Rethinking their theories. Questions academic "terrorism studies" should ask on group-think, theory, data and paradigms

This piece - "Looking in the Wrong Places" - by the thoughtful and talented German physicist Sabine Hossenfelder - touches on some of the critical issues concerning scientific theory and method; the difficulties of experimentation; short-termism in research (often due to funding constraints); "group think" based on in-group indoctrination and popularity; and publishing ... well, something...for the sake of publishing. States of Mind is linking to this excellent piece not only because it is interesting in itself, but because it presages the problem of the claims of many academic terrorism studies departments to be producing reliable scientific analysis.

Although things have improved slightly over the past few years, it helps to explain why many published articles are still so clunky, process-driven and predictable, so theoretically weak, so derivative and short on relevant primary source data - and rarely advance the cause of knowledge. And in terms of research methodology, if things are difficult in particle physics they are even more difficult in terrorism studies since it is impossible to construct controlled experiments dealing with the complexities of deeply subjective and extreme states of mind. The scientific methodologies of, for example, criminology are more rigorous and sophisticated in almost every respect.

Amusingly (and this is in jest) there are some loose descriptive similarities between quantum mechanics (see article) and attempts to arrive at anything remotely resembling a "science" of suicide terrorism. Both "disciplines" deal with phenomena that are apparently rare, random, difficult to observe in real time and highly unpredictable - so much so that the observer (ie: using surveillance) can change the outcome of the experiment. But make no mistake, despite the impossibility of "terrorism studies" ever becoming a genuine science (given the fact that in a fast changing world they deal with historical data only, they should really refer to themselves as "Historians of Terrorism") the real issue here is not only the paucity of primary source raw data per se (although this is a perennial problem, especially with suicide terrorists - the coming threat), but (1) the ability to interpret what the data they do have really mean and, (2) knowing where to look and what data to look for in the first place. In other words, they need to formulate better theories before they take a view on what data is important and why. In general, they need to move from induction and chasing all data, to deduction and the formulation of better theories that can be tested. 

And this is where the world - the distraction - of facts and appearances needs good theory to make sense of it. The answers they are looking for are almost certainly not to be found in taking things at face value, are almost certainly hidden and in need of new paradigms, better theoretical guidance and better tools for analysis and interpretation. In other words, we need to look beyond appearances - beyond empirical data alone - to understand what's really happening when radicalisation flips into terrorism.

Viewing the ideology in terms of religious belief is a huge - and common - mistake. And this is something the "behavioural sciences" will always struggle to get past. The issue should be, not so much what are the causes of radicalisation, but what is the psychological "locking" mechanism behind the paradigm shift from radicalisation into terrorist action? Why is this key? First, because terrorism is the problem, not radicalisation. And secondly, counter-intuitively, because it's always people who grip ideologies and not the other way around - and that changes entirely the dynamic of how we have to start thinking about counter-radicalisation. It also explains why there are so few terrorists even though the ideology is everywhere.

We need to begin at the end and move backwards. And in this regard, the science we really need to develop is the science of influence for extreme states of mind. There is a big idea that explains this in terms of unconscious dynamics: the move from obsession to hysteria often linked to shame and attempts to resolve inner-conflict. There is also a silver bullet to counter it.  More of this to come.

"If we are working with the wrong theories, we are making the wrong extrapolations, we have the wrong expectations, we make the wrong experiments, and then we don’t get any new data. We have no guidance to develop these theories. So, it’s a chicken and egg problem. We have to break the cycle. I don’t have a miracle cure to these problems. These are hard problems. It’s not clear what a good theory is to develop." Sabine Hossenfelder spells it out.                                             

Time for new thinking !

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Sabine Hossenfelder is a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies