The Virtue of Dissent

Tim Harford, known as the "Malcolm Gladwell of Britain" shares two lessons that illustrate the virtue of dissent: the War in Iraq and the Bay of Pigs invasion. 

Tim Harford has been described as the "Malcolm Gladwell of Britain." His refreshing approach to economics and how it can be used to solve everyday problems has won him a loyal following as an author, speaker and writer of the "Undercover Economist" column for the Financial Times. 


In his recent book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, Harford presents a novel approach to problem-solving. Instead of looking to politicians and generals to lay out grand visions and show us the way, Harford argues that many of the complex issues in the world--as well as everyday business decisions and choices we face in our personal lives--can be solved through improvisation and working from the bottom up

Harford extracts some clear lessons from the Iraq War to illustrate his point that, among other things, Iraq became a quagmire due to the failures of top-down leadership. Donald Rumsfeld’s mistake in Iraq, says Harford, was to institute a policy that created the total suppression of dissent. Rumsfeld wouldn’t say, or allow others to say, the word “insurgent,” which amounted to, in Harford’s view, a “bizarre Orwellian dance around a word” that accurately described the situation the coalition forces were facing. As a result, commanders in the field had to risk life and limb, as well as great damage to their careers, by going against the official policy. 

Harford explains:

Harford argues that the dissenters, however, ultimately won out in Iraq. With Rumsfeld out of the picture, Harford argues that General Petraeus was able to organize what his colonials were doing on the ground and institute an effective anti-insurgent policy. While Rumsfeld is a negative example, Harford cautions that simply substituting one leader for another is not the answer. It is the systems that leaders put in place that make the difference. For instance, Harford offers a positive example by pointing to the way President John F. Kennedy invited dissent in the inner circle of his administration following the Bay of Pigs disaster:

China’s artificial sun reaches fusion temperature: 100 million degrees

In a breakthrough for nuclear fusion research, scientists at China's Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) reactor have produced temperatures necessary for nuclear fusion on Earth.

Credit: EAST Team
Surprising Science
  • The EAST reactor was able to heat hydrogen to temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius.
  • Nuclear fusion could someday provide the planet with a virtually limitless supply of clean energy.
  • Still, scientists have many other obstacles to pass before fusion technology becomes a viable energy source.
Keep reading Show less

A dark matter hurricane is crashing into Earth

Giving our solar system a "slap in the face."

Surprising Science
  • A stream of galactic debris is hurtling at us, pulling dark matter along with it
  • It's traveling so quickly it's been described as a hurricane of dark matter
  • Scientists are excited to set their particle detectors at the onslffaught
Keep reading Show less

Here's how diverse the 116th Congress is set to become

The 116th Congress is set to break records in term of diversity among its lawmakers, though those changes are coming almost entirely from Democrats.

(Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Women and nonwhite candidates made record gains in the 2018 midterms.
  • In total, almost half of the newly elected Congressional representatives are not white men.
  • Those changes come almost entirely from Democrats; Republican members-elect are all white men except for one woman.
Keep reading Show less