The Importance of Ignorance in Intelligence

By Roger Davies / 18 December 2013 / Financial Intelligence, Intel Analysis, Intelligence 101, Psychology of Intelligence, Quotes

Here’s a chewy subject. At IMSL we offer our analytical services to a range of markets. Although most of our in- house talent has been originally drawn from the military and police, we now have significant skill sets in other areas – money laundering, politics, healthcare, and a range of commercial stuff.

So, how important is subject matter expertise for the analyst?  Perhaps counter-intuitively I want to posit a surprising answer.  I’m going to argue that in “some” cases, subject matter expertise is maybe an overrated skill. What is much more important is analytical skill.   Bear with me as I make my case.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the kind of guy who gets mixed reviews. More famous perhaps for the “The Black Swan”, his earlier book “Fooled by Randomness” has, I think, some salutary lessons for the intelligence analyst.  He talks about how easily we are deluded by the narratives we humans impose retrospectively on complex events, and he calls this “narrative fallacy”.  I’ve written many times before about the power and dangers of a narrative story.   And I think the sort of people who are most liable to “narrative fallacy” are people who consider themselves experts.  And that is doubly true in the intelligence world.

Just look at the narrative fallacy generated by some so-called experts over WMD in Iraq. Experts are inclined to offer opinions. It’s the raison d’etre of an expert to offer narrative explanations, and we always demand our experts to offer narrative opinions. Look at the news the next time something complex is being discussed. Invariably they’ll wheel on an “expert” in something.  They’ll be asked why something happened and they’ll provide some form of narrative.  Very, very rarely will you get an expert who says “I dunno”  or “We can’t tell yet, it’s too complicated and the facts aren’t clear”  If you , do then listen to them, because he’s being appropriately cautious. The really good analysts I know were clearly saying “we don’t know” about WMD in Iraq. But they were overruled.

So of course we do need experts to explain technical things.  But analyzing large amounts of complex data needs an expert analyst not a subject matter expert. Someone who knows how to sift, order, prioritize, filter, and present facts to enable decisions to be made – that’s an analyst.  The actual subject the data is about, to some degree, doesn’t really matter.  Analytical skill needs lot of development. In honesty, good analysts are remarkably rare beasts. A subject matter expert is not an analyst.

Taleb concentrates, understandably, on the skill of investors and economists. Of course financial subjects are black arts and “magic”.   Let’s face it with that volume of complex data drawing simple narrative conclusions is a joke. As my good friend Gary Ling says “There’s no such thing as economic science”.

Philip Tetlock, a psychologist has done an interesting study. He interviewed nearly 300 “experts” in a variety of subjects – politics, economics, financial markets, investors etc.  He asked them to make a total of 28,000 “predictions”. He then monitored the outcomes and found that the experts did not perform well, and chance was a better indicator. In fact the “more expert” the expert, the higher his failure rate was. Perhaps there’s even more pressure on the seemingly top experts than the run-of-the-mill experts and they have more need to give some sort of prediction, and they are more likely to believe the outputs of their expertise because everyone acknowledges them as experts. Some weird psychology going on here.

My favourite psychologist, Daniel Kahnemann, has something important to say on this, “ Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our own ignorance.”  Every intelligence analyst should have this tattooed on to their right hand.

Hence my view that an analyst who has no specific subject matter knowledge of a given analytical task is a useful man to have around – one who has an ability to recognise his own ignorance. I hope, therefore that some IMSL analysts can admit to ignorance.  But we’ll find you and expert to go with them if you really need one. But the ignorant one will always have a voice, because he or her is the check and balance , and we must value that. We can train your analysts to be ignorant too!

One comment on The Importance of Ignorance in Intelligence

  1. IvyGrad91

    Moreover, when “experts” can’t see beyond their own noses, the aspect of ego should be considered. Especially any “Washington” or “Whitehall” expert. Human ego creeps in when they reach the top of their field, and if they are government employees with a “job for life.” Jus’ sayin’ …


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