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Monday, April 28, 2008

Memes and Critical Thought

In my previous profession, I was one of the military's top experts in a fairly unusual field - Information Warfare.

If you have only a vague notion of what IW might be, well, don't feel bad - you're in the majority. Even folks within the community struggle to understand just what exactly comprises the specifics of their field and there are many, many definitions, some mutually exclusive. In a nutshell though, Information Warfare is simply the codification and acknowledgement of something that has been around since man first crawled out of the primordial ooze - to wit: information is power.

In combat, those with control over the information flow win. If you can prevent the accurate and timely acquisition, processing, analysis, and distribution of information by the enemy, while preserving those things within your own force structure, you'll win. I'm not revealing any great military secret here, commanders have known this fact since, well, forever. That's why, in modern combat, it's a truism that the most dangerous soldier is the one with the radio - it's also why he tends to get shot first.

Commanders, military planners, and tacticians have always striven to control the information flow, both within their own organizations and within the enemy's, with varying degrees of success. And by control I don't necessarily mean restrict, what I mean is manage. Within an information gathering organization, such as any intelligence agency, it is imperative to not only acquire information, but to also determine it's validity - and you do that by examining each piece of data for certain criteria, such as relevance to the current and anticipated situation, it's accuracy as compared to supporting data and analysis, timeliness, level of detail, and a number of other factors. Over the millennia there have been those forces that were extremely good at this sort of thing, and many more who were not. And up until the advent of 'modern conflict' this process has been more art form and natural talent than any sort of science. However, around WWII and the beginning of modern information systems, intelligence organizations began to codify the process and found that even average people could be trained to think this way - to apply the science of critical thought to the acquisition and processing of information. And at the height of the air war in Southeast Asia, during the Vietnam conflict, a Colonel named John Boyd came up with a method of critical analysis called the OODA Loop, or more properly The Boyd Cycle. OODA, for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Loop, because done properly this is a continuously repeating process. Here's a picture of Boyd's concept:

image

When I designed tactics and taught warfighters how to use them, I spent an entire week on this one concept alone, because it was that critical. Those that can continuously and reliably apply this process have a significant tactical advantage over their opponents, be that opponent a single fighter aircraft or an entire army. You don't have to be particularly fast or accurate at the process, only faster and more accurate than your adversary.

When Boyd retired from the Air Force, he went into business and applied this same concept - and was highly successful, as you might imagine. Businesses that can implement and execute the principles of the OODA loop have a significant advantage over their competition. An organization that can observe and accurately analyze its environment, orient and position itself within that environment and anticipate changes and trends, make decisions based on that orientation, and then act decisively - and then observe how those decisions influence the environment and repeat the cycle - will almost inevitably succeed. Again, no great secret here, but its amazing how few organizations do this well.

Observation is the single most critical step in the OODA loop. If the acquired data is flawed, incomplete, incorrect, or outdated, then your orientation in the environment is mostly likely going to be incorrect, and thus your decisions and resulting actions. Because the process is a loop, it should be self correcting, however due to human nature and bias what often happens is that instead of self correction a decision making loop based on bad information becomes self reinforcing.

Need a big, real world example? Iraq used to have weapons of mass destruction - this data is accurate, complete, and verified. Unfortunately, by the beginning of the current conflict, it was also out of date. By failing to ask ourselves critical questions about what we thought we actually knew - then observe and reorient within the changed environment - we made poor decisions. The resulting actions of which are going to be with us for a very long time.

I see this same failure of critical thought on an individual level every day. All of us are capable of critical thought - capable of observing, orientating, deciding, and acting critically - and yet few truly do this in their personal lives. When information arrives, how many folks ask themselves: How was this information acquired? Is it complete? Is it accurate? Is it biased. Is it relevant? Is there enough detail? Do I accept it because it reinforces what I think I know, or do I reject it for the same reason? How can I verify it? How can I test it? If I can't test and verify the information, do I accept it anyway? If so, why?

Those who fail to ask themselves such questions place themselves and those who depend on them, at a significant disadvantage - they will always be at the mercy of those who can observe the universe critically, adjust their worldview appropriately, decide and act. Those who allow themselves to be manipulated through the use of information, are always at the mercy of those who control it - and now you know what Information Warfare really is, and why it is the single most powerful weapon ever fielded.

What brings this to mind for me today (not that this subject is ever very far from my thoughts), is the topic of memes talked about on the various blogs I read and Senator Barrack Obama. Or more specifically, the rather large amount of viral data, memes if you will, circulating through the information sphere that are accepted as fact, and yet are easily verified as incomplete, out of date, irrelevant, lacking in precision, or just plain false. For example: the picture, widely circulated via email, purporting to show that Obama disrespects America because he didn't place his hand on his chest during the National Anthem. Easily proved false, and yet widely accepted by otherwise intelligent folks as true. But what really got me thinking about this subject is the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Over the last several months the man has been vilified for a number of sermons he gave - or rather sound bites taken from his sermons and deliberately broadcast out of context.

For example Wright was widely quoted as saying that the U.S. had brought the September 11 attacks upon itself and "America's chickens are coming home to roost..."

People were incensed, outraged, appalled. Wright was denounced as unAmerican and unpatriotic. Because Barrack Obama attended Wright's church, he was, and is, denounced as unAmerican and unpatriotic. And yet, and yet, how many folks took that statement, out of context, as verification of their own prejudices and biases without once applying any degree of critical thought. Is this an accurate quote? Is it complete? In what context was it made? Is it relevant, relevant to me, relevant to the presidential campaign, relevant to the nation at large? Is it timely and/or is the timing suspicious? And etcetera. How many folks actually watched the sermon in it's entirety? Based on my own observations, damned few that's how many. Because if they had, they couldn't have missed that Wright was quoting the ambassador from Iraq - under Saddam's administration - as an example of how other people see America.

However, ask yourself a question here, what if he was condemning American foreign policy? What if he actually was saying that by funding and equipping Saddam Hussein during the Tanker war against Iran, or by funding and equipping the Mujahedeen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or that by favoring and condoning Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, America had laid the ground work for the attacks of 9/11? Seriously, so what? Is this a new idea? Is the observation of such things in and of itself unpatriotic? Is it actually incorrect? Is any criticism of the United States by a US citizen grounds for national outrage? Really?

Wright has also spoken out against racism, and disfranchisement, and prejudice, and a number of things that are important, and personal, to his flock. Should he have been more polite about it? Is it his tone that's unpatriotic? Or his passion? Or is he off base; is what he's saying wrong? Is prejudice, and racism, and bias gone from America? Has poverty been stamped out? Or disenfranchisement?

Or is he saying things that we as Americans don't want to hear?

If we fail to observe critically, if we disregard information because it doesn't fit with our precious opinions of our own selves and our nation, then we will continue to orient ourselves poorly within the global and national environments, and as a result we will continue to make decisions and implement actions that place our nation and a significant fraction of our population at a significant disadvantage.

Wright hasn't said one thing publicly that isn't true, or at least reasonably correct - within the proper context. He has also said, yesterday as a matter of fact, that reconciliation means "we embrace our individual rich histories," and that it also means removing "any teaching of superiority, inferiority, hatred or prejudice" and recognizing that each person "is one of God's children ... no better, no worse." While, I'm not a religious person and am somewhat ambivalent on the subject of a Supreme Being - I can accept and embrace Wright's statement in the context given and admire him for his position.

Predictably though, those comments have not received nearly as much attention as those that reinforced popular perception. Those that want to find a reason to vote against Obama, will. Period. Even if it's not in their best interest, a significant number of Clinton democrats claim that they will either not vote, or vote for McCain, if Obama wins the Democratic nomination. In other words, they will take actions contrary to their own interests, based on poor decisions, derived from an incorrect orientation, due to a failure to observe the environment critically and without bias.

Then they'll spend the next four years bitching about how the Republicans stole yet another election - before the cycle begins again.

I'm not saying that you're an idiot if you don't vote for Obama. I'm not saying that you should vote for him, or that I will either for that matter. What I'm saying is: Observe, orient, decide, act - i.e. think! Gather data critically. Question the information. Verify your facts, for crying out loud - then make your decision. Because your observations, orientation, decisions, and actions affect me, and that makes it personal.

And stop forwarding viral email, there's enough bad data in the world without making it worse.

19 comments:

  1. Ok,

    I thought I saw some good analysis around here but this is the best. I agree wholeheartedly and in fact I go one step further this is a psy-ops campaign designed to elect Hillary designed to continue agression in the middle east.

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  2. Jim, did you see/hear the interview with Bill Moyers and the Rev Wright? I thought he was well-spoken, thoughtful and reasonable. Some of his ideas were not my cup of tea, but I didn't think he was a raving lunatic or anything...as the press would have us believe.

    And did you hear that Obama is a Muslim?

    ::Ducks, Runs Away::

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  3. I go one step further this is a psy-ops campaign designed to elect Hillary designed to continue agression in the middle east

    adept2u, be careful not to fall into the same trap. While I agree that there is sufficient data to support your hypothesis, at least in some regards, I don't think you've got enough verified information to confidently conclude that there is an organized IW campaign afoot. Now, I will say that there is certainly a number of concerted psy-ops campaigns designed in to push the population into voting for one candidate or another - that's the nature of politics, and politicians (or rather their campaign managers) are masters of information operations by definition.

    Now I will say that on the face of things, those who control the media increasingly tend to gather, process, and disseminate only the the information they want the public to see - and I think it can be proved to a reasonable degree of confidence that they are doing it with malice aforethought, at least in some cases. They do this in a number of ways, from the selection of sponsors and advertising, to out and out biased reporting.

    But, knowing this, it behooves the voter to gather and process information critically. To acquire information from a variety of sources and cross check that information for validity with a critical eye. And it is even more important to question data received via viral sources.

    While I am loath to resort to sole-source verification - Snopes.com is an excellent starting place for verification of viral data. Nearly all common viral emails are easily proved false, or at best misleading, by snopes. And the folks who run snopes aren't doing anything that the average citizen couldn't do for himself, if they were inclined to think critically.

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  4. Janiece, yeah I saw the interview. And like you said, while I don't necessarily agree with the Good Rev on everything - he sounds like somebody I'd love to sit down with and have a beer and an interesting conversation.

    In fact, I admire that he held his peace as long as he has. The funny thing is that by taking his comments out of context, the press and the public having basically validated his position.

    Want to stick it to the Rev Wright? The best way to do that would be to prove him wrong - wipe out poverty, racism, prejudice, and etc. There, see, you're wrong! Treat everybody equally under the Constitution, take that, Rev.

    And you can run, but you can't hide ;)

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  5. As to the OODA, new info for me. Thanks.

    RE: the message; I wish you had wider distribution and weren't preaching to the choir. Excellent points expressed very convincingly.

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  6. Well, you know, go beat the bushes, drum up some business, something. Sheesh! ;)

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  7. Well, I could plug you on my blog, but I really don't think that's an upgrade.

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  8. Adept2u, you're on to something, but you've missed the wider battle. As a quote from a former show I happened to love (because it was damn smart and expected it's audience to be smart as well), "You're not looking at the whole board."

    The drive for the Rev. Wright quotes (everywhere all the time) was very deliberate, it was meant to paint a picture of him and Obama being "uppity." That is an ugly word, and I don't use it lightly. But it's a clarion call to a segment of the population. A segment that is not fully represented by the Left Wing of the spectrum but could be said to include the "Reagan Democrats" (ie. moderates, independents, and Rhinos).

    Jim, I disagree slightly, I do see many psy-ops going on at the moment. They aren't centrally coordinated, but I think you have seen how certain emails bear the marks of having been written by the same people. While the number and frequency of them arriving in my inbox has gone down sharply, I expect they'll go back to fever pitch, say, around Sept. 1st.

    I expect "Astroturf" (fake grassroots organizations and actors) will be a common phrase by the end of this election cycle.

    And just so I don't go completely off the post, while going into Iraq to "get the WMDs" is somewhat of what Jim is saying, readers should also factor in that battle plans were made to include the possibility of a chemical or biological strike (one of the reasons why the tempo of the attack was to be fast). That reasoning also caused the troops to carry and train with heavy and hot equipment to counter such an attack (which then lead to shortages on other valuable equipment, like carrying enough water). By not being able to adjust to the changing environment, clinging to outdated information, we hampered ourselves. So even without having the WMDs, Saddam altered the battlefield because he spoofed us out (maybe, maybe not, but I think it's pretty clear we planned for him to have them).

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  9. Gotta go put my tin-foil hat back on. Just realized I left it off. :)

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  10. Steve, tinfoil is a conductor, what you want is a glass helmet.

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  11. Wright hasn't said one thing publicly that isn't true, or at least reasonably correct - within the proper context.

    I disagree. From here:

    On his contention that the U.S. government had created AIDS as a method of committing genocide against African-Americans, Wright referred to a hotly-disputed 1996 book "Emerging Viruses: AIDS And Ebola : Nature, Accident or Intentional?" by Leonard G Horowitz, which contends that AIDS and the Ebola viruses evolved during cancer experiments on monkeys.

    He also referenced "Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present" by Harriet Washington, and said based on the Tuskegee experiment -- in which the U.S. Public Health Service conducted a 40-year study on 400 poor black men in Alabama with syphilis whom they did not properly treat -- "I believe our government is capable of anything."


    There is no context in which that kind of conspiracy mongering is healthy. The Tuskegee experiment was evil. I wouldn’t say it was completely isolated, but it was not widespread practice, either. By citing it in a condemnation of today’s medical field, Wright is off base. In some of his arguments he may be right, but in others, such as that one, he’s very, very wrong. But a pastor, especially one of that stature, has a responsibility to the truth. He has shirked that responsibility. I condemn him as much as I condemn a YEC pastor.

    He’s a conspiracy theorist. The current media campaign is an attempt to rehabilitate him. You get someone that bitter in pretty much every group of people if the sample is large enough. I grew up in a black church, and I met people like this. Our church didn’t give them pastorships, though.

    Is he evil? No. Is he misguided? Yes. Is his brand of preaching healthy for young poor black men who need to take more responsibility in their lives? Absolutely not. This kind of message was exactly what Bill Cosby and Juan Williams are preaching against.

    If Juan Williams ever ran for office, I’d vote for him in a heartbeat. If the shit ever hit the fan, I’d keep Wright out of the compound.

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  12. You might be interested in this discussion on Boyd and Col. Osinga's book. Col. Osinga even joined in.

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  13. John,

    I should have been more clear with that statement, I meant that Wright didn't say anything publicly that wasn't at least somewhat justifiable from his perspective.

    You brought up his statement that Aids/Ebola was created by the government. While I absolutely agree that this is nothing more than a conspiracy theory of the worst kind - you should be able to see, from an information warfare perspective, how some members of the African American community could and do buy into it - specifically because events such as the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment did indeed actually occur. Yes, such events were (supposedly) not widespread, but the very fact that they did occur, even once, lends credibility to the AIDS conspiracy theory in the minds of people who already have reason to feel repressed - if I was writing an IW plan to target a specific civilian population segment, this is precisely the type of situation I would build on, playing to the fears of those who were disenfranchised, persecuted, or treated differently from the majority.

    Understand, that portion of my post wasn't to defend Rev Wright, rather to point out that his sermons should have little bearing on the average voter, and yet are being seized on by those who are determined to keep Obama out of office. There is a concerted effort, organized or not, to take information (already false, or at least unverified), add to it, and propagate it into the public conscience.

    There is a threshold, what we used to call 'information self-sustainment' in the IW field, where the inserted information becomes self-propagating and taken at face value by it's target audience. And that's what is happening here - Wright is just conspiracy crazy enough to provide an opportune IW vulnerability (sorry, I'll try to avoid jargon, but it's difficult for me when discussing Information Warfare). What I see is Wright playing to a certain perspective (and using shoddy data verification) in a particular minority population as a platform to build anti-Obama awareness in the data sphere. Couple that with the Obama-doesn't-wear-a-flag-pin, the Obama-doesn't-respect-the-national-anthem, and the Obama-is-a-Muslim memes widely circulating in the data sphere and you have a very powerful force - organized and deliberate, or not.

    In recent weeks I've spoken to a number of otherwise reasonable, intelligent folks who were shocked to find that I could even think about Obama as President - because, he doesn't put his hand over his heart during the national anthem, or doesn't respect the flag, or is a Muslim, or is a racist, or etc. When I ask how they arrived at that conclusion, the answer is inevitably, "Everybody knows that, aren't you paying attention?"

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  14. John, thanks for the link to the Boyd/Osinga roundtable. I read a couple of the posts, and I'll read the rest later this evening. Again thanks, I appreciate it.

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  15. OK, Jim fair enough. I did not read your post as saying "from his perspective".

    My beef is this: Wright represents the fringe of African-American thought. Some of his rhetoric is destructive. I'm not stupid enough to think that Obama shares his views. Obama is not a stupid man.

    Obabma chose to associate with him for nearly 2 decades. He chose to associate children (with their recent white ancestry)with this corrosive rhetoric. And he didn't speak out about it until recently. He did this for one reason: he's half white and he wanted to shirk charges of not being black enough.

    I have a problem with that.

    Juan Williams said it better than I could.

    Before "Enough" was published I looked at Juan as well left of center, based on his comments on international policy on Fox and NPR. Now, I think that if he's left, I'm left, too. But a correspondent for NPR is being attacked as "rightwing" in this mess.

    Most of the charges leveled at Obama are mud slinging and I ignore them. But if he says he offers "change" why did he associate for so long with this standard bearer for the past?

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  16. John, while I agree that there's certainly something to what Williams said in the video you linked to, I also very much understand that Obama is a shrewd politician.

    Did he join the Trinity United Church of Christ solely to appear 'more black' to a certain segment of his voter base, or because he actually agreed with the message preached there? I don't know, and I think it unlikely that any of us ever will for certain.

    Does it matter what his motives were? Maybe, but probably not at this point.

    If he attended TUCC all these years solely to increase his visibility and likability to black voters - well, so? I mean, sure it is to some extent disingenuous, but again he's a politician. And I don't see that as any different than Bill Clinton playing saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show, or GWB dishing up BBQ at every cookoff in the Midwest during his campaign in order to appear more likable. Would I do it? No, but then I wouldn't get elected either.

    If he attended TUCC because he actually agreed with Wright's rhetoric, yes I think there's cause for concern - however, he has stated clearly that he does not agree with Wright's position on many topics, and his track record in the Senate bears that out.

    As to exposing his child to Wright's 'hate speech,' well that's his business - and it's important to note that not all, or even a majority, of Wright's sermons were of the controversial variety. And John, truthfully here and no offense to anybody (ALL: really I do NOT intend the following to be offensive, please don't take it that way), but in all candor many churches preach some form of intolerance to their congregations - including children. Whether it's anti-gay, anti-semitic, anti-science, anti-something. Some of it is every bit as intolerant as Wright's rhetoric - take Bush Senior's comment that atheists shouldn't be considered patriots for example. Now not all, or even a majority of churches preach intolerance, but many do, and I don't think Obama should be condemned solely because of his involvement with Wright or TUCC. It's an area of concern, yes, but I think it's been addressed.

    And again, I'm not saying that Obama is better or worse than the other candidates or that you should vote for him. I'm saying that he should be judged on his merits, not Wright's, and that each voter should apply critical thinking when it comes to their choices.

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  17. About the glass hat:

    1) so that's what the voices get louder when I put on the tin-foil hat

    B) but with a glass hat people can still see my bald spot

    III) way to close sounding to another type of hat I'm tired of wearing.

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  18. Well, Steve, frankly I prefer to wear the hat with those beer can holders on either side...

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  19. felt lined glass hats are the answer.

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