Posted by POSCA
Part One: Gross Incompetent or Evil Genius?
Some years back there was a rumor floating around Strategic Air Command concerning the Director of Operations (DO) for a SAC heavy bombardment wing (B52 G or H model). Although the Director of Operations is technically third in line for control of the bombardment wing, most folks treat the DO as the real #2 (ahead of the Vice Commander) because he/she is responsible for all of the aircrews and flying operations.
According to this rumor, the DO in question resorted to unique methods when counseling or meeting with one of the aviators under his span of control. If the counseling session did not involve criticism of the aviator, things would go normally—as one would expect any such session to go. But if the aviator was to be criticized, then something quite out of the ordinary would occur—he/she would get “the puppet.” That is, the DO would pull a hand puppet from his desk and use the puppet to counsel the aviator. Thus, everyone exiting the DO’s office following one of these sessions was naturally asked, “Did you get the puppet?” (And people ask Posca why he loves Dr Strangelove. No, Posca doesn’t know if the puppet was like Mr. Hat in the South Park series.)
Arguably, this story has legs because it is funny and because no one wants to believe a lunatic could become the DO of a heavy bombardment wing. Although Posca has since met someone who was in that wing when the person in question was the DO and SWEARS it is true, the story is still difficult to believe. There are too many hurdles to clear and too many wickets to pass through for a lunatic to go undiscovered to become the DO of a heavy bombardment wing. (N.B. Posca, being a lunatic himself, is using the term descriptively, not judgmentally.)
Posca brings up this story because it is in a class with stories of a much more recent vintage, viz. the stories that swirl around President Obama and his conduct in office. These stories (which are very similar to the ones told about George W. Bush, by the way) tell us, on the one hand, that the President is the single most incompetent person to occupy the White House. According to this view, he knows NOTHING about foreign affairs, economics, social policy, energy policy, etc. He is a know-nothing ideological marionette whose strings are being pulled (ineptly) by people behind the scenes who know little more than he does.
On the other hand, there are those who go to the opposite extreme: Barack Obama is an evil genius. He knows all there is to know about foreign affairs, economics, etc., but is working to destroy the United States. At the very least, he is schooled enough to (1) know what the policies should be and (2) does the opposite for the purpose of harming the United States. Obviously, harm is done under both scenarios, but one might suppose (without any guarantee) that the happy-go-lucky incompetent would do less damage to the country than the evil genius, even if there may be some consolation in knowing that the latter is at least competent.
Posca finds it hard to believe either of these Obama theories. (We are speaking here about these theories as theories and not about Obama’s worthiness for office.) Whatever Posca says below, he is not now, nor could he ever be, a supporter of the current President. But having a doctorate in Philosophy, as well as being a fully certified technician and sometime mad man, Posca is interested in theories and their verification/falsification. He is especially interested in the “complete incompetent” and “evil genius” theories because they (1) are so widely believed, (2) are apparently supported by other theories that devolve into conspiracy theory, and (3) stretch credulity even further than the DO’s hand-puppet story.
To be sure, Posca finds the “complete incompetent” and “evil genius” theories intriguing. He is himself inclined to embrace one or the other, given the day of the week and the conduct of the President. But to believe one of the other of these theories Posca must have better evidence than the theory that talks about the conspiracy of the mainstream media. So, for the heck of it, Posca posed this question to himself (which he usually does in front of a full-length mirror fresh from the shower): Is there any reason—call it “objective,” “substantiated,” or “scientifically grounded”—for believing that Barack Obama is either a “complete incompetent” or an “evil genius?”
Posca floundered around until he realized the answer (as it usually is) was right in front of his face (buried under several layers on his desk). The answer is found in Dietrich Dörner’s book The Logic of Failure, and the answer is, “Yes.” That is, it is possible to decide between the “complete incompetent” and “evil genius” theories by plowing through the results of Dörner’s work as a research psychologist. For those not familiar with The Logic of Failure, it is important know that he is most interested in the way human beings behave around complex systems (e.g., nuclear reactors, railway systems, etc.). And he is driven to know whether or not there are unique behaviors associated with success or failure in operating complex systems. If the engineers did something wrong to cause that disaster, what was it and was it rooted in human behavior? (The answer is, “No,” by the way; the problem was inherent to the system itself.)
Dörner’s claim to fame is the computer simulation. He is a pioneer in the creation of interactive computer games. These games represent hypothetical scenarios, e.g., the environmental challenges confronting an African tribe or a massive fire in Yellowstone Park. Volunteers are invited to play the role of an environmental engineer and fire chief—“Your job is to save the tribe from starvation” or “Your job is to fight this fire so that Yellowstone Park remains a viable tourist destination throughout the course of the fire.” The volunteers are also briefed on the resources the simulation recognizes, and they are invited—with the goal of the simulation in mind—to make decisions about the application of those resources. Some simulations take up to eight or ten sessions. The decisions made in session 1 are fed into the computer to shape conditions on the ground for the second session, and so on.
Every simulation is a normative goal (“save the tribe from starvation”) and a series of cause-effect relationships determined by the decisions made by the volunteer. To be sure, each and every volunteer is fully aware at the end of the simulation whether or not he/she had a good or bad outcome. If Yellowstone Park is consumed by fire or the African tribe starves to death, then the volunteer has had a “bad” outcome and was a “bad” firefighter or environmental engineer. The volunteer, so to speak, buys the outcome produced. Given the “good” or “bad” firefighters, environmental engineers, etc., Dörner is free to explore the question: Is there a set of behaviors unique to doing well and to doing poorly? Put another way: If all I know is the behavior of a volunteer during a given simulation, can I accurately predict the outcome that he/she achieved? Indeed, given the regularity between certain types of behavior and a specific outcome, can I not say that the behaviors cause the outcome. Of course, this is expressed as a probability and rests completely on the number of simulation runs Dörner directs.
Now Posca, having read The Logic of Failure, realized one morning that one of Dörner’s simulations may actually be relevant to determining whether or not Barack Obama is a gross incompetent or an evil genius. The simulation is called “Greenvale”, and this is how Dörner describes it:
Greenvale is a small town of about 3,700 inhabitants located in a hilly region of northwest England. A municipally owned watch factory is Greenvale's major employer, but there are, of course, other enterprises in town as well—retail stores, a bank, medical practices, restaurants.
… We simulated the main features of this imaginary small town with a computer, thereby developing a model that would help us study thought and planning processes in different participants. This time, however, we worked on a larger scale and, in the course of time, made forty-eight different people mayor of Greenvale.
Once again—unrealistically—the participants could exercise almost dictatorial powers for ten years, during which time the citizens of Greenvale, no matter how dissatisfied, would have no opportunity to vote the mayor out of office. And because the region's major employer, the watch factory, was municipally owned, the mayor could use these powers to exert enormous influence on the economic fate of the town. The mayor was also permitted to shape other aspects of the town's life, such as the tax structure, to a far greater extent than any real mayor could. …our participants had much more freedom and vastly greater possibilities to control and influence events than anyone in the real world would ever have. We might think that this would create the ideal basis for success, but that is not why we gave our participants such extensive powers. Our purpose was instead to elicit from the participants as many modes of behavior as possible. By removing the constraints of the real world, we hoped to see how people think and act when they are entirely free to do as they wish.
As it turns out, Dörner distilled 10 behavior sets that uniquely correlate with “good” and “bad” mayors of Greenvale. The mayors were told to focus on improving living conditions in Greenvale such that those who reduced unemployment and raised living conditions manifested one set of behaviors, and those who screwed everything up manifested another.
Can one of those behavior sets be associated with Barack Obama as President? Indeed, there is such an association—a strong association—and it allows us to make great good progress in the gross incompetent vs. evil genius debate.
But that, as they say, is for the next blog post.