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14 February 2008

Evidence inferred

In the rush to focus on new analytical techniques and methodologies, particularly the more complex and arbitrarily numeric variants, we think that the fundamental aspects of inferential reasoning are too often overlooked. This is by no means the stuff of such modern vogue as complicated algorithms or cutting edge research into cognitive developments. Nor is it the drumbeat of “critical thinking” applied absent real problems or even properly constructed examples.

Rather, this is the meat of what separates the analytic mind from that of the mere reporter. The problem occurs not only when building new analysts, who are too frequently shorted on the fundamentals which are vital in cultivating this distinction, but also when developing analysts’ tradecraft at the journeyman level.

Part of the reason why inference is so often given such a short shrift is that there is rarely new material of interest in circulation on the topic, when one can easily find a few hundred other resources for just about any new “hot” topic. But then again, one supposes it is hard to muster funding for a proposal described as an attempt to revisit and extent the work of a lawyer from the late 19th century.

It is for this reason we were delighted that the folks at University College London have put together an excellent cadre of interdisciplinary researchers to tackle the problems of evidence and inference, including the esteemed Professor David Schum (who first brought the phrase into common usage within the intelligence profession). The Evidence Science group is clearly seeking to forge new ground from what others have long ignored as well trod paths. Their publication set is indeed well worth reviewing, as it covers a wide range of topics central to the profession of intelligence: the persistence of discredited evidence, exploration of belief formation, and the use of rhetoric and argumentation, among many others. While only a few of the pieces focus explicitly on the intelligence domain, these exist within a selection of interdisciplinary material which also can provide its own value to the judicious reader. (It is for this reason that we can recommend the site despite the number of lawyering and quantitative analysis publications).

We think this might be just the thing for some of those in the Beltway contemplating a long weekend away from it all and looking for some not-so light reading in the wider literature.

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