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Proving Analysts Wrong – Part IV

Do you have trouble admitting you are wrong? Or convincing a colleague that his or her analysis is incorrect? Most of us find these tasks challenging because our egos are involved and we usually focus our attention on information that supports our view. This issue of Analytic Insider presents Analysis of Competing Hypotheses, the fourth and last of a select group of structured analytic techniques—including Indicators, Argument Mapping, and Deception Detection—that can spur analysts to admit their initial analysis was flawed and to work toward achieving a better result.

Technique #4: Analysis of Competing Hypotheses

As political campaigns heat up in advance of the US national elections in November, the airwaves are filled with competing interpretations of past events. Our natural tendency is to contrast all the facts and explanations one candidate posits to prove she or he is right with the other candidate’s list and agree with whomever has made the stronger case. A more thorough and efficient approach is to focus instead on how many facts or explanations are inconsistent with a candidate’s position. Sometimes only one highly persuasive item of inconsistent information is sufficient to reject an entire line of analysis. When an analyst is confronted with an item of information or piece of evidence that could not be true if his or her stated position is correct, most analysts –but probably not most politicians—will agree that the initial analysis is flawed and a new hypothesis is needed. More often than not, however, the contrasting information is less compelling. In such cases, it is more efficient to focus on what is inconsistent with a given hypothesis and embrace the position supported by the least inconsistent data.

The good news is that technology is making it easier to identify compelling contrary information. Mobile phone pictures, videos, and audio tapes, for example, can provide incontrovertible evidence of what was said or done. The key to being a successful analyst is to consciously seek out and record inconsistent or anomalous data and to consider more than one explanation as potentially true until all the data and facts are on the table.

To learn more about how the eight­step Analysis of Competing Hypotheses methodology works, check out the Handbook of Analytic Tools and Techniques. For a fuller discussion of when to use the technique, its value added, and potential pitfalls to avoid see Chapter 7 in Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis.