Douglas Bernhardt shared an article in the September 2008 Harvard Business Review (Volume 86, Number 9, pp. 53-57) with me. In Making sense of Ambiguous Evidence former PI and accomplished film director Errol Morris explains how what we see is not what we see and that analysing the CONTEXT of information will help us improve our understanding of events and threats. In his recent documentary film, Standard Operating Procedure, he examines many of the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, using commentary by the U.S. soldiers who took and posed in the pictures to fill in the gaps of our knowledge and call into question many assumptions the public and the press made about what those images proved.
"When we look at the photo's, we think we see everything.We take what we see as being veridical. Somehow, if we see it, it must be the case. You may think you know a lot about the photographs, but they don’t record what’s in people’s heads. They don’t record context. They don’t record why the photograph was taken or what is depicted. They provide evidence, but many, many additional steps have to be taken before you can say evidence of what. They showed us something, but they also encouraged us not to look further. We thought we had the ocular proof." He explains how context change the way you understand what lies behind the photographs that shocked the world. The context elements he identifies include sociological factors i.e. group dynamics of about 8000 people, policies and psychological factors - "the face of America in Iraq".
Morris further explains how we want to believe something we saw or read because its "simpler" or it answers to some "social need". What we see does not have to be true, but once we choose to believe, its difficult to see something else.
What does this mean for analysts? Too many times our clients, also here in South Africa, complains about the lack of breadth and depth of our analyses. We have to go beyond the facts to the context of events, threats and risks. Context means all those circumstances that surround an event or an issue, based on a multitude of people's perceptions of those circumstances. Focusing only on the political, economic or criminal aspects makes us blind to what is actually there.
My biggest challenge in training is trying to make analysts realise that they don't know it all. Worse, they even don't know that they don't know. The arrogant analysts (and there are way too many of those!) see any event or issue from their political (or whatever) perspective. According to them, there's no way it can mean something else, or that it can mean a different thing for a different person. Yes, we are supposed to have our own viewpoints, but only to the point where we realise its just one of many. The core of our profession is our thinking skills. Therefor, we should be mindful of what we think, why we think it and how we can improve our thinking.
I use the metaphor of prismatic thinking (coined by Robert Flood) in training to explain how analysts can apply multi-dimensional lenses in their understanding of an intelligence problem. With a simple prism, refraction breaks up light in the 7 rainbow colours. With a diamond of 58 facets (or angles), the refraction produces an intricate play of different colours depending on how you move the diamond - its "fire". For analysts, the challenge is to apply as many facets or angles as possible to generate a deeper understanding of the problem, the options available and the possible consequences of decision recommendations. This approach fosters collaboration and interdisciplinary thinking. Jack Davis sums it up in his article on Sherman Kent: "There are always fresh questions to tackle, fresh information to uncover, and fresh insights to test..The need for strenuous effort, tough-minded trade craft, and openness to alternative views remains the same.."
A lot has been written on thinking skills in intelligence analysis since Dick Heuer published his seminal work in 1999 "Psychology of Intelligence Analysis" e.g. Randy Pherson and a few others in intelligence journals. Despite these efforts, it remains a tough challenge to understand why we think the way we think and then change and improve our thinking skills. Of course, trying to understand our client's mindset is nearly impossible...