Tweet If you’re in London and interested in decision making, decide to be free the evening of September 23rd. Gerd Gigerenzer, one of the world’s leading heuristics gurus and Director of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, will be opening the season at the […]

Tweet Brooke Harrington of the Max Planck Institute will be speaking at the RSA on Thursday 17th April, 1 pm, about the subject of her new book Pop Finance. Anyone hearing the news reported this morning about hormonal excess leading to bad risk-taking in trading will be interested in this from the synopsis of Brooke’s […]

Tweet Dr Melissa Bateson and colleagues at Newcastle University have been doing some fascinating work on how a starling’s environment is reflected in its outlook, the New Scientist reports (28th April 2007). It turns out that the “richer” the bird’s environment, the more “optimistic” its behaviour is. The birds were trained to associate a tasty […]

The expression “you can’t have your cake and eat it” was around before behavioural science, or our favourite description of confirmation bias – Paul Simon in his song The Boxer. But it is hard to understand how a report this week, first seen in the New York Times, but then repeated elsewhere, can act as both as an indictment of British intelligence, but also be framed by the press as a validation of the claims that the war in Iraq has increased the risk of terrorist attack.

The bigger story must surely be the past failure of the UK Joint Terrorist Analysis Centre, which had said, “at present there is not a group with both the current intent and the capability to attack the UK.” But most journalists – ignoring the JTAC’s past record – seem to have led with its condemnation of allied governments and Tony Blair in particular, when it said “events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist-related activity in the UK.”

In journalism, the quality of a source must be measured by the reliability of his/her/its information. If he is wrong on one thing, as the JTAC was so manifestly in gauging the imminent threat, then he must be treated cautiously on all other assertions.

In truth, it should be no surprise that the war in Iraq increased the risk of terrorist activity. Quantifying it may prove much more difficult in the absence of knowledge of a different path of history. However, whether the war was the right or wrong decision at the time, focusing on it is a significant mistake of bias when the greater revelation in the NYT story is that the intelligence services grossly underestimated the current “sophistication” of the terrorist networks.

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