Ideas January 2003

The Elephantiasis of Reason

The CIA's brand of rational analysis is perpetually half right in a way that makes it completely wrong
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In 2000 the CIA produced a report called Global Trends 2015, in which it predicted what the world would be like during the next decade and a half. No, the report did not predict the events of September 11, and nobody blames it for that. But neither did it give any prominence to the atmosphere of hatred that produced September 11. Nor did it predict the radically different ways in which the United States, Western Europe, and the Arab world would perceive international conflict. Indeed, the world it describes doesn't resemble any possible real world. Using the CIA's methodology and analysis, you can neither anticipate the future nor explain the past.

There are no human beings in the world described by the CIA. There are no passions or religious ideals, no dreams or urges, no altruism or malevolence. Instead there are only impersonal forces: technological developments, economic trends, and demographic pressures. Global Trends 2015 is perpetually half right in a way that makes it completely wrong. Yes, technological and environmental trends are important. But if you try to describe them in a void uncomplicated by human volition, you end up in the realm of fantasy.

The report opens with a description of fifteen governmental and nongovernmental conferences and workshops that were involved in preparing it. Reading it, you begin to picture the bureaucratic machinery, homogenizing the insights of hundreds of intelligent people. The heart sinks. Then comes a list of the seven key "drivers" that will shape the world of 2015: demographics, natural resources and environment, science and technology, the global economy and globalization, national and international governance, future conflict, the role of the United States. These drivers fall into two categories: those that can be quantified, and are thus much fussed over by CIA analysts, and those that are so vague as to be meaningless ("future conflict"), and are thus used as receptacles for all those mysterious things that can't be subjected to rational analysis.

For page upon page the report lists the features of years to come, most of the predictions entirely reasonable and unsurprising ("Ukraine's path to the West will be constrained by widespread corruption, the power of criminal organizations, and lingering questions over its commitment to the rule of law"). Some of them, if read with the benefit of hindsight, do seem vaguely prophetic, if unremarkable ("Linear trend analysis shows little positive change in [the Middle East], raising the prospects for increased demographic pressures, social unrest, religious and ideological extremism, and terrorism directed both at the regimes and at their Western supporters"). But the committee of authors links dozens of trends in a great bureaucratic string. There is no central thesis, nothing to focus the attention, nothing that would help a President or a citizen decide whether or not to seek regime change in Iraq, or predict how the rest of the world would react to such an event, or really understand the nature of al Qaeda, the Arab masses, the French elite, or any other players in the world.

At the end of Global Trends 2015 four scenarios for the world in 2015 are sketched out. The first is "Inclusive Globalization," in which "a virtuous circle develops among technology, economic growth, demographic factors and effective governance, which enables a majority of the world's people to benefit from globalization." The second is "Pernicious Globalization," in which global inequality widens. The third, called "Regional Competition," features trade wars and other conflicts among Europe, East Asia, and the United States. And the fourth, "Post-Polar World," is a world in which the U.S. economy stagnates and the international order fragments chaotically.

Now, any halfway intelligent person could have come up with these scenarios after five minutes of thought. Any halfway intelligent person, however, would also have discarded the enterprise, aware that men and women are not lab rats. People change history in ways that are simply not knowable by technocratic linear analysis.

But this is the CIA. Its research culture was established in the late 1940s, by an intelligence expert named Sherman Kent, who after World War II headed the CIA's Office of National Estimates. Kent was operating at a time when faith in the power of social science was at its peak. Urban planners thought they could organize cities on rationalistic grounds. Economists thought they could master economic forces with models and macroeconomic planning.

Kent dreamed of turning intelligence analysis into a rigorous science. In his influential book, Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy (1949), he argued,

We insist, and have insisted for generations, that truth is to be approached, if not attained, through research guided by a systematic method. In the social sciences which very largely constitute the subject matter of strategic intelligence, there is such a method. It is much like the method of the physical sciences. It is not the same method but it is a method nonetheless.

Thus the CIA was set apart as an independent (at least in theory) professional think tank, in Langley, Virginia. The Agency is still mostly a research center, staffed by social scientists with advanced degrees. Over the past few years, when I have run into former CIA people, I have asked them if they had access when they were inside to a whole layer of secret information denied to the rest of the world. No, they invariably respond, what they had was the CIA's "brand of analysis." But if you believe that important insights are generated by creative and well-informed individuals, then you don't need the CIA's brand of analysis; you need only consult Bernard Lewis or Samuel Huntington.

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David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.

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