Additional Blog Post: Reading to Understand

In the fall of 2020, I returned from a one-year deployment to begin an academic journey toward a PhD. No one needs to tell me how lucky I am to be a full-time university student; it has been an amazing experience. One of the benefits of being able to focus on schoolwork is that I can see connections between it my prior experiences as a military officer that I might not have observed if I was a part-time student. One of the connections I noticed was between a technique I learned that allowed me to summarize books and the methods that intelligence personnel use to do their jobs. Therefore, the purpose of this post is to present a way of distilling what one reads into its salient points. I will tie that academic technique to an example of how one might use it in a military assignment.

I have learned that one of the main things that differentiates undergraduate from graduate programs is the latter’s focus on writing. However, to do the writing you have to first do the reading. One of the first classes I took was an introductory research methods course. The instructor introduced me to a simple way of analyzing the oftentimes overwhelming amount of reading a grad student must complete each week. Call it the “Five Questions” approach. There is one important piece of every step of the process and that is for the individual to write down the answers to the questions as they go. One shouldn’t try to keep it all in their brain. Writing triggers a cognitive process that has been well documented to improve retention and overall learning.

The “Five Questions” are:

Question 1: What is the author’s puzzle or question?

Question 2: So what? Why does the author’s puzzle or question matter?

Question 3: What is the author’s prospective answer?

Question 4: How does the author substantiate their answer?

Question 5: What alternative explanations does the author explore?

Being able to quickly summarize the answers to these questions allows grad students to move through the voluminous readings and form their own thoughts about them. It also, perhaps most importantly, allows them to see linkages between them and how authors are sometimes talking to each other through their published works.

As a military officer, one is regularly faced with the same problems of distinguishing the signal from the noise. Some military writers have talked about how analysts are “drowning in data” because there is more information to be analyzed than there are available people to analyze it. Therefore, military folks could use these “Five Questions” to examine information they read and quickly decide for themselves whether it merits further attention, whether there are links to other pieces of reporting, or whether to disregard it.

I believe the most important question is the last. That is because, in my experience, too often military personnel favor conclusions presented with confidence over nuanced arguments that show a range of potential outcomes. Most national-level intelligence agencies do a fairly good job of showing when dissension occurs, for example when the CIA, FBI, DIA agree on a conclusion but the NSA and NRO do not. However, at the subordinate “worker-level” I have seen that this is less common. I think this is due to two reasons. One, we try to minimize cognitive strain for our superiors (“The boss has a lot on her plate, I’m going to give her a simple conclusion that is easy to remember.”) Or, two, we employ the “throwaway course-of-action” approach whereby we present three potential future scenarios, two of which are less likely, resulting in our chosen likely outcome thereby preserving the veneer of rigorous critical thinking. It is critical that, when no dissenting opinions are listed in a military report, that individual readers should think to themselves what future events could happen that would change the author’s conclusion or our current opinion. Then they must present these alternative possibilities to decision makers. Dr. Phil Tetlock’s book, “Superforecasting” does a fantastic job of showing how and why we should use probabilistic forecasts to present these kinds of alternative possibilities.

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2 Responses to Additional Blog Post: Reading to Understand

  1. Katrina Colucci says:

    Hey Jim,

    First of all I always love your posts! I love how you combine the millitary and the academic aspect. It is very enlightening especially since I will be a civil servant in the DoD. This just proves that there are a lot of skills that are translatable from different job fields.

  2. cora says:

    Hi Jim,

    I too have been very fascinated with your posts this semester. Although I usually skim your posts on the canvas page, this is the first time I am visiting your actual site. Its amazing. I didn’t know you were in the military. Thank you for your service.

    It’s interesting thinking of your comment about “alternative endings/possibilities” in the context of my field: cancer research. I think so often, researchers are forced to seem 100% certain that what they are stating is true, and there’s a bit of pressure to NOT present other possibilities. For instance, a big thing to do is say that this gene or mechanism is responsible for X. It would be very difficult to outline all potential responsibilities of the gene, so we focus on “if we remove this gene, this happens.” Exploring any deeper than that would be very complex, but I’m thinking maybe artificial intelligence can help us piece together all the missing pieces.

    Kind of ramply, but thanks for your post!

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