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05 November 2001

The Reductionist Impulse

How To Think About International Politics
How To Think About International Politics - 2
How To Think About International Politics - 3

One of the beauties of the web -- and the rise of blogging -- is that knowledgeable people can share their insights with the world, instantaneously. Other knowledgeable people can add to it. Information and knowledge spread. It's all good.

The drawback is, of course, that people on the net sometimes step outside their areas of knowledge to offer authoritative-sounding opinions that are just that -- opinions. I've written before (in a slightly different context) that one of the beauties of the United States is that we are all free to express our opinions, especially on political matters. But just because we enjoy equal rights to express opinions does not mean that those opinions are equal, or more importantly, that they should be considered equally true.

On this site, there's a fair amount of analysis. And there are certainly plenty of opinions. But the opinions are, I hope, informed and reasoned. I try my best not to step outside of personal areas of expertise, and when I do, I try not to present what I'm writing about as expert analysis. Even so, I make my fair share of errors, and do my best to correct them when they are pointed out to me. Although I don't engage in the vulgarity of discussing it very often, this site does see a fair amount of traffic, and I think regular readers have come to expect (from me) the things I discuss in this paragraph.

With all of that as preface -- I wish other bloggers were as careful, because I think some responsibility comes with web traffic. I read two claims today that made me bolt upright: 1) That Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism is the source of most religious strife in Nigeria -- a distortion that contains, at best, a small element of truth and 2) things (specifically, Christian-Muslim relations) in Nigeria are improved now -- something that doesn't really square with current events.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that Nigeria is not a country that analyze regularly; rather, it is covered by my boss and colleague (who's been doing political risk analysis close to twenty years). So I am not presenting my opinion here as the informed opinion of an expert who writes regularly on Nigeria, but as the semi-informed opinion of someone who works closely with someone who does. But I think it's safe to say that Nigeria has far greater problems than Saudi Wahhabism (though it may be a minor problem among many), and to suggest the centrality of Saudi Wahhabism to Nigeria's problems is a real stretch.

The best political analysts -- whether of international politics or philosophical texts -- are always careful not to impose a framework on the subject matter (whether it is a text, collected texts, or other political data), but instead to understand the subject matter on its own terms. Engaging in reductionism to make political data fit a pet theory (or to support contentions that "we" should invade Saudi Arabia, or that "we" should "impose" democracy on Pakistan!) may ultimately be satisfying to the analyst, and sometimes (if the analyst is really lucky) it even works out. In most instances, I would caution against the reductionist impulse; Nigeria is no exception.

[Posted @ 02:28 PM CST]

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