Drivers of Prediction Accuracy in World Politics…Keep digging, Tetlock!

downloadPhilip Tetlock and his team have just released an interesting article entitled “The Psychology  of Intelligence Analysis: Drivers of Prediction Accuracy in World Politics” in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (January 12, 2015).  Their article summarizes the findings of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) tournament that we drew our readers attention to in 2013.  If you’re interested in intelligence analysis, forecasting or geopolitics, the article is certainly worth your time.  Nevertheless, we have our differences with Messrs Tetlock et al.

Some of the article’s conclusions are part of the received wisdom of forecasting.  For example, they conclude, “We developed a profile of the best forecasters; they were better at inductive reasoning, pattern detection, cognitive flexibility, and open-mindedness. They had greater understanding of geopolitics, training in probabilistic reasoning, and opportunities to succeed in cognitively enriched team environments. Last but not least, they viewed forecasting as a skill that required deliberate practice, sustained effort, and constant monitoring of current affairs.”  (Hurrah, and here’s to Open Sources!  The important drivers of geopolitics are not remotely secret.)  While these conclusions might sound intuitive, it is useful to document that they stand up to sustained scrutiny in a controlled experiment.

Some of Tetlock and his teams’ other conclusions also jibe with our (more sociological) approach to understanding the challenges of forecasting. Among other things, they find that when it comes to anticipating major geopolitical events, teams outperform individuals, and laymen can be trained to be effective analysts using only open sources.

The publication of this article, however, is also an excellent occasion to remind people of the shortcomings of a psychological approach to understanding success and failure in intelligence and geopolitical analysis. As we explore in Constructing Cassandra, purely psychological approaches present intermediate-level theories: they do not necessarily conflict with – but also do not entirely transcend – competing approaches to the problem (such as those presented by studies of organizational behavior or discussions of the “politicization” of intelligence).

Moreover, while the new paper certainly analyses the role of collective dynamics of the processing of information (which is a huge step forward when compared to simple “psychological biases” work), without an underpinning in the sociology of knowledge, some key root questions about intelligence analysis are left addressed:  e.g. Exactly which questions are asked, by whom, in response to what, and why; as you seek to answer them, who gets ignored, when and why?  Which questions are simply rejected? How and why does that happen?

As Wohlstetter wrote in 1962, “The job of lifting signals out of a confusion of noise is an activity that is very much aided by hypotheses.”  As I discussed last May at the Spy Museum in Washington, that remains true in today’s “Big Data” environment, and Tetlock’s experiments are a worthy attempt to determine who individually and collectively most effectively does that “lifting”, or sorting, of signals from noise.

One more failure of imagination...

One more failure of imagination…

BUT, what the IARPA work and Tetlock’s experiments do not address is the root cause of surprise, which in our view is the “problem of the wrong puzzle” or in Intelligence, bad Tasking (AKA “failures of imagination,”, that phrase so beloved of the 9/11 Commission which is now often wheeled out as a deus ex machina after a surprise has occurred).

In contrast, we believe the question of Tasking is vital, and that the systematic and sustained study of “Cassandras” – those who give warning but are ignored – are interesting exactly because their imaginations don’t fail yet for reasons that extend well beyond the merely psychological, their warnings (which should result in Tasking or further analysis) are ignored.  In other words, given a particular set of questions, who answers them best is quite interesting. More interesting, however, is what questions are not being asked, and who’s excluded from the debate. These dilemmas Tetlock’s work does not directly address, but we think the answers lie in the realm of the culture and identity of the organization performing the analysis.

Until  the role that the culture and identity of analytic teams and intelligence agencies as a whole is systematically address, we will have more strategic surprises than necessary.  The beginnings of a cure for any problem is a sound diagnosis.  Our diagnosis is that the core challenges of intelligence analysis are socially constructed.  In short, our hats are off to Dr. Tetlock and his team, but they need to dig deeper!

Naturally, we would welcome your comments on the IARPA research or Constructing Cassandra, and if you enjoyed this blog post, why not subscribe?

Two Short but Excellent Books on Intelligence

In the midst of so many “breaking” geopolitical events, I wanted to take a moment to recommend two recently-published books on Intelligence.  Both are quick reads, and neither seems to be getting the sort of attention I think they deserve.

The first book deals with the recent past, and is called The Snowden Operation: Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster.  The author is Edward Lucas, who as a senior editor at the Economist brings thirty years’ of experience in Russian and European affairs to bear on what Snowden did and how the Affair as a whole should be approached.  Just seventy-six pages long, it’s a “Kindle Short”, so it will set you back about one US dollar.  Stop talking about Snowden, the NSA, privacy, and civil liberties until you have read it.

Stop talking about Snowden until you read this

Stop talking about Snowden until you read this.

My other recommendation is only ninety-eight pages long, and deals with the relatively distant past.  It’s James Jesus Angleton:  Was He Right? , by the famous journalist and author Edward Jay Epstein.  Angleton, of course, was the now much-ridiculed head of CIA counterintelligence from 1954 until 1975.  To Angleton’s foes (and as portrayed in a much recent fiction), he was the CIA’s secret Captain Ahab, paralyzing the Agency in pursuit of his own Great White Whale, non-existent Soviet moles.  I recommend that you read Epstein’s little book and judge for yourself if that thought-cliché is fair, illuminating or useful.    You may find yourself wondering if you understand as much as you think you do about the Cold War.  That doubt, in turn, may make you view the present with different eyes.

Are you SURE?

Are you SURE you know what you know?

If you want to go deeper into the possibilities that Epstein raises, I recommend a book by the recently departed Tennet H. Bagley:   Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games.

I would welcome your comments on any volume mentioned here (or anywhere else on this blog).

If you enjoyed this blog post, why not subscribe?

 

Why Intelligence Fails – Video Available

Last month Milo Jones spoke about the core ideas of Constructing Cassandra at the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, under the heading “Why Intelligence Fails”.

He was joined by Dr. Mark Lowenthal, the former Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production and former Vice Chairman for Evaluation on the National Intelligence Council (also distinguished for being a past winner of the US game show Jeopardy “Tournament of Champions”).

A video of the event is available here.  If you like the video, please “Like it” on YouTube.

Capture

 

Constructing Cassandra in paperback

If you were waiting for the paperback edition of Constructing Cassandra to order your copy, now’s your chance:  Amazon is accepting pre-orders for $26.96 here.

CC

Review in the Army War College journal Parameters

Capture 1Constructing Cassandra was reviewed in the the Winter 2013-14 issue of Parameters, the official journal of the US Army War College.

The review concludes “Jones and Silberzahn have crafted an insightful masterpiece to frame the true nature of the CIA. The depth to which their arguments are presented clearly shows the dangers a tight knit intelligence society may have when analyzing intelligence reports. Their purpose is not to craft lofty goals the agency will never reach but rather to examine the reasons why the agency failed in the past. I recommend this book to anyone with a passion in understanding the analytical framework of the CIA and who seeks to comprehend the theoretical approach, through the uses of organizational theory, in uncovering its internal mysteries.”

Parameters

 

Our article in Revue Défense Nationale

If you read French, a summary of the main ideas in Constructing Cassandra has just appeared in Revue Défense Nationale (issue 767).   See the article “Incertitude et surprise stratégique : les leçons des échecs de la CIA” beginning on page 114.

Revue Defense Nationale issue 767

Meeting of the Oxford University Strategic Studies Group

Tonight at 8:30 PM, Milo will lead a discussion about strategic surprise and Constructing Cassandra at a meeting of the Oxford University Strategic Studies Group.  The meeting will be in the Old Library of All Souls College, and all discussions will be conducted under Chatham House rules.

all-souls-college-oxford-oxalsoul