Twelve Angry Men Who Came In From the Cold

by Chris Borgen

Kent’s Imperative, a blog devoted to intelligence studies, has a very interesting post on how lawyers are trained and whether or not such training helps or hurts in intelligence analysis. (This is a topic they have previously discussed here.)

The newest post, though, has a film studies twist: namely, what can be learned from the classic film Twelve Angry Men. The blogger at Kent’s Imperative explains:

For a number of years, the classic black and white film Twelve Angry Men has been a frequent teaching aid in introductory analysis courses dealing with the basics of evidence and argumentation. The conventional use of the film is to provide an accessible means of deconstructing a fictionalized scenario for students with little prior experience with formal debate. Given the current decline in public education, this helps remedy a basic skills deficit that is unfortunately and increasingly all too common.
However, it is with interest that we observe the controversy that has erupted once again over this fifty-one year old movie. The criticisms that have been leveled against the underlying premise of the film deserve some additional consideration – not the least of which because they point out the serious problems in applying much of what is taught as legal logic to the unique problems of the intelligence domain.

One criticism is that (unlike legal logic) intelligence analysis:

is based on the need to focus on the external worldview, rather than the tactical maneuvering in the courtroom that such kinds of arguments inevitably devolve towards. It is a quite valid point, and among the reasons that we have long decried the trends towards creeping legalism that have lately come to dominate intelligence work. The bulk of a lawyer’s litigative activities – and therefore a disproportionate degree of their education and professional experiences – are dictated by entirely tactical considerations that apply nowhere else but within the limited framework of the legal system. Too often this is easily forgotten, to the detriment of the strategic picture – and the accuracy and veracity of analysis. We have written on these problems before, but to be frank we had rarely considered the myriad of ways in which – by borrowing from the older legal profession’s traditions in teaching basic logic and rhetoric – the intelligence academia may continue to contribute to these unhelpful trends of cognitive bias. Among these, of course, are the kinds of ludic fallacy identified by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Read the rest of the post for further critiques and defenses of the film (and possible alternatives) as a means of teaching analytical skills as well as for the broader discussion on the analytical practices of lawyers versus those of intelligence analysts.

One Response

  1. I used Twelve Angry Men in my critical thinking course to illustrate many of the informal fallices, so I suspect my approach to it was rather different than those who employ it for legal reasoning and rhetorical analysis (although we did some of the latter as well, but not so much in terms of the law qua law).

    I’m not at all convinced of the critique of the black and white format of the film, its “glacial” pace, etc. Indeed, I think the comment about students’ “minds attuned to rapid multi-tasking and immersive information environment,” and the pejorative reference to the “need for sustained single focus attention,” are troubling. I think “multi-tasking” is highly over-rated and typically entails doing many things poorly rather than one or a few things well. My students often suffer from “fragmented consciousness,” meaning an inability to concentrate on a problem for an extended period of time, to think through all the probable or possible ramifications of a topic, to put problems or issues in wider contexts, or to see how a subject relates to other subject areas and similar problems in other fields of inquiry. In other words, I don’t think the structure and pace of information technologies and environments fundamentally alters the manner in which we rely on or apply our mental faculties and powers.

    Other remarks about the nature of intelligence gathering and analysis are interesting, however, and remind me a bit of a paper I wrote (found in the online journal Radical Pedagogy) critiquing the way in which “critical thinking” skills were taught to non-philosophy majors: the philosophy instructors taught the class in the pedagogical fashion in which they were trained in philosophy, that is, with an emphasis on deductive reasoning and formal logic, with the result that forms of inductive reasoning paled in comparison to the extent they could not be formalized (hence an undue emphasis on Bayesian reasoning). What is worse, even the informal fallacies were taught in a manner insensitive to context so as to in effect appear “formal” rather than informal. Students were unable to see how dialogue and other communicative contexts were absolutely central to whether or not a mode of reasoning was fallacious or not. What is more, the role (for better and worse) of emotions in reasoning, the nature of analogical and metaphorical reasoning, the unavoidability of rhetoric, an appreciation of different kinds of inductive reasoning, the nature of well-known cognitive impediments (e.g., heuristics and biases, although the former are not necessarily problematic) to reasoning, the roles of intuition and imagination, among other topics, rarely if at all entered the picture of the model critical reasoner as constructed by philosophers teaching “critical thinking.” I do happen to think these critical thinking “skills” apply across disciplinary boundaries and fields of inquiry, but one can only learn them through immersion in a particular field’s set of topics and issues, and that is what we endeavored to do in our class in a short-hand fashion, discussing issues from various fields in a field-sensitive manner.

    Stephen Toulmin’s work on “practical reasoning” is useful here insofar as he demonstrates the nature of reasoning and argumentation in different fields of intellectual inquiry and praxis: from the arts to the sciences.

    I suspect that in my field, the comparative study of (religious and non-religious) worldviews, many of the salient substantive and methodological issues that arise are likewise found in intelligence analysis. Of late there’s been provocative discussion of how a culture’s notion of rationality may be “embedded, articulated and manifested in culturally specific ways” (this is not a crude form of relativism owing to the fact that the concept of reason or rationality is not itself culturally specific). In addition, the concept of rationality within a given culture may be highly stratified (a particularly difficult idea for intellectuals to appreciate) and paradigms of rationality within a culture may come and go over time. Jonardon Ganeri, who broaches these topics in the context of his specialization in Indian philosophy, intriguingly argues that “forms of rationality are…interculturally available even if they are not always interculturally instantiated.”

    In short, I do believe the blog post raises some important topics both within and outside intelligence studies proper, although perhaps the latter have some relevance to, or implications for, the former.

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