TMI: The Problem of Too Much Intelligence

It’s quite a refined art to be able to assess the quality of the information wherever it’s acquired. 

In intelligence gathering, can there be too much information?


Tom Fingar: There can be too much information.  There’s too much information relative to the amount of time and number of people to go through it.  One way of thinking about it is over the last two decades the haystack has gotten very much higher.  It’s not clear how many more needles there are in that haystack to be found by collectors and interpreted by analysts. 

How does one go about the process of assessing where the needles are?

Tom Fingar:  Once upon a time, metaphorically, you would walk around with a metal detector and you’d stumble upon something and then try to explain what it was, what it meant, how it got there.  With the range of questions on which customers, decision-makers, policymakers would like insight and the amount of information that is available, the only practical way to do this is to decide what question, if answered, would provide the most insight, and then go after materials that you think might answer that question and to find the needles in that way.

How do you assess the value, the quality of the information that you’re receiving?

Tom Fingar:  It’s one of the most important things that has to be done.  Where did it come from?  Who placed it, whoever it was that it was found?  Who told it to the collector, to the journalist, to the diplomat, to the law enforcement officer?  Why did they convey that information?  Even imagery—imagery on the ground, imagery from space—isn’t always self-explanatory, usually is not self-explanatory; intercepts.  You have to have a way of judging whether the person you’ve listened has any idea what he or she is talking about.  

I could talk endlessly about brain surgery and somebody might monitor that conversation.  At the end of the day it wouldn’t be worth much because I, in fact, don’t know anything about brain surgery.  So the vetting, the evaluation, the assessment of the information—how does it fit with other things that we know or think we know.  Is it corroborated, or consistent with, or contradicted by other information?  Is it newer or older than the other information that we have?  Is it actually talking about the same person or the same place?  It’s quite a refined art to be able to assess the quality of the information wherever it’s acquired. 

Why the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner won’t feature a comedian in 2019

It's the first time the association hasn't hired a comedian in 16 years.

(Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images for Vulture Festival)
Culture & Religion
  • The 2018 WHCA ended in controversy after comedian Michelle Wolf made jokes some considered to be offensive.
  • The WHCA apologized for Wolf's jokes, though some journalists and many comedians backed the comedian and decried arguments in favor of limiting the types of speech permitted at the event.
  • Ron Chernow, who penned a bestselling biography of Alexander Hamilton, will speak at next year's dinner.
Keep reading Show less

How to split the USA into two countries: Red and Blue

Progressive America would be half as big, but twice as populated as its conservative twin.

Image: Dicken Schrader
Strange Maps
  • America's two political tribes have consolidated into 'red' and 'blue' nations, with seemingly irreconcilable differences.
  • Perhaps the best way to stop the infighting is to go for a divorce and give the two nations a country each
  • Based on the UN's partition plan for Israel/Palestine, this proposal provides territorial contiguity and sea access to both 'red' and 'blue' America
Keep reading Show less

A new study says alcohol changes how the brain creates memories

A study on flies may hold the key to future addiction treatments.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • A new study suggests that drinking alcohol can affect how memories are stored away as good or bad.
  • This may have drastic implications for how addiction is caused and how people recall intoxication.
  • The findings may one day lead to a new form of treatment for those suffering from addiction.
Keep reading Show less