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The Illusion of Retrospective Omniscience

October 18, 2012

Maybe it’s because the presidential campaign is approaching its quadrennial periapsis but headlines seem to be increasingly salted with criticisms of the administration based on retrospective omniscience – the ability to know everything about an incident after it has occurred.

While such criticisms tend to garner the headlines they are unfounded and are either derived from naiveté or from those having an agenda to criticize regardless of the veracity of the criticism. The latter group will always be with us because they have realized success by exploiting the illusion of retrospective omniscience to those vulnerable to making decisions based on emotion instead of reason and logic.

There are many examples of this exploitation. The most recent is the tragedy at the United States Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Even as the fires at the compound were still smoldering, criticism was being leveled at the administration that we should have known the attack was going to happen. As more information was gathered in the following weeks our understanding of what actually transpired evolved. For some, this expanding knowledge of the event became the minimal standard for what should have been known before the event occurred. Obviously this is a cycle that lives in perpetuity.  Life just doesn’t work that way. We will never know beforehand what we learn from researching an event after it occurred. Those not understanding this simple fact have succumbed to the illusion of retrospective omniscience.

Unfortunately, this illusion often leads to delusions of omnipotence – not only should we have known what was going to happen but successful intervention and prevention was solely at our discretion. The expectation that everything can be known and everything can be done is best left to toddlers and deities. For the rest of us, it should be understood that most events in life occur in a fog, nothing is black and white, no human is omniscience and no country is omnipotent. For some that reality is unsettling and makes them an easy target for politicians running for office.

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