: “We’re going to shoot anything we see.”

bq. And now a proposal to turn all of southern Lebanon into a free fire zone.

bq. This all might be considered normal military behavior for, oh say, a Bosnian Serb militia captain, circa 1991, but when the political and military leaders of an allegedly civilized state start talking this way, something big is going on, and going wrong.

UPDATE: A couple of people have emailed to make the point that the two quotes from soldiers need to be read in the context of the previous paragraph of the report from which they are taken, which reads:

bq. Now more Israeli soldiers are on the way, including an armored unit being transferred from Gaza to Lebanon. They have been told civilians have left the region where they will fight.

Perhaps that makes those soldiers’ remarks less damning as indicators _of their personal attitudes_ , but it rather raised the question of who is telling them the falsehood that civilians have led the region and why, since their acceptance of that falsehood might well lead them to kill non-combatants. In the context of Billmon’s post as a whole — which you can read by following the link — it is clear that the “proposal to turn all of southern Lebanon into a free-fire zone” is a reference back to statements by the Israeli Justice minister Ramon, and not a conclusion based on those quotes from soldiers.