Are opinions on the merits of the Iran deal based on facts?  – The answer has two letters.

August 2, 2015

As the saying goes, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. In the case of the Iran deal, opinions are abundant and are expressed with confidence, certainty, and in many cases – arrogance. But what about the basis of those opinions? Are the opinions based on reading the agreement and arriving at an unbiased assessment of its effectiveness of meeting desired objectives?  No, of course not, but that doesn’t in any way diminish the volume of the voices.

If you haven’t read the actual Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it’s attached.  It’s a complicated document, and it reads like a contract negotiated by physicists, engineers, lawyers, and government officials with the parties involved having more competing interests than interests in common.  I’ve read it, and to be candid, I feel like I know less about the overall agreement than prior to reading it. Sure, I know more facts and figures, and I could easily cherry-pick many of those to support any position I believe. What I find challenging is to put it all in a meaningful context. What I find concerning is that others are not so encumbered by lack of knowledge and context.

Clearly, there is a psychological basis for being unencumbered by the facts. In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt suggests that people arrive at a moral opinion quickly and then seek facts to support that opinion.[1] Along the same lines, Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, has written in Thinking, Fast and Slow [2],[3] that we have two systems for evaluating situations – System 1 and System 2. In System 1, heuristics are applied to quickly arrive at a decision that is consistent with previous experience or constructs. In contrast, System 2 arrives at decisions based using a more plodding, analytical approach. System 1 is easy; System 2 requires effort.

When hearing discussions about the Iran deal, it seems to me that System 1-derived statements clearly dominant the conversation, or at least the conversations reported by the media. System 2 stuff is boring in comparison – read the agreement and you’ll see what I mean.

It’s probably too much to hope that the person on the street will invoke System 2 and will consider all the facts before arriving at an informed opinion about the merits of the deal. Instead, it is more likely that they will have a preconceived opinion of Iran and will listen only to voices that support that opinion whether it is accurate or not.

Compounding the fog of true understanding is that the often descried Dunning Kruger effect is always operative.[4] Namely, that a person’s self-assessment of their knowledge of a topic is higher than it actually is until a certain threshold of knowledge is reached and the person realizes they know less than they originally thought. Unfortunately, many people never quite make it to the second part of the effect giving voice instead to less than fully informed opinions.

All of this fits with what I’ve been hearing about Iran – unyielding, entrenched certitude about the pitfalls of the deal from people that know little about the actual content of the document. And, it’s not just the person on the street that operates this way. It seems to be our elected officials in Congress.

This emotional way of approaching issues seems to define who humans are. How did we get this far?

Full text of agreement: Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

Glossary of terms: PF121-3rd-edition_HendersonHeinonenHR

[1] http://righteousmind.com/

[2] http://us.macmillan.com/thinkingfastandslow/danielkahneman

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/books/review/thinking-fast-and-slow-by-daniel-kahneman-book-review.html

[4] https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2013/08/31/you-probably-dont-know-what-youre-talking-about-you-only-think-you-do/


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