The problem with ‘expertise’ and definitive statements

We all want to be right. It sure beats being wrong. When we are wrong we make bad decisions that could cost us dearly. So unless you are some kind of masochist I wager that you would prefer to get things correct more often than not.

Of course none of us is right 100% of the time. That is impossible. In order to be consistently right you need access to a whole bunch of information that helps you make a choice. Normally you wait until you have enough solid data before you make a statement or establish a position. The more you have and the more accurate this information is the better the chances are that what you have to say will be spot on, or as close to spot on as you can be.

I have learned over the years, both as an intelligence analyst and now as an occasional commentator for the media, that not only do you rarely, if ever, have enough information to stake out a position, but you are often called upon to pronounce that position well before you should. Especially when it comes to the news cycle, those that keep us informed want those who provide insight to be categorical or definitive. If you are lucky, your words prove to be as near to the truth as possible.

And if not…?

Case in point an article in today’s National Post in which two ‘experts’ on surviving in the wilderness, Les Stroud (“Survivorman”) and Terry Grant (“Mantracker”) are quoted as saying that two murder suspects sought by the RCMP in conjunction with three deaths in northern BC on July 15 “could be just about anywhere but northern Manitoba”. Mr. Grant added that “I’m half thinking they met someone in a big town … and they’re long gone to Texas or the Bahamas.” Given the background of these men sounds like good analysis, right?


The RCMP is confident that they have found the bodies of the two suspects, Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky, in northern Manitoba 70 kilometres northeast of Gillam, where they had been focusing their search. In other words, they had not crossed the US border or the Ontario border or any border for that matter. They were found pretty much where they were believed to be.

I would like to cut Messrs. Stroud and Grant some slack. I know nothing about either man or what constitutes a ‘survivalist’ so I have no idea how ‘expert’ they are. I also concede that they may have been misquoted or had their words taken out of context. Hell, that has happened to me on occasion in my dealing with the media.

Still, what bugs me is how definitive they sounded. They were confident that the two killers would NOT be found in Manitoba and yet that is exactly where their bodies – if they are indeed the two men at large – were located. Makes them look kinda bad, doesn’t it?

My point is that we are faced with these kinds of definitive statements on all kinds of issues all the time. Self-styled experts are legion and they do their best to convince us that they are the ones whose opinions should be followed. I cannot count the number of times I have watched or heard interviews in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in which so-and-so says “it has to be this!” despite the lack of time following the event to collect, let alone analyse, the necessary information. Yes, it is what the watching world demands but it is not necessary for us to feed that beast when our better judgment is to reserve judgment.

I learned my lesson during the Anders Breivik terrorist attacks in Norway in 2011 when I gave in to demands to produce an assessment despite the almost total lack of data. I blew it big time by calling it a possible Islamist attack and I cannot take that back. I will never make the same mistake again.

Now, when I do interviews I am careful to be more circumspect, ensuring I put in a lot of “it depends” or “it seems” or “maybe”. I rarely if ever say “it must be X” unless there is ample data on which to base that certainty. That may not satisfy those who want easy answers or what I call ‘instant analysis’ but it saves me from having to backtrack later.

Oh that more people were less sure of themselves sometimes!

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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