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Directorate of
Intelligence

Notes on Analytic
Tradecraft

Product Evaluation
Staff


    May 1995
 


Note 3

Articulation of Assumptions

 
This is the third in a series of Product Evaluation Staff notes to clarify the standards used for evaluating DI assessments and to provide tradecraft tips for putting the standards into practice.
 


DI analysts are regularly tasked to assist policymakers, warfighters, and law enforcement officers in managing the uncertainty that complicates US efforts to deal with national security threats and opportunities. Many issues cannot be addressed with certainty - by analysts, by policy officials, or even by the foreign players involved. The pattern of political and economic developments in, say, a newly democratic country can depend on so many actors, institutional variables, and contingencies that the outlook cannot be predicted with high confidence. Estimating over an extended timeline or during a period of political or economic crisis increases the burden of uncertainty.

As a rule, the greater the degree of uncertainty attending an issue:

This tradecraft note on Articulation of Assumptions and the next note on Outlook will address the DI tradecraft for argumentation that sets the standard for helping consumers deal effectively with the uncertainty they face in planning for, taking, and monitoring US action.

By "argumentation" we mean the communication in an intelligence assessment of the structure of the analysts' critical thinking in support of the bottom-line judgments. Under the DI tradecraft standard, when policymakers, warfighters, and law enforcement officials are asked to rely on DI analysis, the reasoning that ties evidence, to assumption, to judgments must be:


Drivers and Linchpins

The DI tradecraft for the articulation of assumptions places emphasis on identifying the drivers or key variables the uncertain factors that analysts judge most likely to determine the outcome of a complex situation. At times the economy is the key uncertain factor; at times the loyalty of the security forces; at times the leadership skills of a president or dictator. At times all three are judged to carry equal weight in driving future developments.

The analysts' working assumptions about the drivers are sometimes referred to as linchpin assumptions because these are the premises that hold the argument together and warrant the validity of the conclusion.

The following are hypothetical examples to illustrate the relationships of drivers, linchpin assumptions, and conclusions:

Linchpin assumptions are by definition debatable and subject to error. Thus, analysts must defend their judgments by marshaling supporting evidence and reasoning. For instance, in the Egyptian example, the analysts should offer convincing evidence for the assumption that "the military probably will continue supporting the government."

Moreover, on an important issue such as this, the inherent uncertainty has to be accounted for by addressing plausible alternative courses of development, a topic that will be covered in the Tradecraft Note on "Outlook." Here we present recommendations for refining and articulating the assumptions that support the analysts' bottom-line conclusions.


Tradecraft Tips

1. Each assessment represents a distinctive challenge in terms of how to set out the argumentation. As a rule of thumb, the more complex and controversial the issue, the more the analysts should make clear the sinews of the reasoning:

2. Before starting to draft an assessment, analysts should open up the search for drivers, and not rely solely on what was determined to be the key factors in the last exercise. That is, they should put aside their previous conclusions and focus initially on the range and alignment of assumptions:

3. Also, analysts should open up the process of determining assumptions about the drivers:

-- In the Egyptian example, the subordinate assumptions to the linchpin assumption that the military probably will continue to support the government could include judgments about the military's stake in secular government and antagonism toward the Islamic extremists.

4. Analysts should review their first draft against a tough standard:

5. Some specific questions analysts should ask about the draft:

In sum DI analysts can speak with authority on substantively complex and politically controversial issues only through sound and precise argumentation. The more effectively drivers and assumptions are identified and defended, the greater the credibility of the bottom-line conclusions.

Forward to "Note 4"

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