We often hear of people who reject the advice of the experts, stating that they have decided to “do their own research.” On its face, that is a wonderful sentiment, and in fact, we all should be doing our own research. But I fear that people are not actually doing research but instead seeking only information that will confirm their preexisting biases.
By Michael Hale
Illustrations by Hokyoung Kim
Michael Hale spent twenty-five years as an East Asian political and security analyst at the CIA, during which he built close professional relationships with key policy officials, intelligence community officers, and the think tank community. He briefed and advised U.S. presidents, traveled and lived overseas, served as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, and was selected as a member of the Senior Analytic Service. He retired from government service in 2018.
He is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and speaks some Japanese and French. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia, with his wife of 31 years and is the father of five adult children—including three daughters who have attended BYU, a son who attended Harvard, and a son adopted from China, who is now attending George Mason University—and the grandfather of two grandchildren. Michael grew up in Huntsville, Utah, attended Weber High School, and then served a two-year Church mission in Taichung, Taiwan. Michael holds a BA from the University of Utah in History and Chinese (1991) and an MA from the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies at Brigham Young University in Asian Studies (1992). In his spare time, Michael enjoys community theater, travel, training for triathlons, and chopping wood.
It is such an honor to be speaking here at BYU. My parents, who I am very pleased to have in the audience today, graduated from BYU when this building, the Harris Fine Arts Center, was nearing completion. My wife and I got our BYU degrees on the same day in 1992. My oldest two daughters graduated from BYU (the second one just today) and my youngest daughter just finished her freshman year here. BYU holds a special place in my heart.
I want to start off with a twist on one of Aesop’s Fables: Once upon a time in a sheepherding village that was surrounded by forests, an annual competition was held to find a teenager who would serve as the night watch over the village’s flocks and warn of any wolf sightings. One boy had won the competition for many years running. As a youngster, he had accompanied his father on many excursions in the forest, learning about the patterns of wolf behavior and the tactics they would use to steal livestock. When he entered the competition at age twelve, he bested all the others in the village in tests for alertness, night vision, and vocal strength. In the first few years he served, not a single sheep was lost, and when the boy cried “Wolf!” the villagers were always able to respond in time. So good he was at his job, in fact, that the wolves in the area stopped even trying to attack the flocks in his village. After a few years of no attacks, however, there began to be divisions in the village. Some complained that the night-watch program was too expensive. Others complained that the competition was rigged, and their children were not given a fair chance. Others claimed that the wolves had left the forest and were no longer a threat.
One night when the boy was eighteen—during the last year he was eligible to serve—he spied wolves prowling at the edge of the pastures. He immediately raised the alarm. This time, however, when the boy cried “Wolf!” only about half the village responded, and the wolves were able to make off with many sheep. Rather than uniting the village in a renewed commitment to defenses, this led to further recrimination and division in the village. As the villagers argued about the future course of action, the boy prepared to leave for university, where he had always hoped to study lupinology and share his knowledge with others about how to protect livestock. Dejected, he changed his major—predictably—to political science.
This revised fable is meant to highlight a significant trend in our society today. The boy worked hard, did everything he could to hone his skills and his knowledge, and became an expert at preventing wolf attacks. Then, for reasons completely beyond his control, this boy who “cried wolf” became ignored, discredited, and even vilified by many in his community. Such is the plight of experts in the Civil Service today. Many have been called freeloading “swamp creatures,” or worse, members of a shadowy “deep state” bent on undermining democracy.
Thankfully, some have come to the defense of civil servants. Former D.C. Circuit Court Judge Tom Griffith, a proud BYU graduate who also happens to be a dear friend of mine, said on the Leading Saints podcast, “Let me tell you about the people in the ‘Deep State’: best people I’ve ever met—well-educated, patriotic, love their country, serving their country. They could be making a lot more money elsewhere, but they want to be working in government because they love the United States of America and what it stands for.” 1
From my own perspective of working and living in Washington for the past thirty years, the Civil Service provides a repository of institutional knowledge and expertise that endures through the political transitions. While my colleagues’ political views were all over the spectrum, they approached their work with seriousness and objectivity in an effort to understand the world and promote U.S. interests.
As graduates in International and Area Studies, many of you will seek jobs in civil service, whether it be in diplomacy, the intelligence community, national security, or many of the other state and national agencies that deal with global affairs. Others may seek jobs in academia, journalism, or business.
Regardless of your chosen career path, a key element of your success will be the expertise you develop and the value that expertise will bring to society. As you develop expertise in your chosen fields, cultivate intellectual humility.
The Humility and Conviction in Public Life project at the University of Connecticut defines intellectual humility as “owning . . . one’s cognitive limitations,” having “a healthy recognition of one’s intellectual debts to others,” and being “closely allied with traits such as open-mindedness, a sense of one’s fallibility, and being responsive to reasons.” 2
Socrates encapsulated the concept when he said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
Sadly, this intellectual humility seems to be in short supply. Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, said that “many Americans have become insufferable know-it-alls, locked in constant conflict with each other, while knowing almost nothing about the subject they are debating. . . . They have decided that attending the university of Google . . . is the same as going to [graduate] school.” 3
I have three concrete suggestions on how to cultivate and maintain intellectual humility:
- Recognize your blind spots.
- Be aware of your cognitive bias.
- Learn from your mistakes.
1. Recognize your blind spots
Knowing what you know and deferring to others on things you don’t know is the beginning of intellectual humility. Astrophysicist and writer Ethan Siegel said:
Unless you yourself have spent many years studying, researching, and actively participating . . . in a particular field, you can be certain . . . that your non-expertise will fundamentally limit the depth and breadth of your understanding. Put simply, your inexperience, relative to that of bona fide professionals, gives you too many blind spots that you yourself will be unaware of, to be able to distinguish what’s valid and conclusive from what’s not. 4
I had the rare privilege of working with a group of incredibly seasoned experts on almost every possible topic related to our nation’s security. But even with them, the drop-off in expertise was palpable when they ranged into other topics—including wading into my area of expertise on East Asian affairs or even sometimes attempting to explain to me the tenets of my own religion.
Even C. S. Lewis took exception to another twentieth-century intellectual giant, Sigmund Freud. Lewis said:
When Freud is talking about how to cure neurotics he is speaking as a specialist on his own subject, but when he goes on to talk general philosophy he is speaking as an amateur. It is therefore quite sensible to attend to him with respect in the one case and not in the other—and that is what I do. I am all the readier to do it because I have found that when he is talking off his own subject and on a subject I do know something about (namely, languages) he is very ignorant. 5
This is not to say you must strictly stay in your own lane, for it is important to be conversant on a wide range of topics. However, you should be honest about what you truly know and what you don’t.
2. Be Aware of Your Cognitive Bias
Everyone has cognitive bias, or an inherent worldview that they use to make sense of new information. In fact, numerous studies show that when you get new information and are able to quickly place it in the context of your preexisting worldview, your brain gets a little dose of dopamine to make you feel good about how smart you are to have sorted it all out. Unfortunately, the same studies show that these judgments that you are making are often wrong, despite how good you feel about them. Unfortunately, most never make further inquiries and instead accept these snap judgments as truth. As Paul Simon wrote in his song “The Boxer” (1968), “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” This trend has only been amplified in the current media environment.
Ethan Siegel said most of the “information curated to you through social media is . . . actively misinforming you in a way that’s designed to play to your preconceived biases.” 6
Legal scholar Richard Hasen said that “while some false claims spread inadvertently, the greater problem is not this misinformation but deliberately spread disinformation, which can be both politically and financially profitable. Feeding people reassuring lies on social media or cable television that provide simple answers to complex social and economic problems increases demand for more soothing falsities.” 7
We often hear of people who reject the advice of the experts, stating that they have decided to “do their own research.” On its face, that is a wonderful sentiment, and in fact, we all should be doing our own research. But I fear that people are not actually doing research but instead seeking only information that will confirm their preexisting biases. If we are intellectually humble, we will at least recognize our cognitive biases. One way to fight this bias is to get your information from experts through credible studies and mainstream media organizations that uphold high journalistic standards, not from social media or cable news, which are particularly geared to prime the dopamine pump.
3. Learn from Your Mistakes
Chef Alain Ducasse provided this nugget of wisdom:
Failure is enriching. It’s also important to accept that you’ll make mistakes—it’s how you build your expertise. The trick is to learn a positive lesson from all of life’s negative moments. 8
Late in my analytical career, not long after Xi Jinping became the general secretary of the Communist Party, we noticed that Chinese behavior was changing—becoming more populist, adventurous, and risk-taking. I printed out a makeshift sign in large font that said, “We keep getting surprised” and tacked it up next to my computer screen. This was a constant reminder that we were in the middle of a paradigm shift and that all the mental constructs I had built up to explain China in the first two decades of my career were no longer reliable. Dogged commitment to a particular position may be helpful to a politician, but a true expert will constantly reassess and adjust their position as new data comes in. And in a field like international relations, as in epidemiology of climate science, the volume of data coming in is immense. We should expect our experts to be wrong from time to time; they are operating on the edge of knowledge and are bound to have missteps along the way. As the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger said, “In an honest search for knowledge you quite often have to abide by ignorance for an indefinite period.” 9
Because this is BYU and because I am an adherent of the faith and a member of the Church that sponsors this university, I would like to offer a brief sermon. If there is a scripture that best justifies the pursuit of a degree in International Relations, it is found in Doctrine and Covenants section 88:
Teach ye diligently . . . , that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, . . . Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms. 10
Sounds like International Studies to me—maybe with a dash of geology and history thrown in.
The quest for knowledge by experts and the quest for truths by believers is essentially the same. Both require dedicated study. Joseph Smith, in the dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple, said, “Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” 11
Both require humility. The Lord taught, “Be thou humble; and the Lord thy God shall lead thee.” 12
And both require an understanding that our thought processes and biases may lead us astray. The prophet Isaiah revealed the Lord’s admonition that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” 13 and in Proverbs we learn that we must “trust in the Lord with all [our] heart; and lean not unto [our] own understanding.”14
As we seek diligently, remain humble, and recognize our mental limitations—with the added essential ingredient of reliance upon the Holy Ghost—we can gain access to truth, or, as the Prophet Jacob said, “things as they really are, and . . . things as they really will be.”15
Best of luck in your future endeavors. I can assure you that graduates of this university punch above their weight in the Civil Service and in other fields, and I fully expect that, with the application of your talents and hard work, you will likewise do so. Remarks given at the BYU Kennedy Center Convocation held in the Harris Fine Arts Center on 22 April 2022. Because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, this was the first in-person graduation held since 2019.
1. Thomas Griffith, interviewed by Kurt Francom and Bill Turnbull in “Navigating the Intersection of Faith and Politics: An Interview with Thomas Griffith,” 28 April 2021, in Leading Saints, podcast, audio 41:29, leadingsaints.org/navigating-the-intersection-of-faith-and-politics-an-interview-with-thomas-griffith.
2. “About: What Is Intellectual Humility?” introduction to Michael P. Lynch, Casey Rebecca Johnson, Nathan Sheff, and Hanna Gunn, “Intellectual Humility in Public Discourse: Literature Review,” Humility and Conviction in Public Life, Humanities Institute, University of Connecticut, humilityandconviction.uconn.edu/blank/what-is-intellectual-humility.
3. Tom Nichols, “The Problem with Thinking You Know More than the Experts,” interview with Judy Woodruff, PBS NewsHour, PBS, 14 April 2017, pbs.org/newshour/show/problem-thinking-know-experts.
4. Ethan Siegel, “How America’s Big Science Literacy Mistake Is Coming Back to Haunt Us,” Big Think, 16 September 2021, Starts with a Bang, bigthink.com/starts-with-a-bang/how-americas-bigscience-literacy-mistake-is-coming-back-to-haunt-us.
5. C. S. Lewis, “Morality and Psychoanalysis,” Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 84; book 3, chapter 4, paragraph 3.
6. Ethan Siegel, “America’s Big Mistake.”
7. Richard L. Hasen, “How to Keep the Rising Tide of Fake News from Drowning Our Democracy,” New York Times, 7 March 2022, Opinion, nytimes.com/2022/03/07/opinion/cheap-speech-fake-newsdemocracy.html; emphasis in original.
8. Eliza Anyangwe, “Alain Ducasse: ‘No Geniuses Have Ever Come from the Kitchen. We Are Simply the Bridge Between Nature and Our Clients,’” The Guardian, 24 May 2014, This Much I Know interview, theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/may/24/alain-ducasse-this-much-i-know.
9. Erwin Schrödinger, Nature and the Greeks, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954), 6; quoted in Stuart Firestein, “The Pursuit of Ignorance,” TED2013 conference talk, 26 February 2013, video 14:35, ted.com/talks/stuart_firestein_the_pursuit_of_ignorance.
10. Doctrine and Covenants 88:78–79.
11. Doctrine and Covenants 109:7; see also Doctrine and Covenants 88:118.
12. Doctrine and Covenants 112:10.
13. Isaiah 55:8.
14. Proverbs 3:5.
15. Jacob 4:13.