What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos

1

Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers

2

Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge

3

Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more
Close

The Guantánamo Files and Future Violence Assessment

April 27, 2011, 10:05 AM
Guantanamo_bay

In Guantánamo Files, the New York Times coverage of Guantánamo from WikiLeaks documents, one piece in particular caught my attention: a discussion of the difficulty of judging detainees’ risk of future violence. Among other facts, the authors bring up two specific cases. Said Mohammed Alam Shah, who was detained in 2001, was deemed to pose no future threat to U.S. interests and sent back to Afghanistan in 2004, where he revealed his real name, Abdullah Mehsud, and went on to plot numerous high-profile attacks before detonating a suicide bomb in 2007. Murat Kurnaz, on the other hand, was judged “high risk.” He was eventually released in 2006, under pressure from Germany (his country of residence) and Turkey (his country of birth) and went on to write numerous critiques against the prison and the system – potentially embarrassing to the U.S., but hardly evidence of “high risk” activity.

So, given both the problematic nature of the evidence in the Guantánamo cases and the high stakes involved, how does one proceed? How do you decide if someone poses a risk or not?

Predicting future criminal violence: past behavior predicts future behavior

A review in the February issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science focuses on just this question: how do we assess the risk of future violence in a criminal population? The news, at least as far as Guantánamo Bay is concerned, is not very happy.

In a review of the various instruments currently used in violence risk assessment, the authors conclude that an unstructured, clinical approach, whereby a clinician selects, measures, and combines risk factors based on his personal experience and judgment, has the least empirical support of any method. Furthermore, there is little evidence that any of the leading validated instruments, that are based on a combination of actuarial, or statistical, patterns and clinical approaches, predicts violence better than any another. Indeed, most seem to point to general history and lifestyle patterns of the individual in question as the most important factors in predicting future violence. As John Douglas put it in his recollections of some of the FBI’s most notorious serial killers, “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”

It all goes back to the old “thickness of the folder” finding. In a classic assessment of instruments that accurately judged the severity of mental patients’ histories, the single most important factor turned out to be the thickness of a patient’s folder – in other words, the sheer length and volume of clinical history. Independently, none of the questionnaires or assessment tools provided much greater accuracy.

But what if there’s no past behavior to go on?

This should give us pause. Unfortunately, in the case of Guantanamo, the folders, or the various measures other than clinical assessments, are generally unavailable. These are far from regular prisoners and don’t come with case histories on a platter. The available tools for forming judgment are limited. So, what to do?

It’s a frustrating question, and I don’t pretend to have an answer. What I will say is that your response will likely depend on your answer to another question: would you rather risk an Abdullah Mehsud going free, but also release a lot of Murat Kurnaz’s in the process; or, is the potential downside of a Mehsud so great that it is worth keeping the Kurnaz’s if it also means minimizing the risk of a Mehsud-type error? It’s signal detection theory (SDT)—how do we discern the ratio of signal, or actual hit (in this case someone who will pose a threat), to noise, or the fog that contributes to both false alarms (Kurnaz is high risk) and incorrect misses (Mehsud is not)—made even more sticky and unmanageable because of the countless political biases and moral conceptions (and preconceptions) that it inevitably raises.

So, what do you think? How can we put our most mindful minds to work on a question that affects not just stocks or food choices but very real political, and perhaps most importantly, human outcomes? How do we decide absent the possibility of an obviously artful choice?

 

 

The Guantánamo Files and Fu...

Newsletter: Share: