Critical Thinking and Strategic Intelligence: what Oracles really do

In our last podcast, Tom and I used a lot of analogic references between the social functioning of strategic intelligence agencies and various divination systems, exemplified by the Oracle of Delphi.  Some people may be inclined to dismiss the analogic reasoning behind those references, but that would be a mistake (see, for example, Stanislav Andreski`s excellent Social Sciences as Sorcery).

The primary reason why the analogy works is simple: both diviners and intelligence agencies are socially required to make pronouncements about the future.  The problem, from the viewpoint of the diviners, is that the future is rarely fixed; free will operates within symbolically structured boundaries, and no individual or group can know the sum totality of what is.

For those who are interested, or convinced, by mathematical arguments, this is an example of a topological mapping problem where X1 (Knowledge) is mapped onto Y (future reality), and the transformation process is restricted to T1 (known transforms).  However, X1 is a sub-set of X (current reality) and T1 is a sub-set of T (all actual transforms) so that the degree of inaccuracy in prediction is based on two criteria.  First, the differences between X1 and X and T1 and T define the “ùnknown” that is automatically excluded from predictions, thereby reducing the probability of predicting Y outcomes correctly.  Second, the operation of “free will” produces an inherent uncertainty factor in the probability of predicting Y outcomes.

So, what does this have to do with Oracles and diviners?  The answer is surprisingly simple: the first compelling form of future analysis ever produced by the human species was some form of divination.  While we really have no idea what, exactly, that was, we do know several things about it.  First of all, early divination systems and the shamen who used them used some form of abductive logic (see Carlo Ginzburg`s excellent Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes article).  Second, we can infer that these early shamen were probably the best critical thinkers of their day: after all, they had to explain their failures in a situation where failure might lead to their deaths (see H.Beam Piper`s excellent short story Oomphel in the Sky for an excellent, if fictional, account of this).

If the social function of shamen / diviners and intelligence agencies is quite analogous – i.e. the prediction of the future – the social situations are less so.  For example, a diviner who consistently got his signals mixed up in hunting magic would, pretty rapidly, be expelled from the tribe and left to die by himself.  The possibility of death is a pretty clear selection factor for a diviner to either get it right or couch his predictions in amorphous terms that *might* be right.  When, however, have we seen analysts and agencies under the same pressure?  The short answer is that we don`t, outside of a few limited examples such as tactical intelligence in military settings.  What we see instead is a ritualized “purification” of the agency via a Commission of Inquiry and, maybe, a scapegoat.

Where the analogy looses its power is in this very area of negative selection criteria (i.e. get it right / amorphous or die).  This has a serious impact on how modern intelligence operates primarily because the lack of a negative selection criterion reduces the pressure to produce good intelligence in several areas.

Before pulling that observation out further, I think it is useful for us to look at what, exactly, intelligence agencies – and diviners – have been and should be asked to “produce”.  Very broadly speaking, Intelligence agencies and diviners throughout the ages are asked to produce “knowledge” in two main areas: “Normal Intelligence” and “Surprise Intelligence”, which are roughly analogous to Kuhn`s normal science and paradigm change science.

  1. Normal Intelligence – the “known”
    1. Identified threats / competitors / opportunities – “Known / Knowable”
      1. capabilities
      2. intentions *
    2. Contingency planning (the “what if” or “conceivable”) *
    3. horizon scanning, emerging threat vectors, emerging opportunities – “Not known, but knowable” *
  2. Surprise Intelligence – the “unknown” *
    1. journalistic who, what, where, when, & why – immediate / timely ~ 1-6 hours post event
    2. 2-5 days post event, journalistic plus more detail
    3. ~ 1 – 2 weeks, initial analysis of “strength” / strategy / intentions / including initial operational suggestions.
    4. 1+ months, ongoing monitoring, analysis, research, and shift to “Normal Intelligence”

In this typology, “Normal Intelligence” is both the day-to-day answering of the question “what is going on out there that can have an impact on us?” in sub-point 1.   Sub-points 2 and 3 deal with the “what if” and the “what is coming” questions respectively. Both of these latter two sub-points are governed by the “known & knowable” or what the diviners can conceive of as happening.  The intriguing situation actually lies with sub-point 1, sub-sub-point 2 – “intentions”.  A shaman can tell his tribesmen that a lion can kill them with ease, but he has difficulty with telling them if a particular lion is likely to try and kill them.

So, where in the operation of “Normal Intelligence” do we find the need for critical thinking (CT)?  While the tripe answer would be “everywhere”, various forms of CT are actually needed primarily in intentions, contingency planning and horizon scanning, but they all have a different focus for their criticality.

In the case of “intentions”, the central focus must be on “reading the mind” (i.e. profiling a la the FBI`s Behavioural Sciences Unit) of a given target.  In the case of contingency planning, the focus should be on the “plausible” as in “under what conditions would action X happen?”  This is closer to a Red Team form of critical thinking, at least in terms of generating additional hypotheses and plausibilities.  It is a form of “playing” with the “known” that has become popularized in the genre of “alternate histories” popularized most recently by Harry Turtledove.

The final function, horizon scanning, requires a third focus of critical thought; neither the deductive form of intentions or the abductive form of contingencies but, rather, the inductive form of probabilities coupled with the adbuctive of what might be.  It is a form of “constructive chaos” out of which plausible and probably order is teased.

Now, for those of you who have been reading this closely, you will notice that I have used all three types of logic as foci for different forms of “critical thinking”: abductive, inductive and deductive.  The reason for this is simple: the methodologies used by critical thinkers must be modified depending on the type of logic which is relevant to the specific question / problem.

While the methodologies vary depending on the appropriate form of logic, the characteristics of what constitutes a “critical thinker” do not, and they are well worth examining.  In order to look at these characteristics, I want to draw on a recent posting by Tim van Gelder entitled Seven Habits of Highly Critical Thinkers.  Tim has an interesting list of characteristics:

  1. Judge judiciously
  2. Question the questionable
  3. Chase challenges
  4. Ascertain alternatives
  5. Make use of Methods
  6. Take various viewpoints
  7. Sideline the self

Tim`s posting is worth reading fully, and I won`t repeat it here (go read it yourself!).  What I will note, however, is that all of these characteristics act as structural boundaries constraining the critical thinker into taking a long and contingent view of whatever they are looking at.  In other words, critical thinkers strive to find out not only “what is” but, also, “what might be” and, at the same time, “given what we know, what is right action?”.  Now, all of these characteristics are not only useful during the operation of “Normal Intelligence”; they are critical during the operation of “Surprise Intelligence”.

If you examine how I have outlined the operation of “Surprise Intelligence”, you will notice that it operates on a timeline.  This timeline is a rough approximation of the times and information required in order to shift an event from a “surprise” to a “normal” mode of operations.  The first sub-phase is the initial reaction in terms of information that must be supplied to a leader simply because that leader must construct an initial form of sense making for their citizens (or tribesmen).  The second sub-phase is both an elaboration and a corrective to the initial form of sense making.  The third sub-phase invokes an elaboration of the initial form of sense making along with recommendations for corrective action, while the final sub-phase is the routinization of the “surprise” as a threat / opportunity; the shift back towards “Normal Intelligence”.

This final sub-phase is crucial, since what it does is weave the “surprise” – the “unknown” – into the narrative of reality that is used to define both the “known” and the “knowable” by both the diviners and the regular members of society.  In effect, this process is part of the necessary ambiguity of forecasting the future; it is the reduction of distance between both X1 and X and T1 and T.

“Enough theory!” I can hear people cry. “`What does it mean to us?”  Well, at the simplest it means that even the best diviners are caught flat footed.  So, back to Richard Betts comment that the best way to prepare for the future is to prepare for disaster.  Getting into it more deeply, it means that we need to consider our shamen as both fallible at foretelling the future while, at the same time, doing their best.  They can, and often do, excel at certain forms of divination (mainly deductive and post-dictive), but their accuracy will, inevitably, drop in inductive and abductive arenas.  We need to look at ways to structurally encourage inductive  and abductive thinking in Intelligence agencies.

The final extrapolation is, probably, the hardest one for most people to take.  Put simply, we can not abnegate our responsibilities as citizens to a divinatory class without imposing on them the same selection criteria that our fore-fathers and fore-mothers did.  We can not afford to live in a society where our shamen are not held responsible for their failures.  Such a situation only encourages the survival of non-critical thinkers with the social right to predict the future.

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