Wednesday, August 29, 2018

An expert’s advice to experts about giving advice

Patrick Blackett won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1948. During World War Two he played a large role in Britain’s victory in the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic. Yet Blackett did not invent new weapons nor was he a major part of the Manhattan project where most of the great physicists ended up.

As head of “Blackett’s Circus” he brought the systematic thinking at the heart of the scientific method to the knotty problems of military strategy and operations. His work is often credited with creating modern Operations Research. Blackett thought that men like himself could “encourage the use of numerical thinking in operational matters and so [could] help to avoid the running of the war on gusts of emotion.”

One of Churchill’s strengths as a war leader was his willingness (eagerness?) to force the military services to give scientific experts a hearing. During the crucial meetings on the Blitz and the U-boat war, men like Blackett and Lord Cherwell were in the room --- and as more than silent observers.

Blackett, for his part, was neither self-effacing nor devoid of opinions. Yet, he promoted reticence as a virtue for experts who did not bear the burden of command. As he put it:

His job is to improve matters if he can, and if he cannot, to say nothing.
Blackett’s advice shows that he understood the difference between the roles of the executive and the advisor. The intellectual, the expert, the pundit, lives in a world where debate is a job requirement, elegant complexity is valued over crude simplicity, and where time may be a scarce commodity but it is rarely a critical factor. The statesman and the military commander operate in a much different universe. As Henry Kissinger wrote in Diplomacy:

The responsibility of statesmen … is to resolve complexity rather than to contemplate it
Recall Gen. George Marshall’s lament to Eisenhower in the dark days after Pearl Harbor:

Eisenhower, the Department is filled with able men who analyze the problems well but feel compelled always to bring them to me for final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done.

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