Opinion: Daily Journal

On Government By Executive Summary

RALEIGH – If there’s anything more dangerous than making public policy on the basis of no information whatsoever, it’s making public policy on the basis of a little information. This is my admittedly wonky version of Alexander Pope’s old aphorism about intellectual overconfidence, part of a bit of wise verse from 1709:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”

In politics, another way to say it is this: Beware of government by executive summary.

This is not to say that executive summaries are bad. At JLF, we put a lot of effort into composing executive summaries for our research papers. Of course, summaries cannot possibly convey the breadth or depth of evidence presented, all the arguments employed, or the details of proposed policies. That’s what the body of a report is for.

Unfortunately, many executive summaries are not carefully worded, particularly when the authors of studies do not themselves write the summaries. Moreover, even reasonable summaries that fairly represent the underlying work are often hurriedly read, myopically misinterpreted, and selectively quoted to convey a meaning far different from what the authors intended.

During my 20 years writing about government and politics, I have frequently seen whole public debates centered on a flawed reading of an executive summary. You’ve seen it, too, if you’ve been following such issues as climate change, school choice, and the justification for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s fascist regime in Iraq. Past reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, have contained far more nuance, conflicting views among scientists, and complicated conclusions about inherently limited data than could be gleaned simply by reading the more-declarative executive summaries, written by a small group who do not reflect the panel’s full membership.

Regarding school choice, defenders of the current government education monopoly have pounced on recent studies purporting to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of charter schools and private alternatives, without bothering to read the underlying reports and considering whether the assumptions being employed were reasonable or the summaries adequately reflected what the authors really said.

And on the Iraq conflict, a recent round of debate about the Bush administration’s justification of the 2003 invasion was doubly distorted by its reliance on biased news reports of a selective reading of an executive summary by an anti-Bush source in the intelligence community. A pre-publication story by McClatchy Newspapers reported that an “exhaustive review of more than 600,000 Iraqi documents that were captured after the 2003 U.S. invasion has found no evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime had any operational links with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida terrorist network.”

This statement doesn’t even come close to representing the content of the actual report, written for the Pentagon by a defense think tank. The report (warning, big pdf), large portions of which I have now read, details extensive connections between Saddam Hussein’s regime and jihadist terrorists going back to the late 1980s and extending all the way up to the brink of the 2003 invasion. These connections include Iraqi subsidy and training for terrorist groups that were either merged into Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, formed by al Qaeda leaders, or affiliated with al Qaeda. Did Saddam Hussein pull bin Laden’s strings? No. But that was never the allegation in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. U.S. intelligence about the state of Hussein’s weapons programs was faulty – not about their existence or intentions, but about their condition as of 2003 – but our intelligence linking Hussein to dangerous anti-American terrorists, some closely allied with bin Laden, has proven to be correct, and if anything an understatement.

The Left hardly has a monopoly on government by executive summary. Conservatives also fall victim to the trap, constructed of too little introspection interlaced with too little time. Human beings are naturally predisposed to seek validation, to notice information that comports with their assumptions or beliefs and downplay or misinterpret information that challenges their assumptions or beliefs.

The tendency can be combated in two ways. First, if you can, read the entire report before accepting or commenting on the executive summary. Second, if that proves impossible for some reason, be willing to go back and correct the record later, a practice that is particularly well-suited to today’s online political debate.

Government by executive summary (or press release) is dangerous because it can give politicians the false impression that they know what they are talking about. Better to think that one is ignorant. It tends to discourage opining or acting, the proper default.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.