Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Jeffrey Friedman and Richard Zeckhauser ─ Probability Assessment and National Security Decision Making: Experimental Evidence from National Security Professionals

Thursday, April 20, 2017

4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

Joukowsky Forum

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Uncertainty surrounds every major national security decision. Yet national security officials are generally reluctant to assess this uncertainty directly. In many cases, official doctrine for intelligence analysis and military planning instructs national security officials to leave their assessments of uncertainty deliberately vague. Many scholars and pundits share this discomfort with probabilistic reasoning, arguing that even if these judgments are crucial to the logical foundations of high-stakes decisions, they are too subjective to address with meaningful precision. Through a series of survey experiments administered to a cross-section of national security professionals, we provide the first systematic tests of common concerns regarding the nature and limits of probabilistic reasoning in national security affairs. We show that a broad range of analysts can reliably parse their assessments of uncertainty more finely than what the conventional wisdom allows; we demonstrate that national security decision makers consistently respond to these details when evaluating risky choices; and we refute the argument that this kind of analysis creates "illusions of rigor" that warp high-stakes decisions. Our work suggests that scholars and practitioners undervalue probabilistic reasoning when debating national security issues, and that it would be possible to improve the quality of public discourse by confronting this subject head-on.

Jeffery Friedman is an Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College.

Richard Zeckhauser is the Frank P. Ramsey Professor of Political Economy, Kennedy School, Harvard University.

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