Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Patterns of Analysis

I had a very lively discussion tonight with the estimable Buzz Patterson. (If you don't know him you should become acquainted.) We touched on this subject of media reporting, and it got me to thinking about perception, and the "patterns of analysis" that I think causes different perceptions of the same set of circumstances.

In discussions, some of our Soldiers are pessimistic about how things are going. You might think, "Hey, they see the real story." Maybe. More likely, since some of our Soldiers are "all trees and no forest" analysts, what they see and track becomes all they know. I think they are subject to the same "if it bleeds it leads" mentality (as reporters), and they only see the situation in terms of spikes in IEDs and other "reportable" activity, with little or no attention paid to positive civilian or government activities. That’s not their mission.

I have had numerous conversations with some of our Soldiers who work closely with the “2” element, and occasionally they warn us of big (negative) downturns or adverse events, only to have "the threat" never materialize. Further, some came into theater with a pessimism that in their eyes the data pinpoints reinforce and support. Not tied in with the day-to-day intel fight, and seeing the wide Open source intelligence (OSI) picture for myself, I am often completely puzzled by some of these perspectives.

I am beginning to think the kind of work reporters do (intelligence or media) inevitably leads them to paint the picture with the negative data points, since that's what they see most, and most urgently.

I even half-joking suggested to one of my Intel soldiers, that Al Qaeda was specifically targeting him with their Information Operations (IO). They know that he and a great many others like him, mostly college educated, some ambivalent about the war or US objectives, called up to Active Duty from Reserves or Guard, and they stage attacks and keep a high volume of little inconsequential attacks in large part to discourage those preparing Intelligence assessments and advising Coalition military commanders and political leaders.

Do I think they're that sophisticated? Some of them, yes. Is it more likely the Intel folks are just in sync with the media analysts and reporters who are also the target of Al Qaeda IO? Of course. But it does make me wonder. So I gave some thought to the problem, and here’s what I came up with.

Any time you try to analyze a trend, or develop an overall macro definition of a large number of small, discrete events, you run into a problem of methodology, even perspective. And there's no easy resolution.

Imagine you are looking at overall violence in Iraq. You could look at a range of violent acts by Anti-Iraqi Forces (AIF), from small arms fire to assassinations to improvised explosive devices (IED) or various kinds to coordinated attacks and ambushes.

Zero in on IEDs, they pretty much do in command channels here. Next, imagine that you might create some kind of plotting over time or geography, look for hot spots, chart patterns, trends, increases, decreases, etc.

Now try to describe what you're seeing, and be careful of the assumptions that are part of your descriptions.

1. First assumption to acknowledge, you picked one type of violence over another. The fact that you pay attention to that one factor will influence how and whether your enemy changes tactics to change how you see the data. (That is, if they’re good. Viet Cong? Soviet Union? Capable of that. Serbia? North Korea? Fat chance. Al Qaeda? If not in the beginning, probably by now.)

2. Also, what's the context? Was that a type of violence that exists elsewhere, you can compare levels to? Or Pre-War? Are these isolated, spectacular media driven events (or can they be), how frequent, how many people or what proportion of people (soldiers or civilians) does this event affect?

3. How does this level or type of violence compare with othert situations, regions, trouble-spots, historical precedents? Is Iraq safer than Columbia? Less violence prone?

4. Where you focus. Obviously, in a "data scatter" type diagram or model that will be used by the Press, you will look at the "black" data points and only see those. But you could also note or evaluate all the "white" spaces in between (the absence of the event). Or, do you create some kind of average, in effect blending black data points and white empty space, and create a degree of gray that you then evaluate?

I am beginning to think this paradigm hold true for reporting in Iraq. Liberal news media that had an agenda to begin with (we were right about the war and the incompetence of this administration), seek out only individual discrete events that support their template. And in purely statistical terms, there's a value to that way of looking at data. (Projections and forecasts, for one thing.)

You could evaluate the same data but concentrate on the empty spaces, the cessation or absence of violence. There's utility in that, too. Is the threshold of violence-to-safety beyond some point that populations change their behavior significantly in response to it?

Blending the data could give you the closest to what some news organizations attempt in highly subjective "mood" or environment pieces (the "raise questions" and "the mood was tense" type reporting), but usually committed without any hard data to support whatever the subjective "impression" of the reporter doing the hit piece.

My own gut suggests that there is truth in all three degrees or areas of focus. But there is no doubt at all, that to focus on just the little black dots is to not just miss the forest, but to run headlong into some tree as well, from searching out each root.

UPDATE: John Schroeder of Blogotional, as he often does with great insight, suggests another way to look at the whole issue of media (or analytic) focus on the negative. Well worth the read.

Links: Outside the Beltway, Basil's Blog, bRight & Early, Mudville Gazette, Dawn Patrol at Mudville Gazette

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