Performance Enhancing Debate
How the Ryan Braun scandal explains Egyptian Revolution punditry.
Last week, Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun accepted an agreement with Major League Baseball on a 65-game suspension without pay for his all-but-acknowledged use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). His suspension marked a stunning reversal of fortune for Braun and his defenders. As an outspoken Brewers fan whose kids had to quietly take down several posters from the walls, this was devastating news. But for a Middle East-focused Foreign Policy columnist, the Braun saga offers some important lessons.
First, the background. Two years ago, in the midst of an outstanding season for which he would later win the Most Valuable Player Award, Braun failed a drug test. He immediately challenged the results as "total B.S." His teammates, those who knew him and his case the best, offered strong and vocal support; most famously, his friend Aaron Rodgers (the Green Bay Packers’ MVP quarterback) bet his annual salary on Braun’s innocence (he isn’t going to pay up).
And then, unlike all the many players before him to protest their innocence in vain, Braun become the first player in Major League Baseball history to win an appeal against alleged PED use, by successfully pointing to problems in the chain of custody in the damning urine sample. The volume of banned substances in his urine sample was irrelevant, he argued, if the sample could have been compromised during the testing process. What’s more, events over the following year seemed to strengthen his case. Under presumably intense doping scrutiny the following season, he actually improved on the previous year’s MVP performance. Braun, it seemed, really was the exception to the rule.
And then he wasn’t. Braun became entangled in the ongoing Biogenesis case which appears to incriminate a vast range of MLB players. At first, the renewed focus on Braun’s case looked like a vendetta by the league over its previous defeat — and, let’s face it, that’s probably part of it. But the case for supporting Braun collapsed when he agreed with MLB to accept the suspension. Now his defenders feel hurt, used, and abused. So why did we believe him in the first place? After all, there is overwhelming evidence of rampant PED abuse in professional sports, and a depressing array of disgraced stars from Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens to Melky Cabrera and Alex Rodriguez offer testament to abuse and deception by the very best players. (And that’s only baseball.)
What does any of this have to do with foreign policy or the Middle East? Well, political science should have a field day: There are some great pieces to be written about how rampant PED abuse illustrates how difficult it is to overcome the incentives of self-interested actors to cheat, given the absence of perfect information or consistent enforcement. I’d love to see an analysis of the limited deterrent power of selective punishment of high-profile stars like Braun, Cabrera, and Rodriguez. A constructivist case could probably be made about how the rules against PED use failed to be internalized into normative behavior among hyper-competitive players who see the rules not as moral standards but as technical obstacles to be circumvented more or less effectively.
But what really struck me about the Braun case was how it illustrates some of the endemic problems of political analysis and public policy discourse. For instance, if you’ve spent five minutes following Egypt, you’ve probably already been worn down by the relentless insistence that it just can’t be compared to any other cases. There are a million (well-rehearsed) reasons why Egypt’s coup cannot be compared to other historical coups because Egypt is different. Previous efforts to support insurgencies aren’t relevant to Syria because Syria is different. Just like Braun’s case was unique … until it wasn’t.
Everybody thinks that their own case is unique, and of course it’s true that every case is unique in a million little different ways. But there are also broad patterns and mechanisms which seem to play out repeatedly across lots of those unique cases. There has also been a lot of noise about how only Egyptians, or perhaps those with deep familiarity with Egypt, should comment on Egypt. As someone deeply committed to area studies, I’m all in favor of substantive expertise. But Middle East Studies and foreign policy analysis could also stand more Nate Silvering.
Indeed, in his famous study of expert political judgment, the psychologist Phil Tetlock found that subject experts often make worse predictions than generalists: bogged down in details and personally invested in one side of the argument, subject experts can be blind to general patterns that best explain and predict the outcomes. For Egypt, that means being open to the comparative lessons of previous coups even if none of their situations exactly duplicates Cairo circa June 2013. For Syria, that means supplementing detailed knowledge of that case with serious attention to Stathis Kalyvas on the political economy of civil wars, Paul Staniland on political order in wartime, Zachariah Mampilly on rebel governance, Fotina Christia on alliances within rebel groups, Idean Salehyan on external support for rebels, among many others. In other words, instead of listening to Zack Greinke and Aaron Rodgers — even if they had the most information about the case — I should have paid more attention to the dismal lessons of Bonds and Clemons.
Another lesson might be the need to be constantly attuned to the dangers of motivated bias. When I analyze Middle East politics, I strive as hard as I can for analytical rigor and objectivity. But when it comes to baseball and my home city, I’m an unapologetic fan. I fervently wanted to believe Braun was innocent, which affected the way I processed information about his case. I wanted the Milwaukee Brewers to win, I wanted their best player to be an honest and upstanding human being, and I wanted my kids to be able to believe in their hero. And then, once I had staked out a public position defending Braun from his legion of critics, I wanted to be proven right.
That sort of approach is completely understandable for sports fandom. But it also permeates policy analysis, with less healthy results. I’m not talking about the dismal pundit’s practice of starting with a pre-cooked conclusion and then just searching around for arguments to support it. I’m talking about the powerful psychological pressures which we all face to welcome supporting information and reject inconvenient facts. Most people are typically less skeptical consumers of desirable than undesirable information, accepting supportive evidence without question while subjecting conflicting news to intense, skeptical scrutiny. People invested in a position all too easily talk themselves into best-case assumptions about its benefits and avoid scrutiny of its risks (think: the Iraq debate circa 2002). Common sense, as Duncan Watts recently pointed out, is a lot less sensible than it appears and can very easily reinforce these biases.
These kinds of biases are far more difficult to confront than are straightforward deception or disagreement, because they are sincerely held. Many Egyptians, for instance, genuinely believed that the June 30 Tamarod uprising was an urgently needed democratic revolution to save the transition from the despised Muslim Brotherhood. They weren’t just saying that to cover for a military coup. That commitment then shapes their indignant response to outside analysts calling the events a military coup, their reaction to new developments, and their treatment of dissenters from within their own ranks. The developments of the last few weeks, with the military firmly in charge, violence against pro-Morsy protestors, and resurgent state nationalism, caused some of those supporters to feel the same betrayal and despair which Braun caused me. But many others have only become more entrenched and intense in their beliefs.
Which beliefs are right? Braun’s admission of guilt resolved the steroids debate. But few of our political and analytical debates ever produce such a clear resolution. Scholars are still arguing about the causes of World War I or the end of the Cold War, to say nothing of the incommensurable narratives about most of the Middle East. Who was "right" about Egypt, for instance? Every side of that debate feels vindicated by events, with nobody able to authoritatively adjudicate the disagreements. There will not be consensus over whether Egypt’s crisis was caused by the failure to establish legitimate political institutions or by the pathologies of the Muslim Brotherhood for a long time.
Most analytical disagreements can only be resolved, even in retrospect, through counterfactual analysis. Would the invasion of Iraq have worked out if Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer hadn’t made such disastrous earlier decisions? Nobody agrees. Would Egypt’s transition have gone more smoothly had the Muslim Brotherhood chosen to not run a presidential candidate? Impossible to say. Would Syria’s Bashar al-Assad have quickly crumbled had the U.S. led a military intervention in early 2012? We’ll never know. Did the Arab uprisings marginalize al Qaeda? It depends. Critics of President Barack Obama’s Syria policy often argue, for instance, that history will judge him poorly. It probably will, if they are the ones writing those histories; histories written by those opposed to intervention will likely judge him more kindly.
So what to do about this? Braun’s case might teach us all to do better, but it probably won’t. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman warned, "knowing your biases is not enough to overcome them." For that, you need a systematic process with built-in checks against the various forms of bias which creep into analysis. For example, to protect against motivated bias, it’s good to be more skeptical of information and arguments with which you agree than with which you disagree. To avoid epistemic closure, it’s good to make sure that you pay attention to information and arguments from diverse perspectives. But protecting against these biases is not so simple as "rational Bayseian updating" would have it: as Chuck D (or Alexander Hamilton, or Malcolm X, if you prefer) warns us, if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything. The real lesson of Ryan Braun might, rather dismally, be that we’re doomed to keep repeating these mistakes… and that most participants in public debate are just fine with that.