To Be A Gentleman

Some Thoughts On Intelligence: Mores

Before life handed me enough to make a fortune in Nashville could I but set it to music, I had started a post on intelligence gathering and analysis. A precursor post is here. At the risk of getting ahead of myself, some of the comments to this post provide a timely point for discussing what is perhaps the largest problem with, and most difficult aspect of, intelligence analysis: mores.

Mores often are defined as some variation of the customs and conventions that make up a society and allow a person to function within them. To my mind, the best definition I have heard is that they are the blinders we wear as a result of living in a particular culture.

It is a very complex and fascinating subject, for it is something most seldom stop to consider. Each of us is shaped by the country in which we grow up, for each has its own unique history and social makeup. Each of us is shaped by the region, city, or other location as well as the unique social mix that is the family or group in which we are raised. As we grow up, we tend to take certain things as "gospel" in that certain assumptions, outlooks, stories, and more are such a part of our life that we accept them without question.

Such core beliefs shape our lives and our methods of thought in ways much more subtle than mere bias. These beliefs shape the way we process and interpret the data that comes at us in life on a level well below conscious thought. It is part and parcel of the entirely unreasonable, yet natural, human assumption that everyone thinks as we do.

Yet, not everyone does think as we do. Even within the United States, there is a large variance in the mores of people raised in different areas or ethnic and cultural groups. Someone raised on a farm who is used to dealing with animals, butchering them, helping raise them, etc. is going to have a different set of mores from someone born and raised in downtown Chicago. They are going to have very different frames of reference, and one of the early purposes of education/mass education was to provide a common frame of reference so that people from different backgrounds could communicate effectively. This also served to add a new layer into the mores that shaped the people.

From an intelligence standpoint (and political as well), is the fact that we all tend to assume on that deep level that everyone thinks and believes as do we. Some of the worst analysis of events comes from those who insist on presenting analysis based on this assumption, particularly if their mores are extreme even for their culture.

When a majority of people involved with doing some form of analysis all have similar backgrounds and beliefs, be it called corporate culture or sheer institutional inbreeding, the result is that any analysis and interpretation will be shaped by the common mores no matter the internal checks and balances designed to prevent such. It doesn't matter if it is an intelligence agency or a newsroom: when all have very similar or same mores (beliefs, training, instillation of corporate culture), there literally is no way to avoid skewing the results because the underlying unconscious assumptions are so similar.

An obvious solution is, of course, to bring people who don't share that tradition. Be it outsiders coming into an institution, or bringing in people from the culture/region/etc. being studied, it is a great way to get a different set of ideas and interpretations. The problem with intelligence can be, however, that such people have an axe or three to grind. They may be people who detest the current regime in the area, which will skew their analysis. They may be reluctant, the people who left on a matter of principle but still love their country, people, and friends -- a thing that will also skew thier perceptions. They may also fall prey to the very human trap of not providing complete translation or context because of the fear that doing so may not measure up to the mores and social conventions of the country/organization doing the research. They may be plants put in place to deliberately skew things through false information and deliberately wrong analysis. Finally, they too are constrained by their mores in their analysis.

Another obvious solution is to have a mixture of sources for doing translation, analysis, and interpretation, so that each effectively checks the other. The problem lies in the fact that any such mixture then has to go through the institutional process. For this reason, more than one administration has made use of what Tom Clancy referred to as a "Backstop" program to get an outside/independent source of information and analysis. Of course, that does no good if any or all analysis and recommendations are rejected because it conflicts with the institutional mores of an administration. A study of events/history of the challenges inherent in the collapse of the Soviet Union and rise of the Russian Federation, particularly looking at the time of the tanks and Yeltsin's stand, is a prime example of this.

A staple of Hollywood and of literary potboilers is the individual who has not only gotten the data, but analyzed what it really means, yet is thwarted in efforts to head off disaster by evil types who reject the data and/or analysis out of hand. From the civilian/military analyst who detects the impending attack to the researcher who detects the next major natural disaster but is ignored or actively suppressed, it is a staple of entertainment. So prevalent is this meme that it has become a part of our culture and even shapes our mores. This has reached the point that there is a collective tendency to try to force people and events to fit it, rather than to simply accept that events are much different and more complex (Plame being a good example). This is not just an American problem, but affects countries and institutions worldwide, and is the root cause of many serious diplomatic and military miscalculations.

One of the hardest things for any analyst to do is to make a conscious effort to set aside their mores. It means studying the situation, the data, and the societal context in which they reside. The short version is to think like the enemy, which can have its own perils. There are those who have done so, and ended up converting to the other side. There are those who have done so and in so doing damaged their ability to work within the mores of their own culture. Yet, to truly analyze and understand any event in the world, be it domestic politics or enemy actions and intentions, we must at least attempt to make the leap to think outside ourselves and our mores. For if we do not, any analysis, interpretation, and action we take will be tragically and fatally flawed.

The information age and the blogosphere offer a strong ray of hope in this area. Take a look at these comments again. In my opinion, some have that tragic flaw, but it is not my opinion of such that matters. What matters is that several informed opinions are there, differing opinions. These have been placed into the marketplace of ideas, and in so doing, a huge step has been taken. While there will be much dreck out there, a lot of good and differing analysis and interpretation is now available for consideration and evaluation. The import of that for critical issues of the day can't be overstated.

So, a question for you is: can you make a reasonable effort to set aside your cultural blinders and look at the world as unfettered as possible? Or, are you a prisoner of your conscious and unconscious biases? Can you look past these to take a reasoned measure of what is being said and respond in an equally reasoned manner? Or, are you such a prisoner of yourself that you must attack, obfuscate, and avoid reason and facts as ground upon which you dare not tread?

Just some food for thought...