Tuesday, February 03, 2004

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Spooks and Scientism: David Brooks on Intelligence and Intuitions

David Brooks claims that political pressure from the Bush administration did not influence C.I.A. reports about Iraq and concludes—surprisingly, to say the least—that “this is precisely the problem.” Brooks laments the “scientism” that led “the U.S. intelligence community…[to propagate] the myth that it possesses analytical methods that must be insulated pristinely from the hurly-burly world of politics” and rely “on this aura of scientific objectivity for its prestige…” In support of his claim, Brooks cites Sherman Kent’s claim that “…the truth is to be approached through a systematic method, ‘much like the method of the physical sciences.’” But, Brooks asks rhetorically, “what kind of scientific framework can explain…suicide bombing?” Or “…the sadistic monster who was pulled out of the spider hole a few weeks ago?”

We are not sure how nor to what extent successful social sciences should emulate physical sciences, in particular with regard to employing straightforwardly causal explanations of human behavior. However, a few things are relatively clear. First, contrary to Brooks’s suggestion, causal social scientific (psychological or sociological) explanations of behavior are more, not less, appropriate when the behavior in question is non-rational. Such behavior stands opposed to free and rational action which is typically better explained in terms of reasons and ends. Second, Brooks seems to conflate two different ways of being scientific and two corresponding ways of emulating the physical sciences. One can emulate the physical sciences by offering physical, causal explanations of events, and/or one can emulate them by striving to collect data and analyze it as objectively and dispassionately as possible. Those who suggest that our intelligence agencies should inquire scientifically usually have the latter sense in mind. In this latter sense, even richly interpretive enterprises can be scientific.

Our intelligence services are engaged in social scientific inquiry broadly construed—they are trying to discern the beliefs, intentions, and actions of groups of people. The fact that many of the groups they study want to harm us doesn’t change the nature of these inquiries. Even if the Bush administration did not exert pressure on our intelligence agencies to alter their findings, they apparently accepted the conclusions that fit with their antecedently-held political beliefs and rejected those that did not. Given the administration’s virtual Lysenkoism about the hard sciences (revealed in treatment of expert consensus concerning global warming, drilling in the ANWR, and air quality in Manhattan after 9/11), its attitudes about social sciences like economics and intelligence analysis should surprise no one. Brooks comes dangerously close to saying that what we need now is more, rather than less, Lysenkoism--a suggestion that would be as frightening as it is baffling.

It is also worth noting that, while the hunches of experts are often the best indicator of the truth available to us, it seems unlikely that the C.I.A. eschews reliance on such judgments, though that is what the term ‘scientism’ suggests. (The term is vague, but is usually used to refer to a view according to which the only rational methods of inquiry are the methods of the natural sciences.) The “cold, formal, depersonalized jargon” of final reports is but the weakest of evidence to the contrary. “Judgment calls” usually play a role at some point in our inquiries; but inquiry is usually more successful when it is done systematically so that hunches and brute “judgment calls” are made with regard to relatively discreet, narrowly-focused, low-level questions (questions more like “are these tubes good for enriching uranium?”) rather than with regard to bigger, more complex questions (such as “Does Saddam have WMDs?”). The idea is not only that expert judgments are more reliable when the questions are more narrowly-focused, but also that political and theoretical preconceptions exert less influence on judgments about such relatively more technical questions. Inquiry tends to be more successful when the answers to big questions are based on the answers to smaller, less easily-politicized ones; when things go in the other direction, the process is more aptly described as ‘rationalization’ than as ‘inquiry.’ And, of course, the fact that relatively scientific intelligence analysis is imperfect in no way indicates that the intuitions of politicians are better. With regard to Iraq, in fact, it is likely that we will eventually prove that it was not the allegedly “scientistic” methods of our intelligence agencies that were most inaccurate, but, rather, the hunches and intuitions of our political leaders. This should, of course, come as no surprise. We develop systematic methods of inquiry because we are not particularly good guessers and our “intuitions” are notoriously unreliable—especially when there are conflicts of interest involved as there were in the assessment of the Iraq data. Even though the conclusions of our “scientistic” intelligence agencies concerning Iraq were sub-optimal, they were--by all indications and as any rational person could have predicted that they would be--more accurate than the hunches of less systematic, less knowledgeable, less objective, and less intellectually honest political leaders who had rather clearly made up their minds before they had even seen the bulk of the evidence. The idea, I suppose, is that when one has an intuitive belief that something is so there is no need to waste time with scientistic fetishes like analyzing data.


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