In the coming days, President Obama will be reviewing intelligence, poring over data, soliciting expert opinions, examining history, mulling options, and fusing analysis with intuition and experience. No, not to order a drone strike, intervene in Syria, or combat Chinese cyber-hacking. Instead, Obama, like millions of Americans, will be picking his NCAA men's basketball teams for March Madness.
Lots of industries involve predicting future outcomes: weather forecasters, Wall Street traders, doctors, pope-watchers, movie executives, and baseball scouts, to name a few. Each falls somewhere along a spectrum of predictability. March Madness "bracketology" -- divining which teams will go how far in this year's basketball tournament -- lies on the easier end. Assessing national security threats and outcomes sits on the opposite, very, very hard end of the spectrum. These two extremes shed light on what factors make some human activities more susceptible to accurate prediction than others. And they suggest why more things are becoming predictable than we might imagine.
The first factor distinguishing the easier end of the predictability spectrum from the hard end is data -- how much information there is about similar events in the past. Sports competitions are notoriously data-rich. That's not to say sportscasters always get it right. March Madness wouldn't be March Madness if they did: Everyone loves a Cinderella team that wins against the odds. But they don't call it "winning against the odds" for nothing. Exactly how often does the worst-ranked team in a bracket win it all? Never. The lowest-seeded NCAA champion was Villanova in 1985, seeded eighth of 16 in its bracket. As we Louisville fans know, there's a reason the usual suspects make it to the Final Four. History isn't destiny, but in March Madness it's a pretty darn good guide.
Intelligence analysts don't have a rich historical store of comparable cases to help assess future outcomes. Consider the current nuclear crisis with Iran. Only nine countries have nuclear weapons. Five got the bomb so long ago that nobody had yet landed on the moon. North Korea is the most recent nuclear rogue, but the Hermit Kingdom's weird ruling family hardly seems a generalizable model for anything. The only country that developed and then voluntarily dismantled its nuclear arsenal is South Africa -- in large part because apartheid was crumbling and the outgoing white regime feared putting the bomb in the hands of a black government. Bracketology database this isn't.
The second factor is bias, or more specifically how obvious bias is. Biases can't be eliminated, but their distorting effects can be tempered if everyone knows about them. In sporting events, we wear our biases on our sleeves. Literally. Every March, everyone knows that I will overestimate Louisville's chances of winning the NCAA because the Cardinals are my hometown team. And because this bias is obvious, my pro-Louisville forecast is taken with the appropriate grain of salt. But in the CIA, nobody walks around wearing a T-shirt that says, "I am often subject to confirmation bias, giving greater weight to data that supports my prior beliefs and discounting information that disconfirms them." The more that hidden biases creep into analysis unnoticed and unchecked, the more problematic prediction becomes.
The third factor is asymmetric information. In March Madness, everyone has access to the same information, at least theoretically. Expertise depends mostly on how geeky you choose to be, and how much time you spend watching ESPN and digging up past stats. In intelligence, however, information is tightly compartmented by classification restrictions, leaving analysts with different pieces of data and serious barriers to sharing it. Imagine scattering NCAA bracket information across 1,000 people, many of whom do not know each other, some of whom have no idea what a bracket is or the value of the information they possess. They're all told if they share anything with the wrong person, they could be disciplined, fired, even prosecuted. But somehow they have to collectively pick the winner to succeed.