Sunday, 13 March 2011

Avoiding Analysis!

The media war for control of the narrative of the unfolding events in Libya is underway. As one commentator described it, information is flowing like water, finding its way around obstacles, pooling in different basins and leaking through in a variety of ways to the surface. As yet, it has been difficult to verify information that has been coming out of Libya through the variety of information exchange mediums that are now available to the average citizen, journalists and governments. The core of the debate that is revolving around the situation (whether a civil war, an uprising, a revolution, a rebellion etc.) is whether the information is reliable. Al Jazeera and CNN have tapped into real-time sources of information such as twitter and blog sites in order to get an up-to-date idea of what events are unfolding. The key criticism is that information that cannot be verified is being used to compose the narrative of what is unfolding in Libya.

This has provided a number of analysts and commentators with the ideal excuse to sit on the fence, and to blame the quality of information being put out by media outlets for their reticence to provide analysis of the unfolding situation in Libya. Yet this is a distortion of its own. We never have complete, reliable information on any complex phenomena, whether it is emerging in real-time or has already occurred and is cast as 'history'. Historical events also find themselves subject to the same limitations - varieties of information sources all contribute their wholly subjective views of how an historical event unfolded. Yet does this mean that we are unable to reach fundamental conclusions on what has occurred or is occurring? Moreover, can this type of obscurism be justifiably employed to avoid arriving at a judgement about what is unfolding now or may have unfolded in the past?

There is a simple answer to this question, that is; the job of an analyst is to interpret information, whether the information comes from uncertain or certain sources. An analyst cannot get away with throwing their hands up in the air purely because they are overloaded with information from a variety of sources and which have a variety of levels of uncertainty associated with it. In reality, the value of analysis and expert opinion is the ability to integrate information that has various levels of uncertainty associated with it and to make sense of confusing and sometimes contradictory sources of information. Analysts do not have the priviledge of blaming the quality of information available to them for not performing analysis. While it is true that analysts should verify and cross-verify the information available to them and the sources from which information is obtained to the best of their ability, they do not have the luxury of refusing to arrive at an understanding of what is happening in Libya - otherwise, what is the point of having analysts? If all they do is perform mental 'calculations' upon information, can't they be replaced with computers?

Where Libya is concerned, there is a great deal of information emerging from different sources that can be cross-verified to some degree, and compared against other cases, whether current or historical. Analysts can make use of their judgement and experience to gauge what is going on in Libya. Indeed, we all accept that their views are subjective, and that there is great value in that. We do not expect them to have an all-knowing, all-seeing omnipotence from which they can derive ultimate truth. This is especially so where conflicts are concerned. Experts and analysts are always dealing with murky, often suppressed sources of information in conflict zones, and that won't change anytime soon. Such is the nature of conflict and war.

Moreover, it is disingenuous to criticize information emerging from Libya that cannot be independently verified by reporters on the ground, as it presupposes that reporters can play such a role without imparting their own level of subjectivity to the situation. Have the analysts forgotten the dangers of 'embedded journalism' and how effectively this was used to influence public opinion and create legitimacy for the war on Iraq? Have they forgotten how easily 'reliable' information regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq proved to be worthless? Relying too heavily or exclusively on information and not intelligent analysis is dangerous and irresponsible. Information is only as valuable as the the narrative that can be constructed around it, and it is the responsibility of analysts to step into the murky waters of uncertainty and provide a worthwhile opinion. Where extreme situations such as Libya is concerned, if you have no analysis to offer then don't simply point out the uncertainty levels associated with the situation as a convenient excuse for sitting on the fence. Make a judgement with the information you have, and the expertise you have, and don't be afraid of changing your judgement should new information become available that requires a change in outlook. Waiting around for perfect hindsight will only result in another Bosnian debacle for the people of Libya, while the 'experts' will have the benefit of being correct long after the fact - a big fat, "so what?" for the Libyan people.

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