Military Intelligence and the Scientific Method

Jay Manifold of A Voyage to Arcturus here, parachuting in with a post that’s a bit more geopolitical than the sort of thing I like to do these days on my own blog. Kind of like sneaking off to a nearby town to indulge a secret vice, I guess.
(And apologies in advance, both for having been a non-contributor of late, and for the possible breathtaking un-originality of the thesis of this post.)
Background: so, okay, I’m in the inimitable Cargo Largo in Independence, always a serendipitous experience — quite a bit of their merchandise is the result of Customs or DEA seizures, thus the occasional pallet-load of, say, marmoset food — perusing the book rack, a bizarre mixture of English and Spanish titles of every imaginable genre, and come across Military Intelligence Blunders (actually the hardback), and snap it up for $6.
Turning to page 6 (which is among those viewable via the Amazon link above), we find the Intelligence Cycle, which I reproduce here as a bulleted list:

    The commander or political leader states his intelligence requirement, usually in the form of a question.
    Proceed to …
    The intelligence staff convert the commander’s intelligence requirement into a series of essential elements of information (EEIs) and task the intelligence agencies using a collection plan.
    Proceed to …
    The intelligence staff collates all the information from the various sources into a readily accessible database. It is essential that all the information collected can be retrieved.
    Proceed to …
    Interpretation is where the collated information is analyzed and turned into intelligence. This is usually done by asking the key questions: Who is it? What is it doing? What does it mean?
    Proceed to …
    Dissemination can take any form: a written brief, an urgent signal, a routine intelligence summary, or, more usually in urgent cases, a verbal brief to the political leader or commander.
    Return to DIRECTION.

As I pondered the diagram, the parallels to the scientific method seemed obvious. Science is a way of gathering intelligence about nature, and can use strikingly similar methods; compare SIGINT with, say, the Spitzer Space Telescope — a parallel I approached, but did not quite conceive, when suggesting that geosynchronous optical interferometers may already be in use as spy satellites (earlier posts on the topic are here and here). And HUMINT is at the core of the social sciences.

There are other parallels. Things can go wrong at every step of the intelligence cycle: inappropriate requirements, inadequate or impaired collection and collation/retrieval, improper interpretation, slow or mistargeted dissemination, and finally inadequate feedback to those directing the next cycle.

Those last two may be the most important at a societal level. Science is largely self-correcting and rarely has the extreme urgency of, e.g., a military intelligence warning of a surprise attack by an enemy — though there are exceptions, like bird flu and, perhaps, big meteors that look like nukes but aren’t.

But to the extent that the public ultimately directs the course of scientific research through its elected representatives and the choices they make about funding of the NSF, NASA, and what not — well, I can only say that Houston, we’ve got a problem.

What intrigues me most about this is that military intelligence is an intensely political process, whereas science, and scientific debate in particular, rarely maps onto politics well — we need look no further than the scientific definition of “theory” to find abundant confusion among the political classes, especially in the “red states.” And political processes tend to foreclose possibilities altogether rather than merely redirect future efforts.

I leave as an exercise to readers to discuss whether the great problem of military intelligence — how to separate capabilities from intentions (see page 5 in the Hughes-Wilson book) — has an analogue in the sciences.

6 thoughts on “Military Intelligence and the Scientific Method”

  1. There’s one fundamental difference: there isn’t a hostile intelligence attempting to deliberately deceive or mislead scientists, or to try to obfuscate the message. Science is based on the principle that nature is fundamentally honest.

  2. The point of all of this is the old truism:
    “Experience is something you don’t get until just after you need it.”

  3. The major advantage that the sciences have over other fields is one of time. Scientist are not forced by events to make decisions based on incomplete information whereas people in military, business or even clinical medicine almost always have to.

    Much of the aura of infallibility with which we surround science comes from ability of scientist to refine ideas and measurements over long periods of time. If you look at the history of science at any particular juncture in time, you will find many ideas that turn out to be wrong or so incomplete that they might as well be. It is only because we tend to forget the legions of failed hypothesis that exist for every successful one that we believe science to be so superior to other areas of endeavor.

    I have often thought that one of the major difference in mindsets between academics and other professions like business and the military is that academics are under no real world time pressures. Academics get into the mode of thinking that people should always be able to take as long as they want to make a decision just as an academic can take as long as the need to find the correct answer. You certainly get that impression from reading academic analysis of military, political or business decisions.

  4. It isn’t completely true that academics aren’t without time pressure. Scientists have to publish results before others do to get credit for discovery. And tenure track professors often have to publish enough before a certain point in time to get tenure. But these aren’t the life and death decisions that politicians, military personnnel, police officers, and physicians have to deal with in real time.

  5. Karl Popper would have said the effort wasn’t finished without others trying and failing to disprove the results. Chalabi is on record that he talked up Saddam’s capabilities to attract US attention. Someone should have stress-tested this guy’s info.

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