Thursday, 9 December 2010

Spycatcher and Hindsight Bias

"Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards." (Soren Kierkegaard)

After the essay on Spycatcher, here is a review from me on that book, again from the Mensa Magazine of 1987. When books of this nature come out, it is important to note that they are enfolded in an interpretation of events, a narrative which both gives out information, and cites it as evidence to show a point. There is nothing wrong with coming to conclusions in hindsight, but there can be a danger of reading them back into past events.

In Mr Wright's book, an example of this is when he tells a story about Peter Ustinov's father, and tells us that it gave him a lesson - in how retired spies are mistreated - that he never forgot. And yet he also tells how he was surprised that the "gentleman's agreement" on his pension was not to be honoured. Clearly, the lesson he learned is in fact a later one, which he projects back and imputes to his earlier self, a lesson that is in fact learned in hindsight.

So with any leaks that come with a "framing narrative", we have to be careful about seeing what that narrative says, whether it is an individual, or a journalist, because it could reflect later concerns, rather than present ones. That's not to say the author is deliberately misleading the reader - they may not even be aware of that - or that the concerns are not valid, but in constructing a history, we have to be aware of that kind of bias when we put matters into a chronology. It is what is called "hindsight bias".

As David G. Meyers in "Exploring Social Psychology" says:

In everyday life we often do not expect something to happen until it does. We then suddenly see clearly the forces that brought it to be and feel unsurprised. After Ronald Reagan's presidential victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980, commentators -- forgetting that the election had been "too close to call" until the campaign's final few days -- found the Reagan landslide unsurprising and easily understandable. (1)

Baruch Fischhoff, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, notes that this is something that politicians are very good at doing, rewriting their histories. His research shows that " people can fight the hindsight bias only when they honestly and systematically try to explain how different outcomes are possible. Such self-doubt is the exact opposite of how modern politics works: In the age of the blogosphere, certitude is king."

At its core, in other words, the hindsight bias is a form of overconfidence. Clearly acknowledging how you might be wrong is the only weapon against the error, Fischhoff said, but that is one thing politicians hate to do.(2)

With the recent news story breaking that zero-ten is unacceptable, it will be interesting to see how many politicians - those who didn't publically say so beforehand (so not Ted Vibert) - will now exhibit "hindsight bias", and say they knew there were significant problems with the strategy all along, but they didn't want to "talk down the economy" until the EU Code of Conduct report had come out, in case they could be resolved.

Unfortunately there is little "wriggle room" for Senator Philip Ozouf, who has publically nailed his position to the mast that it was just one aspect of zero-ten that needed amending, but it will still be interesting to see what he says on that a year later, when a new Chief Minister needs to be chosen.

"Spycatcher" by Peter Wright
A Review

This is a very readable book, detailing a certain amount of the fascinating story of a life spent in the Intelligence Service, although Mr Wright has been careful to omit any information that would impair the present Service.

However, the reader should be warned; it is written in the personal style of the modern autobiography. A short passage from the book amply illustrates this: it occurs when Mr Wright visited Klop Ustinov (the father of actor Peter Ustinov) who had worked for the Government in the Second World War:

As the vodka took hold, we began to talk of old times. Tears began to wet his cheeks as he told me the story of what be had done for the country. Finally his reserve broke.

"I do these things, Peter, and they leave me here. My wife and I... penniless. "
"But what about your pension?' I asked,
"Pension? I have no pension," he flashed back bitterly. "When you work for them you never think about the future, about old age. You do it for love. And when it comes time to die, they abandon you."
I sat silent. It seemed scarcely credible to me that such a man could be left to such circumstances, forced almost to beg."

As this passage shows, this reads as if it were an exact rendering of events. The reader should be cautious in this respect, because this is where the modern autobiography parts company from history. It describes events as taking place, and makes no allowance for the fact that Mr Wright's Judgements may have changed over the years, even if his "facts remain the same. We are told of Mr Ustinov': bitterness over getting no pension, or Mr Wright'; condemnation of this. But how much has the story been coloured in the telling by the fact that M Wright himself lost most of his pension, and partly: wrote the book as a means of living?

In the book, Mr Wright mentions that. he left the Navy to move to the intelligence Services on the proviso that he would not lose the fourteen years of his Admiralty pension as he had no private income to fall back on. He later discovered that the "gentleman's agreement" was not going to be kept and was, himself, somewhat bitter about this. The problem arises as to how much this has coloured his perspective on the past. For instance, in connection with Klop Ustinov, he concludes that I learned a lesson I never forgot: that MI5 expects its officers to remain loyal unto the grave, without necessarily offering loyalty in return.. Was that really a lesson learned in 1956, or rather a modern comment on past events?

This must surely also be a problem with any assessment of Mr Wright's claim that the Head of MI5, Roger Hollis, was a Russian spy. Mr Wright's recollection of events on his investigation of Roger Hollis point to the inevitable conclusion that Hollis was a spy. But how impartial has that recollection been? How selective has Mr Wright been in his choosing facts to fit his theory, and how often might memory of judgements made been reinterpreted to fit that theory? Mr Wright also mentions that all his documents were destroyed prior to his departure, so memory is the only guide. This is the real problem facing any reader who digs beneath the surface of this book: how much is truth, and how much is mimetic fiction?


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