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Notes on Estimating

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CONFIDENTIAL

Notes on Estimating

as though "the Soviets," "Peiping," or "Israel" were each of one mindwhole, coherent, and consistent.1
Prophecy, as I use the term, implies that the future is already there, deep within the crystal ball, to be discerned by those who are wise and lucky enough to do so. It invites a great leap from A to Z, aided by intuition and hope. Predictive estimating does not reject these aids altogether, but it is based essentially on a concept of the future as too complicated and chancy to permit easy leaps from where you are to where you want to be. It is, in short, both more responsible and humbler than prophecy. It is also typically less dramatic, more cautious and tentative in its conclusions, and perhaps less exciting to read. Sometimes it is possible to startle or intrigue by statements of boldly impressive foresight, but this is legitimate only if a laborious and disciplined intellectual process has been gone through first.
All this may sound like pretentious counsels of perfection, and in any case inconsistent with earlier remarks on the desirability of short papers. Certainly a published estimate which self-consciously spelled out its own scrupulous observance of all the rules suggested above I   would be an infinitely elaborate and tedious document, too much like a Ph.D. thesis in one of the fields of social science where concentration on methodology crowds out content. But I am talking here as much about an intellectual process as about the visible product delivered to the printer.   We all use various forms of verbal shorthand in getting our message across; without them, analysis and estimating could not be communicated. But there is a difference between short cuts in getting the message across and short cuts in thinking about what the message should be. The latter can be indulged in only at the risk of sacrificing quality and, eventually, credibility. Like icebergs, estimates must have a lot of substance below the visible surface if they are to hold together and stand up.
Guessing Games
The record of National Estimates over the years in these respects is a mixed one. One practice occurs often enough in various guises
1 To illustrate an effect of this approach: a number of National Estimates in recent years have employed the device of presenting the most likely judgment on the central question, and then, in immediately following paragraphs introduced by the sensible admission that this reasoning might be in error, of going on to suggest the implications of alternative hypotheses-even if the odds don't appear to favor them. I cannot escape the belief that on close questions of particularly crucial importance this practice adds enormously to the usefulness of the document.
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Posted: May 08, 2007 08:13 AM
Last Updated: Aug 05, 2011 12:49 PM