[ by Charles Cameron -- complex situations, unexpected consequences, analysts' need for semi-random knowledges ]
Suppose you’re a Japanese journalist given a news report to write about a tourist who may have contracted an obscure disease on a visit to Zaire. The job seems straightforward enough, you expect your Japanese readers to be sympathetic to the plight of your Japanese tourist subject, you don’t exactly expect your readers to include one Shoko Asahara, guru of Aum Shinrikyo…
But he’s there in the penumbra, reading… as this report from the Center for Counterproliferation Research of the NDU testifies:
In 1992, Aum sent a team of 40 people to Zaire to acquire Ebola. Led by Asahara himself, the team included doctors and nurses. During an outbreak of Ebola in Zaire, a Japanese tourist visiting that country may have contracted the hemorrhagic fever. This report, which received considerable publicity in Japan, apparently inspired Asahara to mount the expedition to Zaire in October 1992. Ostensibly, this trip was intended as a humanitarian mission, called the “African Salvation Tour.” It is not known if Aum actually obtained Ebola cultures. A Japanese magazine quoted a former member of the group, “We were cultivating Ebola, but it needed to be studied more. It can’t be used practically yet.”
One things leads to an unexpected other.
Here’s a positive example, one that I heard on the radio yesterday, and nothing to do with terrorism — except perhaps at the cellular level:
You know, the Scottish surgeon George Beatson was walking through the highlands in England, and he heard some shepherds saying, oh, you know, when we remove the ovaries of cows and goats, the pattern — or the breasts of these animals changes; the pattern of milk production changes.
So, Beatson began to wonder, well, what is the — this was a time when no one knew about estrogen. So, Beatson began to wonder, what is the connection between ovaries and breasts? And he said, well, if ovaries are connected to breasts, then maybe they’re connected to breast cancer.
And he took out the ovaries of three or four women with breast cancer and had these spontaneous, had these, not spontaneous, but amazing remissions. And it was — this is the basis for tamoxifen, the drug that actually blocks estrogen, and thereby affects breast cancer.
I mean, who would have thought that walking through and talking to a shepherd in Scotland would affect a billion-dollar drug, which is very, very powerful against breast cancer today?
One thing leads to an unexpected other. Listen.
Back to terror — and what jihadists notice, think about and discuss:
They follow the news.
If the stock-market takes a dive, the folks on the forums know about it — and crow about it. Because, as bin Laden said, AQ’s policy is one of “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy, Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah.” Inspire magazine calls it “the strategy of a thousand cuts” and claims the “aim is to bleed the enemy to death”. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross‘ book, Bin Laden’s Legacy, is abundantly clear on that point.
So yes, they follow the news. So they know about the riots in the UK.
There was an interesting short flurry of tweets on Twitter a couple of days ago, when Will McCants, who monitors such things and runs the Jihadica blog, noted: “Lots of pictures of #londonriots being posted to Ansar jihadi forum” and followed up by quoting a couple of forum comments: “God is burning the ground beneath the feet of the Crusaders” and “We are witnessing this aggressor nation quaking inside and out….collapsing and suffering defeat by the permission of God”.
Jason Burke of the Guardian picked up on McCants’ post and noted, “so now Islamic militants exploiting #londonriots” – and Aaron Zelin of Jihadology chimed in with the tweet I quoted at the top of this post.
The conversation continued for a bit, but it’s Aaron’s comment that I want to focus on, because it makes explicit the kind of seamless weave of knowledge that I’ve been thinking about lately — which makes cross-disciplinary awareness both so necessary and so feasible at this time. Let’s call it Zelin’s law:
every event and issue will be exploited by every group and ideology on the net.
Here’s my corollary: one thing leads to an unexpected other.
So we need a supersaturated solution of knowledges where decisions are made.
So our analysts need to be speckled specialists — experts with a sufficiently wide and random assortment of additional odd knowledges to be able to frame and reframe and reframe, to shake off any group frame and suggest half a dozen plausible alternatives, to doubt each one of them in turn, to turn to the right people who are themselves specialists in those other framings, to ask, to listen, to hear…
So we also need a supersaturated solution of ignorances — admitted, and inquiring.
Here’s Herbert E Meyer on the non-bureaucratic qualities of first-rate analysts:
In normal circumstances people like this would never be willing to take government jobs. Moreover, any agency that hired them would soon be driven nuts by their energy, their drive, their seemingly off-the-wall ideas, their sometimes bizarre work habits, even their tempers.
Sometimes bizarre, eh? “Embrace the maverick,” Deputy Director for Intelligence Jami Miscik advised.
And by extension, embrace the unexpected — learn to expect it.
Is there a literature of the unexpected? Read it! And I don’t just mean read Nicholas Nassim Taleb‘s Black Swan — I mean, keep tabs on the undertows, read the opposition, read the factional fights within the opposition, read the underclass and upperclass, the radical and the pacific and the merely eccentric and the totally off the wall. Know that some people believe there is a reptile in Queen Elizabeth II‘s head — and I don’t mean people who hold some variant on Paul MacLean‘s triune brain theory! Read the ancients as well as the moderns.
Note especially the places where two fields or perspectives or framings overlap — they’re the places where experts can most easily see that each others’ approaches have value. Cultivate binocular vision — and I mean, vision.
And do all this with a fair amount of randomness, with curiosity.
I happen to study religion, for instance, and splatter myself with other things — epidemiology, for instance, and complexity, and lit crit, and medieval music and plenty more besides — just enough to give a vaguely Jackson Pollock look to my interest in religion.
And Aum Shinrikyo’s attempt to gather samples of the Ebola virus isn’t an epidemiology story, isn’t a new religious movements story — it’s at the intersection, it’s both.
How many fields of knowledge can you gossip in for a minute or three? That’s a question with profound implications in terms of networked interactions and collective understanding.
How many languages can you frame your questions in?