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Sunday, December 21, 2008

The perils of 'good-enough' intelligence mis-analysis 

The appalling injustices inflicted on Colin Stagg by the Metropolitan Police and the fantasyland of fraud underpinning the Madoff pyramid scheme have some common underlying factors. Not least the dangers of the ‘satisficing mode’ of investigation, castigated by ex-CIA officer Richards Heuer in his 2004 book ‘The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis’.

Basically he looks at the way that intelligence analysts can be:

fooled into assembling the case that appears most likely rather than challenging the evidence to find out what is actually true … Equipped with vast technical resources, satellite imaging, hugely sophisticated listening devices and computer programmes to winnow the galaxies of data streams, the charge is that the spooks lost an equally powerful tool along the way: an old-fashioned and thoroughly applied inclination towards skeptical testing of all information.
Observer 8 February 2004


The blurb says:

Three fundamental points are at the heart of this presentation about the cognitive challenges intelligence analysts face: The mind is poorly 'wired' to deal effectively with both inherent uncertainty (the natural fog surrounding complex, indeterminate intelligence issues) and induced uncertainty (the man-made fog fabricated by denial and deception operations).Even increased awareness of cognitive and other 'unmotivated' biases, such as the tendency to see information confirming an already-held judgement more vividly than one sees 'disconfirming' information, does little by itself to help analysts deal effectively with uncertainty. Tools and techniques that gear the analyst's mind to apply higher levels of critical thinking can substantially improve analysis on complex issues on which information is incomplete, ambiguous, and often deliberately distorted.

Meanwhile back on the murders aftermath:

On Stagg and the murders actually committed by another, Scotland Yard said it had "no plans for a further review" of its handling of the investigation.

"Homicide investigations have changed significantly since 1992 and we've learnt from these reviews," a spokesman said.
Independent on Sunday 21 December 2008

I suspect a few more reviews might be helpful.

And maybe nearer home – should our own party policy and political analysis procedures take more account of the dangers of self-justifying groupthink?

For some entertaining reading on groupthink disasters (and a good laugh) try Norman Dixon’s book ‘On The Psychology of Military Incompetence’. Note though that some people may find the 'explenations' for the disasters as being due to inadequate potty training for the infant generals even more amusing than the hair raising military events in part one of the book, which include the occasion when a British army lined up with its back to the enemy, and within gunshot range.

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