Saturday, April 02, 2005


David Brooks, in his column today in the NYTIMES (on the Robb-Silberman Commisssion Report), gets the diagnosis half-right, and the treatment ALL WRONG.

Brooks's Diagnosis:

This week the presidential panel on intelligence pointed to the same failings found by other reports. It said intelligence analysts "displayed a lack of imagination." They created artificial specialties - separating regional, technical and terrorism analyses. They built layers of hard analysis on fuzzy and impressionistic information. This commission does what so many others have done. It tries to reorganize the bureaucratic flow charts to produce better results. ...

Individuals are good at using intuition and imagination to understand other humans. We know from recent advances in neuroscience, popularized in Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink," that the human mind can perform fantastically complicated feats of subconscious pattern recognition. There is a powerful backstage process we use to interpret the world and the people around us. When you try to analyze human affairs using a process that is systematic, codified and bureaucratic, as the C.I.A. does, you anesthetize all of these tools. You don't produce reason - you produce what Irving Kristol called the elephantiasis of reason.

His treatment:

I'll believe the intelligence community has really changed when I see analysts being sent to training academies where they study Thucydides, Tolstoy and Churchill to get a broad understanding of the full range of human behavior. I'll believe the system has been reformed when policy makers are presented with competing reports, signed by individual thinkers, and are no longer presented with anonymous, bureaucratically homogenized, bulleted points that pretend to be the product of scientific consensus.

I'll believe it's been reformed when there's a big sign in front of C.I.A. headquarters that reads: Individuals think better than groups.

The first paragraph is ridiculously liberal on its face: Greater understanding of the broad range of human behavior (on the part of Intelligence Analysts) will do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to aid our understanding of North Korea's KIM JONG IL, or of the MULLAHCRATS OF TEHRAN, or of NEOJIHADIST-TERRORISTS.

The second paragraph is a WHOPPING NON-SEQUITOR whose presence in this column can only be explained as a reflexive recourse to what has become a chic idea inside the Beltway, (but one which is patently false): that the Bush Administration is dominated by "group-think" and this is the reason why it's policies have been so wrong, so often; (Beltway snobs belive this in spite of the fact that events unfolding RIGHT NOW in Iraq and the Middle East and the former Soviet Union show that the Bush Administration haven't been so wrong at all!).

IN FACT, the benefits of group-thinking has been PROVEN over and OVER AGAIN - and is thoroughly explained in the great book, THE WISDOM OF CROWDS - by James Surowiecki; here's an excerpt:

As it happens, the possibilities of group intelligence, at least when it came to judging questions of fact, were demonstrated by a host of experiments conducted by American sociologists and psychologists between 1920 and the mid-1950s, the heyday of research into group dynamics. Although in general, as we'll see, the bigger the crowd the better, the groups in most of these early experiments—which for some reason remained relatively unknown outside of academia—were relatively small. Yet they nonetheless performed very well.

The Columbia sociologist Hazel Knight kicked things off with a series of studies in the early 1920s, the first of which had the virtue of simplicity. In that study Knight asked the students in her class to estimate the room's temperature, and then took a simple average of the estimates. The group guessed 72.4 degrees, while the actual temperature was 72 degrees. This was not, to be sure, the most auspicious beginning, since classroom temperatures are so stable that it's hard to imagine a class's estimate being too far off base. But in the years that followed, far more convincing evidence emerged, as students and soldiers across America were subjected to a barrage of puzzles, intelligence tests, and word games.

The sociologist Kate H. Gordon asked two hundred students to rank items by weight, and found that the group's "estimate" was 94 percent accurate, which was better than all but five of the individual guesses. In another experiment students were asked to look at ten piles of buckshot—each a slightly different size than the rest—that had been glued to a piece of white cardboard, and rank them by size. This time, the group's guess was 94.5 percent accurate.

A classic demonstration of group intelligence is the jelly-beans-in-the-jar experiment, in which invariably the group's estimate is superior to the vast majority of the individual guesses. When finance professor Jack Treynor ran the experiment in his class with a jar that held 850 beans, the group estimate was 871. Only one of the fifty-six people in the class made a better guess.

There are COUNTLESS other examples of this phenomena; they all fundamentally reinforce what F.A. Hayek wrote about, and it's WHY free markets are more efficient than politburos and "wage & price boards."

The CIA - and other branches of our intelligence community have probably been way too NARROW in their group size, and too selective in their group make-up. The answer is NOT MORE ELITISM, but wider distribution of the intelligence information, and wider harvesting of more individual opinions.

To improve the analysis of intelligence, we need more group-think from bigger and more diverse groups.

No comments: