Monday, March 15, 2010

Those Shotgun Wielding Black Swans

My last several blogs have discussed what I believe are shortcomings in the approaches we currently take toward understanding and anticipating non-state violent actors. Stepping away from that for a moment, the real dilemma in all this is not whether we are using the right tools, but whether we’re even asking the right question. Permit me to ruminate a little more on the matter.

The failure of existing tools to provide useful predictions about the future leads me to the conclusion that the fundamental premise behind their use is flawed (one to one maps and so forth). That flaw rests upon a series of assumptions that we know are convenient simplifications of perceived relationships that exist in reality (normal distributions, etc.). That we have turned to these assumptions to guide the exploration of future trends leads me to believe that the questions being asked to begin with may rest upon flawed assumptions (how do we predict adversarial behavior is a question that itself presumes that the adversary follows fundamental rules such as rationality).

That we consistently ask such questions leads me to believe that we have constructed for ourselves a "thought methodology" that insists that we couch our solution sets within the contrived notion that we are capable of deducing sets of causal relationships, and that only inference generated from said causal relationships can provide a foundation upon which we can practice the art of "prediction." That we have convinced ourselves that the only way we can approach any such problem is through hypothesis testing bounds us by the collection of data. Because not all data is collectible, we then must further apply the construct of proxies within the data we've collected, which, in and of itself, is susceptible to any number of flaws and mistakes. We then satisfy ourselves that we're explaining things correctly because seƱor R squared has winked and nodded.

Stepping back for a moment, if we look at things we actually know, we find that few of those things continue to be recognizable within the thought methodology I've described above. Return to case studies. Is rationality real? Are the causes of rebel groups concrete or protean? Do groups behave in their own self interest? If yes, do we have any real way of discerning what that self interest is without assuming the group actually does exist for a purpose other than socialization? What we find is that certain sorts of tools describe things very well, but we are unable to reconcile those tools with our thought methodology. For instance, we know that power law relationships are very robust when we compare frequency of events with their severity. We also know that when we examine social network structures we begin to see fractal patterns emerge. Yet, we are unable to utilize these findings because, again, they do not conform to the deductive/inductive patterns we've defined for ourselves.

So what does all that mean? It means that our entire conceptual framework from which we generate such questions as "what will our adversary do next" are coming from our own concretized socio-cultural-institutional framework. Well that's a wicked problem, isn't it.

Let's go back to assumptions. If we are trying to predict behavior, we are making an assumption that if we know what some individual/group/nation will do, we can act to avert it. Yet we also know that our action (even the mere act of observing) alters the prediction. Paradox ensues, rendering the entire exercise pointless. The question itself puts the ox before the cart; we predict to define action, but the action redefines the reality rendering the prediction invalid. To some extent that’s the point, except that the processes of contingent and collateral effects will render repeated experiments problematic. Psychologically, confidence in the prediction capability is simply the best way I can think of to get a black swan to walk up and shoot us with a shotgun.

Redefining the question a little to "what will happen when we do 'X'," we only complicate the issue, compounding our bad assumptions, handing the swan a 12 gauge instead of a 20.

So what should we be asking? That's a good question. What we have to recognize is that the thing walking around out there that can really hurt us is that shotgun wielding black swan; the rest is risk management. So the question has to revolve around the idea that what we need to be concerned about is not what is going to happen, but how do we protect ourselves from the events that are going to happen but that we cannot predict?

Examples of this sort of thinking:
We don't have to worry about predicting whether or not a sub-national group will use an NBC weapon if they can't get one.
We don't have to predict the supply routes or behaviors of drug runners if there is no demand for the product.
I don't have to predict where traffic is likely to be difficult if I telecommute

I recognize that these examples are obvious and entail their own complications with tractability and so forth, but that's not the point. The point is that we back away from impossible problems by reframing the questions such that the foundational premises become reduced to tractable actions and concepts. In turn, these suggest strategies to pursue that lie within our own capacity to implement, and thus protect ourselves.

That we see fractal patterns emerge in social networks tells us something very important, which is that they exhibit self-similarity. Self-similarity gives a useful tool to describe what a network looks like. Altering that pattern through external action may be sufficient to then break it apart or reconstruct it in less conflictual ways. Power law relationships are also very powerful in that they describe for us an equilibrium that exists because it is governed by very specific constraints. Exploiting those constraints relieves us of the burden of having to predict actions by, instead, removing the capacity for committing the actions we most fear.

A very simple economic principle sums all of this up: There is no free lunch! Thinking that an adversary's behavior can be predicted implies that we think there is a shortcut for guiding our course in the world; that we can view the world's problems from orbit and contend with them via remote control. We are wrong to think that. We're wrong to even waste time dreaming about it.

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