Tuesday, May 23, 2006

My Layman Is Smarter Than Your Layman

Since when did Amnesty International become experts in conducting the foreign policy of nations of hundreds of millions? At least, that was my thought when I saw this piece on Amnesty International's latest report at CNN.com. According to the piece,

In releasing its 2006 annual report, the human rights watchdog [Amnesty International] condemned countries such as the United States, China and Russia for focusing on narrowly defined interests, diluting efforts to solve conflicts elsewhere -- such as Sudan's Darfur region.

This is not meant to start a political firestorm about Amnesty International, only to point out that crafting foreign policy is a far different endeavor than cataloguing human rights abuses. Every nation of the world has limited resources for dealing with human rights issues abroad, and the members of those governments, with their specialized knowledge and expertise in the global political arena are probably best equipped at allocating those resources. Or at the very least are more equipped than members of Amnesty International, who even accounting for political expertise, will not have the specific knowledge of the resources at a nation's disposal.

More importantly- unless resources are allocated in some specifically anti-human rights sort of way, how is the allocation of resources a human right issue to begin with? After all, we can all agree that torture and murder are wrong, but the town council in my hometown of West Hartford can't agree on how money should be spent- if a small town can't agree, then there is certainly no global consensus, and we're no longer talking about a global human right, but a contentious political issue. There may be hundreds or thousands of major human rights issues in the world, but the United States does not have enough resources to deal with all of them. Deciding what issues to address, and how to address them don't seem like quintessential human rights type questions.

Actually, this is the same problem we face in regards to global warming. Scientists can tell you, with all their scientific expertise, if global warming is occurring, how much it is occurring, and what might be the results of various responses to global warming. This is all in accordance with the scientific method. But if you want to know the economic and societal impact of changes made in response to global warming, you don't ask a climate scientist, you ask an economist. Maybe scientists supported the Kyoto accords, but what scientists thought wasn't really the issue. Economists told us that Kyoto would cost the American economy hundreds of billions of dollars.

But in the end, the question was the same as that raised by Amnesty International above- a divisive political question with moral and economic implications. And sure we can all have our say, be we leave the specifics of these questions to our elected officials and their experts for a reason.

The point isn't that Amnesty International shouldn't come out and make these sorts of statements (or that climate scientists shouldn't speak out about solutions to global warming.) The point is, as an organization, stick to what you know and what you do best. When Amnesty International tells me the number of people wrongfully locked away in Cuba, I'm in no position to argue, and I'm happy to accept their expertise. The problem with these sorts of reports is that they are taken at face value and seem as somehow insightful, where in reality, you're opinion and my opinion may be just as valuable.

This isn't so much about Amnesty International as it is about the media, and about the dissemination of information. One should take their role as an expert seriously, and should not confuse the public by intermingling expert opinion and laymen opinion. An organization like Amnesty International should try and respect that distinction. Individual members should be free to comment and hold whatever opinions they like, but those should be kept separate from the organization. In the same vein, climate scientists should feel free to speak up on global warming- however, if they are being interviewed, they should be careful to distinguish their expert views on the scientific facts of global warming, from the political questions of what should be done over global warming. And the media should have the same responsibility when it utilizes expert analysis.

As to the lonely libertarian, he's not an expert on anything, nor does he claim to be. My opinion is simply that, just an opinion, as good or as bad as anyone else's.


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