Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Our Best Guesstimate

To give it credit, I have to acknowledge that the National Intelligence Estimate, which was released today, does try to explain basic principles of probability and rational decision-making to a lay audience of readers, but it does so very poorly, even if the moronic color-coded Homeland Security bars have been replaced in their analysis by a continuum that is mostly made up of more telling shades of gray. Unfortunately, it doesn't really bother to explain its methodology either, other than present an assertion of qualitative rather than quantitative aims: "Assigning precise numerical ratings to such judgments would imply more rigor than we intend."

I know that theories of information can be pretty intimidating with their differential equations and seemingly nonsensical terms like "reliable failure predictor." But just last week I heard an astrophysicist explain Bayes' Theorem at a cocktail party, and everyone present understood basically how at least one approach to the study of probability worked.

The report also neglects to make some important distinctions between necessary and sufficient causes. For example, like many government reports, it still implicitly presents Internet communication as a significant indicator of and contributing factor to terrorist activity, even though websites facilitate many more non-violent forms of communication as well.

We assess that the spread of radical—especially Salafi—Internet sites, increasingly aggressive anti-US rhetoric and actions, and the growing number of radical, self-generating cells in Western countries indicate that the radical and violent segment of the West’s Muslim population is expanding, including in the United States. The arrest and prosecution by US law enforcement of a small number of violent Islamic extremists inside the United States— who are becoming more connected ideologically, virtually, and/or in a physical sense to the global extremist movement—points to the possibility that others may become sufficiently radicalized that they will view the use of violence here as legitimate.

Although the report seems to acknowledge that electronic communication only produces a sign of increased jihadist activity rather than stimulates the activity in and of itself, "virtual" contact often seems more important to these analysts than extremists' "physical" ties. Note also those favorite negative buzzwords in the George W. Bush administration: "rhetoric" and "ideology." Of course, my U.C. Irvine colleague rhetorician Steve Mailloux would certainly contest assertions that we can ever be ideologically neutral or rhetoric-free.

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