In his 2005 book “The Wisdom of Crowds” James Surowiecki postulated that large groups of people are smarter that an elite few. According to NPR, the CIA is putting this proposition to the test in some of its intelligence analysis.
The way the CIA or any other intelligence agency analyses intelligence is that it gathers the copious amounts of data it gets from its spies, listening posts, and other technical means to highly educated analysts to try to make sense of it and to draw conclusions and make predictions. Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan was such an analyst, though few if any find themselves in the field because of the memos they write.
The CIA has put together an experiment called the Good Judgment Project and has recruited about 3,000 ordinary Americans and, after giving them some rudimentary training, have asked them to make forecasts. They were asked questions like Will North Korea launch a multistage missile by May 10, 2014? Will Russia send troops into the Ukraine by May, 2014?
The CIA gas been evaluating the predictions of their team of average Americans and have found them to be surprisingly accurate, sometimes more so than those of their professional analysts. This is astonishing considering that the Good Judgment Project analysts did not have access to the classified intelligence that the professionals at the CIA have. All they did was to search the Internet, relying on open source material available to all.
The way this kind of crowd sourcing works is that a number of people make their predictions and then the CIA averages them out. Individuals may be widely off the mark, but the average of 3,000 or so people seem to be eerily prescient.
Mind there are likely talented amateurs beyond the confines of Langley who are able to put their fingers on the pulse of world events. Tom Clancy, a former insurance salesman, was able to put into fiction form some astonishing analysis. For example, one of his novels involved the use of a weaponized airliner years before 9/11.
The CIA is not likely to rid itself of its Ivy League experts anytime soon. But it does look like it has a team of citizen analysts, an “Army of Davids” as it were, to supplement their work. Glenn Reynolds’ premise that large numbers of people, using modern information technology, can outperform big institutions seems to have been confirmed once again.