How science and counter terrorism have their parallels

The many parallels with science and our efforts to understand and counter terrorism.
When I was a kid I really wanted to be a scientist. It was not always clear what kind of scientist I wanted to be: anthropologist (early humans fascinated me), biologist, geologist, whatever.

I devoured any book on science I could get from the library, the first book I ever bought myself with my allowance was on anthropology, and my parents indulged my interest by buying me the How and Why series (they cost 59 cents an issue: that will tell you how old I am).

I have maintained my love for all things scientific into my fifties, reading accessible (and I am sure dumbed down) research on a daily basis.

I never did achieve that goal – high school physics, chemistry and calculus killed me. Nevertheless I have maintained my love for all things scientific into my fifties, reading accessible (and I am sure dumbed down) research on a daily basis. One of my go-to sources is the New York Times weekly insert of Science Times, which by the way celebrated its 40th anniversary last week.

This insert is chock full of one or two main stories and a whole bunch of smaller pieces, much akin to the British magazine New Scientist, which I have also been reading since the early 1980s.

As I read the 40th anniversary edition this weekend I was struck by how many parallels I saw with our efforts to understand and counter terrorism. None of the articles had anything overt to do with violent extremism, but in almost every one I found a fascinating tie to my take on terrorism.

Allow me to share some of these links.

Mental Illness

In a piece entitled “When will we solve mental illness?” there was a discussion on how despite centuries of study – both scientific and otherwise (Aristotle attributed it to ‘badness of spirit and early humans drilled holes in the skulls of living sufferers to ‘let the demons out’) – we are really no closer to an answer on what ’causes’ mental illness, let alone how to cure it.

This sentence is worth repeating in its entirety: “Despite billions of dollars in research funding, and thousands of journal articles, biological psychiatry has given doctors and patients little of practical value, never mind a cause or a cure.”

I could say the same for much of the research on why we have terrorism.

Alzheimer’s disease

Staying with the theme of explaining radicalization and terrorism, in an article on why we cannot cure Alzheimer’s disease by Reisa Sperling she wrote that while the theory that the presence of amyloid plaques in the brain is an important marker, it is still true that many patients with these plaques never progress to have Alzheimer’s. Dr. Sperling writes: “Why is there still no comprehensive understanding of what causes the disease or who is destined to develop it? The answer, you could say, is: “It’s complicated.

If there was ever a phrase to encapsulate what we know and what we don’t know about radicalization it has to be ‘it’s complicated.” I have lost track of how many times I have read or heard that people adopt extreme views and move on to violence because of (pick one or pick several): alienation, marginalisation, poverty, criminality, mental illness, discrimination… the list goes on and on.

And while some may, and I stress MAY, have some explanatory power, none give us THE answer.


In a piece on obesity, it was noted that those who are grossly overweight and go on radical diets, sometimes losing 100 lbs or more, put on all those pounds when they leave hospital.

The parallel here? All those de-radicalisation programs which probably have a high failure rate (which is not surprisingly not disclosed). I have said it before and I’ll repeat it here: the only guarantee that someone will not radicalise to violence is to somehow prevent the process from launching in the first place. Post facto efforts may work, they may not. There is simply no way to predict.


Lastly, a column entitled “Why Don’t We Have Vaccines Against Everything?”. Substitute “terrorism” for “everything” and you will see that the hopes of getting to a terrorism-free world are fantasy.

The point here is not to say that we need to stop our research efforts to better comprehend radicalisation and terrorism and come up with effective ways to deal with it. No, the purpose is rather multifold.

We have to accept that some things will probably never be deconstructed entirelyFirst, a scientific approach is the best one where data is collected and analysed and findings are subject to peer review. Secondly, like the scientific method, terrorism studies have to acknowledge that we will never, never arrive at THE solution, but merely a working hypothesis on what we think is going on at a point in time and we must acknowledge our own limitations. Thirdly, we have to accept that some things will probably never be deconstructed entirely.

So, by all means continue your research and share your results (NB I will address the availability to the public of that research in a forthcoming blog). But don’t pretend that your work is going to put aside our questions and our difficulties. Modesty is a virtue after all.

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