What a Cult

I was doing a little idle research for another project on “religious cults” and came across this characterisation:

1. Leaders who are or attempt to be inspirational
2. Leaders who are authoritarian and demand their orders are carried out.
3. The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader
3. An atmosphere of detailed conformity and regulations.
4. A requirement for members of the cult to be “on message”
5. An unhealthy mix of work and un-separated social life, with limited opportunity to socialise outside the group.
7. Leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live
8. Elitism is common, with members claiming special or exalted status.
9. The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality
10. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities

Ha, I thought, you’ll never get me to join such an organisation. Then I remembered I’d spent 16 years in the Army…

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Never the Twain…

In his last post A Stack of Chewy Bacon Roger highlighted some Francis Bacon quotes that were applicable to the Intelligence game. Here are some of my favourite Quotemeister’s (Mark Twain) offerings that you may find equally apposite:

  • Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.
  • It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.
  • Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
  • A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.
  • It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
  • Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.
  • The most interesting information comes from children, for they tell all they know and then stop.
  • Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.

And then there is my absolute favourite. Not necessarily applicable to the Intelligence game

  • Golf is a good walk spoiled

… but rather my comment on the intelligence of those who play that particular game.

Standing by for the retorts.

 

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A Stack of Chewy Bacon

I’m preparing a further complex blog piece about Francis Bacon’s cipher/code system (building on earlier posts). As part of the work I’ve been doing some more digging on Francis Bacon himself and found a series of quotes from him that are perfect for the intelligence game. If it wasn’t so corny I’d hang them up on the walls around our analysts. But it is too corny so i’ll just put them here. I think they have great modern applications to intelligence analysts:

  • “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”
  • “If we do not maintain justice, justice will not maintain us.”
  • “A prudent question is one half of wisdom.”
  • “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
  • “Who questions much shall learn much and retain much.”
  • “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts, but if he will content to begin with doubts he will end in certainties.”
  • “Men must know that in this theatre of man’s life it is reserved only for Gods and angels to be lookers on.”
  • “Truth emerges more readily from error than confusion.”
  • “Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted… but to weigh and consider”
  • “Truth is the daughter of time not authority”
  • “Truth is a good dog; but always beware of barking too close to the heels of an error, lest you get your brains kicked out!”
  • “The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses.”
  • “Lies are sufficient to breed opinion and opinion brings substance.”
  • “Write down the thoughts of the moment. those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable”
  • “There is a difference between happiness and wisdom. He that thinks himself the happiest man is really so; but he that thinks himself the wisest is generally the greatest fool.”
  • “They are ill discoverers that think there is no land when they can see nothing but sea.”
  • “He that hath knowledge spareth his words.”
  • “There is nothing makes a man suspect much, more than to know little.”

and of course

Knowledge is power

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The Wicked Witch, the Handsome Prince and the Missing Plane

“How fairy tales get in the way of intelligence analysis”

The human need for narrative plots overwhelms the reality of life. Intelligence analysts, by culture, upbringing and demand from the consumer, often present interpretation of events by means of a narrative plot. This is a human trait but one which significantly affects the intelligence analyst and his trade. But reality is different. In reality, stuff happens for all sorts of reasons, many of which might never be known. Humans always jump to the “cause and effect” that they find most attractive, not necessarily most logical. Or they struggle to accept that the link between cause and effect are simply unknown. How many crime dramas have you seen on TV where the motive of the crime remains unknown or is mundane? “Attractive” can be scary, pleasant, lucrative, entertaining, self fulfilling , self promoting, ego driven, or driven by weird psychological illness and disorder. (The conspiracy theorists are out there) Humans think they are logical but they (we) aren’t, ordinarily. Humans have to force themselves to be logical and they hate it, by and large. Humans hate the mundane even when “mundane” is the truth. Humanity seeks entertainment.

An extension of “cause and effect” assumptions drives attractive narratives. Humans are capable of making huge jumps in cause and effect. It’s what has kept us alive since we evolved on the savannahs of Africa hundreds of millions of years ago. It’s what drives our culture, literature, art and scientific advancement. It entirely drives our religious behaviour. We use it every day. But it trips us up when we do intelligence analysis, or it can. Our ability to derive weird and wonderful cause and effect relationships is perhaps the oddest thing about our race. Think about it – it’s very strange. As we have discussed before, it is often driven by cognitive biases. I’m beginning to think there is another cognitive bias, not yet defined, that involves our bias towards traditional narrative constructs, or at the very least towards “attractive” but unjustified cause and effects.

Narrative constructs are how we make sense of cause and effect and justify events to ourselves. We do it constantly every day, we are so used to doing this we don’t realise we are doing it. An intelligence analyst must shout loudly in his or her head “STOP”, step back, and try to see when they are doing this. There are so many other causes of events that we cannot possibly hope to understand or see.

Look carefully when you next see a hefty piece of intelligence analysis or a news report and look for corny plot components of a narrative fairy tale:

  1. The Exposition
  2. The Inciting action
  3. The Rising action
  4. The Climax
  5. The Falling action
  6. The Denoument when the story’s mystery is solved.
Or
  1. Set-Up and Problem
  2. Catalyst and Character Arc
  3. Confrontation, Resolution and Ending.

So, here’s an example or two. That infamous “dodgy dossier” of WMD in Iraq was indeed a pure fairy story in narrative construction. It certainly wasn’t an intelligence report, as it purported to be. More close to today, pick up any newspaper report about the current story of the moment, the missing Malaysian aircraft. Look how the story contains the traditional components of any mystery. It has a cast of characters, some good, some bad, some whose motives are yet unknown. It has a clear narrative, that you can fit to the traditional story telling form. If it doesn’t fit a traditional story-telling structure you can visibly see the journalist fighting to create it. Especially in the bloody Daily Mail.

Look at the wild and wonderful storytelling, from pseudo-experts to conspiracy theorists. An honest Intelligence analyst, whatever the pressure from his consumer, should be willing to say:

  1. The plane took off.
  2. Some things apparently happened on the flight that we can’t yet explain.
  3. The plane disappeared, but probably crashed in the ocean somewhere. We don’t know why.
  4. We are surprised when we can’t find it, but we shouldn’t be.

All the rest has little value other than as a fairy story. If and when we gain more facts then they may add to the value. Now, as a news report, that’s no good, because it won’t sell papers or advert space, and people would have got bored with that story a week ago. So the journalist has to fill space every day, with new narratives to feed the monster. They have even started to repeat theories from a week ago now, which were discredited a day after they came out. But I think the bullets above are an honest intelligence analysis. There’s nothing that says that intelligence analysis has to be a narrative, has to provide cause and effect, has to have the good guys or the bad guys winning in the end. I sort of feel that if it turns out the plane had a structural failure and fell out of the sky with no evil character planning it, the journalists and the readers of the Daily Mail will be so disappointed.

Now someone might argue that an intelligence analyst should explore “what if” scenarios in order that action can be taken. I might argue against that. If we, as analysts, speculate that there was a rogue pilot, and therefore actions need to be taken to psychologically profile all pilots, then we find that it was a passenger terrorist who caused it, do we drop the profiling? If profiling needs to be done, it needs to be done, and whether this incident was caused by a rogue pilot or not is irrelevant. By all means speculate but I think that it is the consumer of intelligence who should do such things, not the analyst. The analysts job is to present facts in a digestible way that aids understanding. It’s an analysts job to describe things to help others make decisions. It’s not an analysts job to speculatively invent things, motives, and reasons, to draw cause and effect where no evidence of such a relationship exists, or to ignore what we don’t know. “Don’t ignore what you don’t know” should be the prime directive of intelligence analysis. And the first directive for the consumer is “don’t expect your intelligence analysts to make your decisions for you”.

Of course, where a cause and effect is known, then an analyst should highlight that. Much of what an analyst does is to look for cause and effects, for links, for patterns for logic. But too often the “looking” is driven by traditional narratives, by fairy story narrative constructs. Too often they are looking for a “good character” or a “bad character” or a life changing event, a denouement, a retribution, a transformation, and (best of all) a redemption. you’ll especially notice that when people talk about enemies as “bad guys” because it means they are slaves to a narrative that they cannot escape from. They look for an interesting narrative reason for what has happened rather than accepting the mundane.

Sometimes stuff just happens. Then more stuff happens. That may or may not be related to the first “stuff”. Beware of people who draw such links with no evidence and provide only an attractive narrative to justify it. They think that the more attractive the narrative is explaining cause and effect the more it is likely to be true. Good narrative does not = good analysis. That’s the sign of potentially weak analysis. Beware fairy stories. Remember the point of intelligence analysis is to enable “evidence based decision making”. Don’t you dare give the consumer of intelligence what purports to be evidence when there is none. And push back if your consumer demands evidence that you can’t give.

Be prepared to embrace the mundane. More often than not, that’s the truth. A lot more often. Of course the inverse is true. If you want to spread a false rumour, give it a great (false) narrative and it will always take off from a short runway and head out over the ocean with all its transponders working, giving a clear radar image. Always. Never mind how crazy is sounds. UFO’s over Diego Garcia included. I know you are googling that already, so good a story it is. Call me when you land safely.

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Cognitive Bias in the Consumer of Intelligence

Panjandrum’s excellent post on the nature of some consumers of intelligence prompts me to think again about cognitive biases but from a different perspective. In earlier posts I focused on the cognitive biases of the analyst, but perhaps I was missing the point. Perhaps the cognitive biases of the consumer of intelligence is where we should focus.

Here’s a quote from Terry Pratchett’s Disc world novel; “The Truth”. This is the character Lord Vetinari speaking:
Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that a man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds…Not news bit olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true.
Delete dog bites man, insert Saddam has WMD. This is simply confirmation bias, and I’m positing the trickiest thing that an intelligence anlayst has to do is to deal with the confirmation bias of the consumer of intelligence.
It remains however that the scientific method of seeking (and presenting to your simian boss/consumer) evidence to the contrary of prior held beliefs should inform opinions. I think there are presentational techniques for overcoming what, to be fair, is the natural phenomenon of confirmation bias. I’d like, somehow, to explore more real world instances of when a consumer’s cognitive bias prevented them from accepting contrary intelligence. But of course that’s tricky. Time for some thinking.
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