Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Game is Afoot: Advice from The Sage of Baker Street for Intelligence Analysts and Television Pundits

While the world has been preoccupied with underwear bombers and other modern horrors, I went to see the latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes in the new movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. This is not the first time that the great detective has been reshaped for a new generation, though rarely as dramatically as in this version (anyone remember The 7 Percent Solution). I was nevertheless gratified to recognize elements of the canon in the new film, including the “patriotic V.R.” bullet-hole monogram in his Baker Street flat. While much attention has been given to this new athletic ‘action-man’ portrayal, I also enjoyed the reference to the detective’s intellectual side as he called for “data” that would enable him to attack the ongoing mystery.

Reading the adventures of Sherlock Holmes was my earliest introduction to the disciplined use of reason and logic. These lessons, in addition to other more formal instruction, later proved valuable during a career that included several tours of duty as an analyst either in Washington or overseas, whether the problem was diagnosing local politics or analyzing the international gray/black market trade in missile technology and other sensitive advanced technologies and hardware. For example, it was Holmes who first introduced me to Occam’s razor, though he didn’t so identify it at the time: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Holmes was so fond of this bit of advice that he actually stated it twice in the same adventure, The Sign of the Four, “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.”

In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes responds to Watson’s observation, as their cab carries them to the scene of a possible investigation, that Holmes didn’t seem “to give much thought to the matter in hand.” The world’s first consulting detective replied, “No data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.” Watching the recurring appearances by expert talking heads on the television news and commentary programs revealed that far too many of these individuals had forgotten that bit of advice. Speculation runs rampant and the sound bite rules as they ignored Holmes’s further cautionary advice that “It is an error to argue in front of your data. You find yourself insensibly twisting them round to fit your theories.”

As a public service, therefore, I offer some additional bits of Sherlockian wisdom from my own small collection in the hopes that analysts, pundits, experts, and the general reader will benefit.

“…I make a point of never having any prejudices and of following docilely wherever fact may lead me…” The Reigate Squires. [Don’t prejudge where the information will lead you before you have accumulated the information necessary to support a conclusion.]

“One should always look for a possible alternative and provide against it. It is the first rule of criminal investigation.” The Adventure of the Black Peter. [In other words, always look for possible alternative explanations of the available data.]

“When you follow two separate trains of thought, you will find some point of intersection which should approximate the truth.” The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax. [Evidence is always subject to multiple interpretations or explanations, but as you accumulate additional evidence the correct interpretation emerges.]

“Who is it that profits by it?” The Naval Treaty. [A rephrasing of the classical cui bono? Answer the question of who benefits or profits most directly from an action, event, or outcome and you always have the starting point for your analysis or investigation, and sometimes, it will also give you the end point.]

And the most famous of all, “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” “That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes. The Silver Blaze. [A reminder never to examine an event or incident in isolation, but to remember that it is but one moment on a time line that strings together a series of events or incidents and to look for how they are connected or fail to be connected. In this instance, it was presumed that a stranger had entered the farm – but if it had been a stranger, why didn’t the dog bark at him? And if the dog didn’t bark at this “intruder” could the “intruder” in fact not have been a stranger to the dog and thus it didn’t bark at him.]

Of course, neither Sherlock Holmes nor Dr. Watson would concede that simply reading the great detective’s adventures would enable anyone to fully absorb his methods and achieve anything like his degree of success. Nevertheless, anyone interested in learning how to be an intelligence analyst (or perhaps even to play at one on television) or anyone wanting to brush some rust of their analytical skills now has some basic concepts with which to start. But both critics and advocates of Holmes’ methods must remember that not even Sherlock Holmes cracked every case nor captured every miscreant or criminal.

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