The villa at Pasteur Street

Saigon is like a mysterious lover with many secrets. For example, whenever I eat at the Mon Hue at 178 Pasteur, I can’t but think of the quiet villa next doors, more so with all the talk these days of big data and such.  The villa now houses a kindergarten, but it was once a nest of intrigue and hosted notable visitors such as Henry Kissinger. During the Vietnam War, this building was the office of Rand Corporation. Rand was tasked with debriefing captured North Vietnamese fighters and to figure out strategies to win the war - they called it Vietcong Motivation and Morale Project. Rand’s project lead Leon Goure advised the continuation of war based on his team's interrogation - he concluded that the North was low on morale and they would eventually give up when faced with massive bombing. Top military folks, spies and journalists regularly visited this villa to talk to Goure and his team. To some extent, US air campaign was the result of Goure’s analysis. 

In the late 1960s, Rand sent another analyst Konrad Kellen to take a fresh look at the debrief. Kellen looked at precisely the same documents and concluded that the North would never give up, and he advised the US to stop the war. Can you guess the reason that these two brilliant people, looking at the same data, came with such contrasting opinions?

The answer is “Confirmation Bias”. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias.  Goure was a triple refugee - as a kid his family fled Russia to escape the communists, then Germany to escape the Nazis. Many of the interviewers were Vietnamese who had fled from the North - so they had an inherent bias against the North and interpreted the data according to their own views. Kellen was also a refugee, escaping Germany to the US. He looked at the stubborn resistance of the North from the lens of his own desire to be independent, not from the point of view of the communism versus the free world fight. If you are interested in this story I will recommend this podcast episode by Malcom Gladwell http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/02-saigon-1965. I bring up this topic because this is something I always tell my students - when you find a study or research , find out who created it, find out the motivations of the organisation funding the study etc. And don’t blindly trust the conclusions - if possible go and talk to the people or society that is featured in the study, get your own feel.

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