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Vanities and inanities

Published on 18 March 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

The New York Times is having a debate in its “Room for debate”. The title is: “Does Diplomacy Need Star Power? Can celebrity ‘ambassadors’ who get involved in diplomacy or antipoverty efforts do more harm than good?” Six opinions have been put forth. The Port is flowing.


Here the topic: “Just back from a “basketball diplomacy” trip to North Korea, the former N.B.A. player Dennis RODMAN turned around and visited Vatican City last week during the papal election to support the Ghanian cardinal Peter TURKSON as the first black pope. “Can celebrities like Rodman, Bono or Angelina Jolie who get involved in diplomacy or antipoverty efforts offer a useful diplomatic service, or are they just putting pretty and recognizable faces on complicated and unwieldy issues?” I have no idea of the motivations behind Dennis RODMAN’s trip to Pyongyang. Vanity – a fading celebrity in search of a cause to burnish his image? Did he truly believe he could make a difference? It does not matter: the reception in North Korea alone matters. Neither RODMAN nor I have any inkling on how this “escapade” from traditional diplomacy will turn out. Enter the pundits: they all have different opinions. Is it useful to have “opinions” on such an issue? I doubt it: … “in most [other] novel situations, one cannot predict with any accuracy how particular people will respond.”[1] (emphasis mine). Social psychology teaches that people react situationally. When they are in a new situation, anything can happen. Factor in KIM Jong-Un’s own environment. How will it react to RODMAN’s coming, and how will this impact on KIM? God knows. Punditry is prophesizing… er… predicting. Pundits derive rules from anecdote. Generalizing from the particular is a risky business. Philip TETLOCK interviewed 284 people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends.” Respondents were asked to rate the probabilities of three alternative outcomes. Reviewing the predictions years later “The experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned equal probabilities to each of the three potential outcomes.”[2] Is the future wholly opaque? Not necessarily: “Our intuitive ideas about people and the principles governing their responses to their environment are generally adequate for most purposes of the office and the home; but they are seriously deficient when we must understand, predict or control behavior in contexts that lie outside our most customary experience – that is when we take on new and different roles or responsibilities, encounter new cultures, analyze newly arisen social problems, or contemplate novel social interventions to address such problems.”[3] RODMAN’s visit was the roll of the dice. He stirred the pot. Nothing, something, or anything may happen. As for the pundits, we can dispense with their commentary. They are engaged in creating heuristics for public consumption: “If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, the System 1 brain will find a related question that is easier and answer it. (…) substitution [occurs]. (…) heuristic is a straightforward procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions.”[4] Alas, heuristics are never appropriate in novel situations. Not even if there is a novel situation every day.

[1] Lee ROSS – Richard E. NISBETT (2011): The person and the situation. Perspectives of social psychology. Pinter and Martin, London. (Pg. 2)
[2] Daniel KAHNEMAN (2011): Thinking, Fast and Slow. Allen Lane, New York. (Pg. 219)
[3] Lee ROSS – Richard E. NISBETT (2011): The person and the situation. Perspectives of social psychology. Pinter and Martin, London. (Pg. 8)
[4] Daniel KAHNEMAN (2011): Thinking, Fast and Slow. Allen Lane, New York. (Pg. 97-98)

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