Human misjudgement of experts

The process of decision-making is complex. Furthermore, its significance transcends both the private and public sectors, and is crucial not just in politics.

Some believe that if everything were left to the smartest people in the country, things would turn out exactly the way we planned. Experts would be able to handle everything.

But is this always the case?

Not always. American writer David Halberstam explores this hypothesis in his book ‘The Best and the Brightest’. He delves into the foreign policy decisions made by those in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.

Harvard’s ‘whiz kids’ were the brains of the government. The list included the brilliant Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, an executive with excellent business credentials, and Air Force Secretary Harold Brown, an expert in nuclear physics who has a PhD.

Members of the Cabinet and Advisory Board possessed outstanding industry experience or were highly regarded academics. They oversaw reshaping US policy in Vietnam. 

Nevertheless, these men ultimately failed. Although they spent over $1 trillion in modern dollars, they didn’t contain Communism.

Since the rise of Mao Zedong in China, they were convinced about the ‘domino theory’ of the spread of Communism. If it spread to one country, it was pervious to others surrounding it.  

It was an oversimplification. Vietnamese national circumstances were ignored – they simply sought independence. Vietnamese retaliation was particularly strong due to the prior experience of French imperialism.

During the period 1965-1975, the US government deployed 2.7 million soldiers. More than 7.5 million tons of bombs were dropped – twice as much as during the Second World War.   

The greater their investment, the lower the return. Mentally, the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy kicked in, increasing military and financial investment in Vietnam. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations wasted a great deal of resources due to the misjudgement of ‘experts’.

Halberstam described their efforts in Vietnam as “brilliant policies that defied common sense”.

On similar grounds, renowned investor Charlie Munger talked about recognising patterns as a way of understanding how humans behave both rationally and irrationally. Perhaps McNamara and Brown would have made a different decision had they considered the alternative.

Confirmation bias of elites leading to the double-downing of the policy that was doomed to fail. As economist Thomas Sowell once quipped, “The road to hell is paved with Ivy League degrees.”

Halberstam concluded that simply featuring ‘the best and brightest’ people on your team does not guarantee success. It’s not an indication that they can make sensible decisions without falling into fallacies. 

How Robert McNamara Came to Write His Memoirs About Vietnam | Time
Robert McNamara and President Johnson

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