Thursday, July 15, 2010

Of Drugs and Decontextualization

Anything can be decontextualized. It’s a tactic used every day by those who would sway us to some alternative point of view. Without trying to get too deeply into the weeds of meta-consciousness, all truths are filtered through our own particular sets of personal, institutional, and cultural biases. But some biases are more apparent than others.

The United States Drug Enforcement Agency has it’s own sets of biases, and, given their mission, that’s understandable to some extent. According to them, the US war on drugs is a success. Cited as proof, they claim that they’ve reduced cocaine use by “an astounding” 70% during the last 15 years. So I get that they have a vested interest in making such a claim. But that doesn’t mean I have to like the fact that they apparently think I’m stupid.

Personally I’m not particularly fond of things that alter my consciousness. My need for rational control is way too strong to be tolerant of things that deprive me of it. But one doesn’t have to be particularly intimate with drug culture to know that cocaine ceased being a glamorous drug after the demise of the “cocaine cowboys” of Miami in the 1980’s. Cocaine has long since been supplanted, first by crack, now by methamphetamine. Drug trafficking is the single fastest growing business globally, followed distantly by human trafficking according to the UN.

So just who does the USDEA think it’s fooling? That international flow of drugs is primarily going to a single destination: the United States of America. A success? Let’s measure that success by some broader objective measures than the reduction of cocaine use. How about we measure it by its cascading effects. Phoenix AZ is now the US capital for kidnapping. In the world it’s only second to Mexico City. It’s convenient (and incorrect) to blame illegal immigrants. It’s our demand for drugs produced outside of the US that is the root of that problem. We can attack the supply chain all we like, but so long as the demand exists, the supply will meet it.

But the extent to which domestic cascading effects are problematic, these pale compared to the disaster that awaits us as Mexico becomes a failed state. We already have a lively debate throughout America over illegal immigration. The nexus of our drug policies combined with growing resentment over undocumented aliens consuming US public goods looms close on the horizon, potentially turning a major domestic problem into an international catastrophe. Imagine, for a moment, what it will mean when the status of immigrant is changed to that of refugee. Envision, for a moment, camps established all along our Southern border to accommodate the inflow of people trying to escape the chaos of a failed Mexican state that has torn itself apart over the illicit drug and human trafficking trade.

Drug (and human) abuse is not a domestic law enforcement problem. It is a national security problem. The supply side solution is not to try and destroy the supply; but rather to control it. If we cannot curb our appetites, we can at least attempt to feed those appetites in a way that does not threaten the stability of our nation and our neighbors.

Filtering out the side effects of our drug and immigration policies is no way to deal with issues that are so important to our national stability or that of our neighbors. Such decontextualized proofs of success as the reduction in cocaine consumption is simply insulting the intelligence of those who actually bother to think about this issue in bigger terms than simple law enforcement. Consumption of drugs produced outside the United States isn’t a simple matter of addiction or consenting adults enjoying some mind altering experience. It’s a violation of our security as a nation by contributing to the destabilization of a neighboring nation and to the humanitarian disaster that organized drug and human trafficking has brought about. It is tantamount to funding insurgency or terrorism, and it should be treated in that manner. Such treatment demands new solutions that may seem contrary to our improvident notions of morality, but I, for one, would rather see our actions feed the addictions of my own countrymen by controlling the supply, than utterly destroy the nations and lives of those who aren’t.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Seeing the Trees for the Forest

So what could you do with $130 billion dollars? Finally get that new roof? Let me rephrase the question. What could you do with 130 billion dollars if you were a criminal?

Okay, maybe that question is a little unfair. 130 billion is the annual total of global criminal trade, comprised mostly of illicit drug sales, according to the UN. So let’s alter the perspective of the question.

You’re an unemployed male somewhere in South America with no prospects and little hope of cashing in on the global economy. Do you:

A. Apply for a job at ADM?
B. Help smuggle cocaine to America?

Ordinarily I like what Thomas P.M. Barnett has to say about things, but sometimes he just can’t see the trees for the forest. In his blog, "Good globalization = $20T in annual trade; bad globalization = $130B in annual criminal trade," Barnett assures us that globalized criminal trade is nothing to get too worried about since it’s less than one percent of global trade overall.

Is he kidding? IT’S 130 BILLION DOLLARS!

Okay, so you’re not an unemployed man in South America. You’re a high ranking member of a terrorist group that has grown a brain and figured out that America is highly vulnerable to certain types of attack, and if you only had the right funding, you could wage an insurgent campaign that could be devastating to America, and finally help you realize your dream of 7th century paradise. Do you:

A. Apply for a job at ADM?
B. Start smuggling drugs to America?

But let’s put the drug issue aside for a moment. Of that 130 billion dollars, the UN states that 6.6 billion of that is in human trafficking (something on the order of 3 million people). So that’s no big deal at all, since it’s only about .1 percent of the global economy. Wait, what?


According to Rescue and Restore Campaign, human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world behind drugs. Here’s a sobering bit of data: according to United States State Department data, an estimated 600,000 to 820,000 men, women, and children [are] trafficked across international borders each year for purposes of enslavement of some form or another, approximately 70 percent are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors. In a U.S. Department of Justice 07-08 study, more than 30 percent of the total number of trafficking cases for that year were children coerced into the sex industry. (wiki)

Personally, I don’t care how small a percentage of the global economy it is, that number is staggering. We read and hear all over that we have an illegal immigration problem. Frankly, the reality is that we have an immigration disaster. We just haven’t fully understood the true nature of it.

While police in Arizona now check immigration status of traffic violators, we are completely ignoring the fact that it is our own appetite that has created this situation. When thinking about illegal immigration, ask yourself the question
Why are these people here? Typical answers include (in order of good to incrementally bad):

Make a better life
Support their family back home
Seek better medical care
Seek better social services
Seek Welfare
Give birth in America, thereby making the child a US citizen
Sell or smuggle drugs
Sell or smuggle people (prostitutes, sex slaves, children)

I find it hard to generate hostility toward those at the top of the list, and difficult to not advocate summary execution for those at the bottom. But I notice one very specific perspective associated with that set of answers: they are all coming from the supply side. The answer that we don't include in the list is the most powerful one:

There is DEMAND from citizens of the US that makes all of the above possible.

Illegal immigration is quite costly to the US, but what do we actually get for those costs? This is an important question, because we do get something. In fact, we get several things (again, listed in a sort of moral order):

Inexpensive food, grown here, and subject to our health standards.
Less expensive construction costs
Inexpensive domestic services (lawn care, child care, etc.)
Potential voting blocks for incumbent powers
Access to prostitutes
Access to a variety of drugs
Access to child pornography
Access to slaves
Access to sex with children kidnapped from other countries

If we intend to address this problem from the supply side, the costs will be astronomical. We are a country of due process, thus, each detained illegal immigrant must be processed, then deported. To secure our border in such a manner that we seal off ingress, the cost is even more enormous, and will pale next to the cost of the deportations.

The reality is that supply side solutions are immensely costly. What's worse, because the supply side solutions do nothing about the demand, the demand will simply be met in some other fashion, further destroying the fabric of our society. Addressing this problem from the supply side will become exactly like fighting a counter insurgency campaign, one that will continue on in perpetuity, costing us tremendous amounts of wealth, and never actually solving the problem itself.

Let's look at the demand component in more detail.

Inexpensive food, grown here, and subject to our health standards.
Less expensive construction costs
Inexpensive domestic services (lawn care, child care, etc.)

Demand side solution: 10 thousand dollar fine for each instance of any individual and 100 thousand for any corporation employing an undocumented worker. This is a law that the state of AZ could have put in place itself had it had the foresight and political will to do it. Use proceeds from fines to cover deportation costs, and to cover the cost of making domestic employment expenses by families tax deductable. The cascading effect is that cost of food and construction rises, but probably less than expected if sensible guest worker programs are expanded and properly run. Enforcement of this is what AZ should have passed.

Potential voting blocks for incumbent powers

Demand side solution: Use the public forum to denounce such politicians and exercise your right to vote.

Access to a variety of drugs

Demand side solution: First, completely legalize the domestic production, sale, and use of marijuana. Legalize the domestic production and sale of other drugs. Impose much harsher sentences on users on national security grounds (financing terrorism, etc.). Go after the demand of drugs, rather than the supply. Result: immediate increase in revenue and GDP as marijuana becomes part of the domestic economy. Casual use (the majority of drug sales) of hard drugs disappears immediately (too costly if caught). Addicts removed from market. Prison costs increase, but likely would be more than offset by tax revenues from marijuana. There is some political will for this, as CA has already demonstrated, re. marijuana.

Access to prostitutes
Access to child pornography
Access to slaves
Access to sex with children kidnapped from other countries

Demand side solution: This is possibly the most difficult problem to solve. First, legalize independent prostitution. What a grown woman chooses to do with herself is her business. Criminalize pimping and trafficking under slavery laws. Make ownership of a sex slave a capital offense. Traffickers who cross the border should be treated as enemy combatants and be subject to military tribunal.

I maintain that demand is the key to dealing with this problem. It is substantially less costly, and actually addresses the root cause of the immigration problem rather than imposing restrictions on our broader freedoms in an effort to treat the symptom. People who are employing undocumented workers are also breaking the law (not just the illegal immigrant). Kill the demand, and the vast majority of the problem disappears, along with all the undesirable cascading effects, such as 12 year-olds recruited as assassins in Colombia.

Building a fence and closing the border is a stupid solution. The biggest threat to stability in Mexico is drug cartels run rampant, and they are financed by our behavior. If we continue down this path, closing our doors to immigrants and leaving them in the hands of the cartels, Mexico ultimately becomes a failed state. Look at all the trouble we’ve had with Afghanistan. Imagine how much trouble it would be if it was on our Southern border. A failed Mexican state is a huge problem for the US, and it’s also a huge possibility.

Mr. Barnett needs to step closer to the forest and have a look at the trees. 130 billion dollars may be a small percentage of the global economy, but it’s more than the entire GDP of most failed states.

Friday, May 21, 2010

No Truth Here

When I was in grad school, one of my more famous professors usually began any discussion of new material by calling it "crapolla," including his own contributions to the discipline. As a grad student, I was anxious to prove myself and to rise above my peers by working harder and contributing more than anyone around me. Therefore, at first I took the crapolla comment as a sort of cynical sarcasm as I consumed the cool-aid as quickly as it could be served. But once I really internalized things and began applying all this new knowledge in practice, I recognized that he wasn’t being cynical or sarcastic. He was expressing a basic truth about social science methodology: not that it has no value, but that its value must be scrutinized closely before drawing firm conclusions and generating policy prescriptions. It all, truly, is crapolla.

Take Sean Gourley, whom I’ve criticized at length already but who again serves as the quintessential bad example. In making observations, gathering data, and drawing inferences, he has made many policy prescriptions that are based upon severely flawed analysis. The unwary policy makers who takes him seriously will certainly create more problems dealing with insurgency than they will solve.

But the problem that Gourley represents is more insidious and wide spread than that. If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you’re aware of the recent flap over the use of PowerPoint as a communications tool. PowerPoint briefings can be and often are a complete waste of time. But that is not a symptom of the application, but a symptom of the incompetence of the people doing the briefings. A PowerPoint slide is a prop, and should never be the focus of a briefing. That concept is lost upon most people who make PowerPoint presentations. Often, their goal is more to overwhelm the audience with visuals and complexity. The point of that is a very simple one: it avoids difficult questions by making the material too complex and overwhelming to absorb, and therefore to critically analyze. Thus, the briefer can, more often than not, simply be taken at his word, leaving behind a room full of bewildered and amazed onlookers, too confused (or bored) to question anything that they just heard. The tool isn’t the problem, it’s the practitioner.

PowerPoint briefers have no monopoly on this particular technique. The social science community often acts similarly; and the motivation for it is quite clear. Social science modelers come in two basic flavors: those that drank the cool-aid and actually believe what they’re saying, and those that spit it out, but still have to earn a living.

As G.E.P. Box said, "All models are wrong but some are useful." Their usefulness is the insight they can provide into certain types of problems. But they are models, and all models suffer from omitted variables, and always will. As a community of practitioners, whether that practice is wargames, systems models, statistical analysis, whatever, we are perversely incentivized to sell our product as the best representation of ground truth possible. The danger is that we often inspire more confidence than the tool actually deserves. And that can be dangerous indeed. But the point here must be clear: our tools are not the problem, we are. Our methodologies are quite good, often very advanced, and certainly useful. But we must hold onto the awareness that they are also wrong, and where they are wrong is the part that we must pay closest attention to. Technology and our capacity t exploit it is a wondrous thing, but our dependence leaves us vulnerable, and as time goes on, that problem will only get more difficult to address and contend with. The first step to coping may lie in the understanding that it cannot be solved.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Of Scepticism and Paranoia

Let’s pause for a moment and reflect. To a large degree, the events of our lives shape who we are. We know this intuitively, but seldom do we stop to think about the actual relationship between those events and our attitudes and concerns. This particular blog entry is deeply personal to me, and thus to some extent, cathartic.

All of my life I’ve had a deep distrust, and, in fact, dislike of all authority figures. I freely admit that to this day when I see a policeman (or similar figure), although I know intellectually that he is charged with a difficult and often thankless job, my emotional response is almost always one of fear and loathing.

I’ve often wondered why that particular response is so deeply ingrained in my psyche. I’m a law abiding citizen, I strongly believe in contributing to the security and welfare of my country, and do so through the work that I’ve chosen to do. I pay my taxes, albeit grudgingly, and contribute to the public discourse. And yet, I’ve always felt a hair trigger away from rebelling and seeking my fortune in some lawless frontier. This dichotomy has often been a difficult one to manage.

My parents lived through the second world war. They were both too young to have participated, but they lived the better portion of their childhood through the event. My father on the American side, my mother on the German. My father’s older siblings all joined the armed services, he, since he was too young, stayed home and built models of airplanes that were used by the Army Air Corps to train pilots to recognize enemy aircraft.

Meanwhile, my mother spent her childhood fleeing from Russian soldiers, allied fighter aircraft, and countless other dangers to life and limb as she watched her country be systematically destroyed by the Allied war effort. Her father, my grandfather, was a colonel in the Luftwaffe. He flew missions largely on the Eastern Front. After the war he was tried as a war criminal, and narrowly escaped execution by the Russians. He passed away in the 50’s from a heart attack. I think by any standard, that is an awful lot for a young girl to live through.

My mother does not blame the Allies for these hardships. Make no mistake, she blames Hitler. She saw first hand what a socialist megalomaniac can do to a country. Her hatred for all things socialistic or totalitarian is palpable. When she was 25 years of age, she came to America and became an American citizen. And ever since she’s never avoided speaking her mind, often without regard to consequence, when the subject came near anything that smacked of oppression, repression, or authority without accountability.

During the war my mother’s aunt passed away. Her death certificate stated that she had died of a blood disease. Since that time the family was skeptical. She was known for speaking out against Hitler and his regime, and one day she simply disappeared. Some time later, my grandfather received the certificate.

Recently my uncle, still in Germany, decided to pursue the matter now that the archives were open. We now know what really happened to her. She was taken by the Gestapo, interned in a concentration camp and tortured. She finally died from a medical experiment that was conducted on her. She wasn’t Jewish or a Gypsy. She was a German citizen who had the courage of her convictions to speak out against her country’s regime and she paid the ultimate price for it.

In trying to come to terms with my feelings toward authority, I came to a philosophical accommodation. My belief is that it is a healthy practice for any citizen to regard all authority with a high degree of skepticism combined with a large dose of paranoia. I believe that such an outlook is in fact critical to guard against the sorts of things that my mother had to live through. To believe that “it can’t happen here” is simply the height of naive stupidity. The recent discovery of what actually happened to my great aunt has simply confirmed my commitment to that belief.

With this blog I have included a photo of part of my family. The woman is my great grandmother. The boy is my grandfather, and the young girl is aunt Martha. The photo was taken around 1912. When I look at that girl I see the face of my own daughter and I tell myself to always keep my dislike of authority in check, but never to let it die.

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 señor 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.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Just What Are We Dealing With?

Anyone who has spent much time wading through the literature on violent non-state actor groups, especially literature on terrorism, knows one thing: what we know about the subject seems dramatically different than what we actually understand about it. Blinded by preconceived notions that inform our theoretical structures, all too often we apply the assumptions of rationality, purpose driven behavior, and utility maximization to violent sub-national groups and their members.

One author on the subject of Terrorism, specifically suicide terror, is Robert Pape. His contention is that suicide terrorism is an asymmetric tactic used to expel occupiers. He uses statistical techniques to arrive at this conclusion, then sets forth a rather broad policy prescription that, in a nut shell, equates to something like “if we leave them alone, they’ll leave us alone.” Many have bought into Pape’s argument, believing his methods for arriving at his conclusions are sound and scientific. In reality, they are not. Assaf Moghadam, fortunately, has written an extensive critique of Pape’s book, Dying to Win, in which he identifies in detail the problems with Pape’s analysis, technique, and conclusions. I refer you to the article itself for details.

Another author given great regard is Louise Richardson, particularly for her book What Terrorists Want. Ms. Richardson draws upon her personal experiences with members of the IRA and on several interviews she conducted with other terrorists, and concludes that they are rational actors pursuing specific political goals. Although the case studies she presents are illuminating, the overall prescription, once you’ve read through the bulk of the book, is to discover "how and where terrorists operate, how they organize themselves, how they communicate with each other, how they finance and plan their operations." Apparently the details of how to do that are left to others. I’d also add that anyone who didn’t know that before they started to read the book has been living in a cave.

Applying assumptions of rationality and so forth to violent non-state actor or terrorist groups and the related research is sometimes referred to as the structural or strategic model. From that perspective, counter-terrorism policies usually involve notions of reducing the political utility of terrorism such that terror groups no longer care to pursue the tactic. Evaluation of that frame of reference would seem to indicate failure, as the last time I checked, terrorism is still with us.

Max Abrahms, in a recent article (the title of which plays upon the title of Richardson’s book) What Terrorists Really Want ( pokes some serious holes in the structural approach. He does so by presenting seven puzzles:

1. Terrorism fails to achieve the stated goal almost all of the time
2. Terrorism is almost never used as a last resort
3. Terrorist organizations almost always reject compromises despite significant policy concessions
4. Political goals of terror organizations are, without exception, protean
5. Terrorist attacks are usually anonymous
6. Competing terror groups with identical or highly similar goals generally prefer to attack each other than any other target
7. Terror groups seldom disband despite the consistent failure of the tactic to actually accomplish their objectives

Abrahms’ seven puzzles illustrate clearly that the structural model for approaching terror groups cannot yield useful results because each of the requisite assumptions simply do not, in reality, apply. And that leaves us with a serious problem indeed.

But before we start thinking too hard about the solution, perhaps we should think some more about the actual problem. What is it that we actually fear from terror groups? The clear answer, far and away, is that thanks to the diffusion and accessibility of advanced technology, we fear terror groups could do significant damage through the employment of NBC weapons, or cause significant hardship, economic and otherwise, through cyber or eco attacks and so forth. One reason that the structural model provided us with some level of comfort was that if we assumed a rational actor, we could tell ourselves that specific policy behaviors could deter the use of such weapons or tactics. Removing that safety blanket leaves us exposed indeed.

But it’s an exposure that we’d better get used to. And getting used to it requires that we recognize that withdrawing from the world is not a solution to this problem. In fact, we need to do the opposite. Ms. Richardson’s bromide of know your enemy is particularly apt, despite her reticence to provide some method for accomplishing it. The fact is that any terror group can only be understood and contained by detailing its network and identifying its identity entrepreneur. Accomplishing that requires penetration into societies where such groups are likely to spawn, and we do have some fairly specific understanding of what those societies actually look like. But our marriage to technology and the social remoteness that it has engendered has created obstacles both psychological and physical. Our ultimate salvation does not lie within the walls of ivory towers, but on the streets of the cities of the world. As Americans we have a deep distrust of the word “empire.” Yet empire is what we are, and our security depends upon understanding that being a citizen of that empire means we cannot address it via remote control, stare at it from orbit, or apply convenient assumptions. To do so may give us the sense of security we crave, but it will ultimately prove false, and may cost us all we hold dear.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Common Ecology DOES NOT Quantify Human Insurgency

Lately much ado is being made of the findings of Sean Gourley and his crew regarding power law relationships they’ve found in insurgency-based conflict. For some quick background, go here: and watch the 7 minute TED video.

Let me be frank. This is another prime example of academics armed with mathematical/statistics based techniques run amok with statistical inference and a naïve belief that it can predict the future.

First, let’s get some perspective. The discovery of power law relationships in conflict is not new. Lewis Fry Richardson discovered a power law relationship between intensity of conflict and the frequency of its occurrence as early as the 1940s. That discovery has been a result in search of a theory ever since. So far, no one has found a satisfying explanation for why the relationship exists, but it has continued to be one of the most robust findings in conflict literature.

Along come Gourley et al, and suddenly the finding is new again. But his group applied the idea to insurgency to see if the relationship exists there as well, and sure enough, it does. But they take the research a little further down the field and discover that the slope coefficient of -2.5 seems to hold as a common value across all tested insurgencies. On its own, this is an interesting finding.

Wired magazine has published some criticisms of the findings of Gourley’s group, and these criticisms center primarily on the quality of the data they used. I don’t find these criticisms to be particularly insightful, mainly because just about any data can be subjected, accurately, to the same criticism. In the vernacular, it’s all crap, but it’s the crap that we have. To really indict the data, one would have to demonstrate that it has a particular bias one way or the other, and that is a challenging task.

No, where Gourley and crew fly off the rails are in the inferences they make from the finding. On the website I pasted above, have a look at the 14 key features that define a successful insurgency. You don’t really have to read past the first one to see that the train derailed itself before it even left the station. Can you say Mao? How about Tamil Tigers? Shining Path? The “Man-body” feature is an exception to the history of insurgency, not a feature of it.

This sort of inference exemplifies the danger of completely decontextualizing the math from the reality. But it also amply demonstrates the weakness of utilizing descriptive tools to try and predict the future, as so far all of the predictions that this group have made have failed to pan out (see the video for an admission thereof).

Power law relationships are descriptive, not causal. They don’t actually tell us anything other than what an equilibrium condition may actually look like. And that’s really the strength of the work that Gourley has done. If the -2.5 slope coefficient truly is a robust finding, it can provide us with a metric against which we can judge success or failure of particular policy actions. It can also serve as a reality check for game or simulation runs, provided we keep in mind the descriptive nature of the math.

If we can take findings like this one and then contextualize them in terms of other models such as Violent System Theory or other constructs, we might make some headway in understanding how we can interdict a hostile environment successfully. But the inferences drawn by Gourley and his cohorts are not only wrong, they are dangerous, as they stand a good chance of getting American soldiers killed if improperly applied in reality.

Social science academia needs a good dose of humility concerning its own evaluation of the usefulness of mathematics and quantitative tools where human behavior is concerned. If academics like Gourley continue to be taken at their word without frequent and lethal doses of skepticism about the applicability of the tools used to draw inferences, the lesson in humility will be learned at very high cost in human lives.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Just What are Wargames Good For?

Recently I attended a roundtable discussion on wargaming at one of our national war colleges. During the discussion, a distinguished practitioner of our art mentioned his conviction that wargames were, in fact, good predictive tools. This comment was quite controversial, and it ought to be. Throughout not just wargaming circles, but in the OR world in general there is much ado made about the ability to predict the future. The notion is cast in various terms and syntaxes, most frequently masquerading as anticipatory analysis or behavior.

What’s more, the ability to predict the future is a stated goal of many federal business opportunities (see almost any recent SBIR or STTR solicitation), not to mention various programs already in place in the armed forces (for instance, see Air Force Research Lab’s Focused Long-Term Challenges). As a result, much effort and expense is being put into the notion that somehow there must exist some way to predict what our enemies are going to do, and thus be able to circumvent their actions. Oh what a tangled web we weave.

When we look at both qualitative and quantitative points of view and techniques to gain some insight into how to anticipate the behaviors of adversaries, the level of complexity rapidly outstrips our capacity to account for it. Simplifications usually rely on the description of trends, or the subjectiveness of the subject matter expert. The critical assumption that we’ve taken for granted is that in order to understand what our adversary is going to do, we must understand his culture, his motivations, his environmental influences, and so forth. What we find with this approach is that the problem rapidly becomes intractable.

There are two governing issues. The first I call faith in the one-to-one map, the second is the fallacy of classical determinism. Faith in the one-to-one map is simply the belief that the closer a model gets to reality, ostensibly through the inclusion of as many governing variables and interactions as possible, the more accurate the predictions will be. In truth, this is likely to be an inaccurate correlation. In practice, this approach is simply ridiculous. The problem, of course, is that the amount and accuracy of data required in order to make such an approach feasible doesn’t, and is unlikely to ever, exist. But even if we were able to gather accurately all the necessary data and correctly put together all of the interactions in the system and we could then run experiments with our one-to-one mapping of the world, we still would not be able accurately predict adversarial behaviors. Why? Because the underlying assumption with the approach is that the universe behaves according to the tenets of classical determinism. And the problem with classical determinism is a very simple one: it assumes away random evolutionary variation and the existence of creativity. It also ignores such metaphorical but very real notions as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle or the Lucas Critique.

The nut of the argument: the moment free will enters the equation, deterministic approaches become untenable. We are governed by ANOVA in our techniques, while the world of social interaction, or society, is governed by discrete events that do not fall within the assumptive confines of our scientific notion of trend.

This problem is well Illustrated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan. Taleb refers to this problem as the ludic fallacy. It is summarized as "the misuse of games to model real-life situations." Taleb characterizes the fallacy as mistaking the map for the reality.

This is Taleb’s central argument and is a rebuttal of predictive mathematical models, as well as an attack on the idea of applying statistical models in complex domains. According to Taleb, statistics only work in casinos or places in which the odds are visible and defined. This conclusion rests upon the following three points.

• It is impossible to be in possession of all the information.
• Very small unknown variations in the data could have a huge impact (the Butterfly effect).
• Theories/models based on empirical data are flawed, as events that have not taken place before cannot be accounted for.

Taleb is highly critical of the notion that the unexpected may be predicted by extrapolating from variations in statistics based on past observations, especially when these statistics are presumed to represent samples from a bell-shaped curve. This point of view is easily demonstrable by showing that unlikely events occur significantly more frequently than the tails of the bell curve would indicate. This falsification proof holds particularly well in the realm of social science. He goes on to claim that better descriptive tools include power laws and fractal geometry.

Taleb’s idea that power laws and fractal geometry provide better descriptive tools may hold some promise for discovering new approaches to the problem, but only if we start to better understand what is actually possible in the realm of the predictive. One place to start might be to recognize that understanding our own vulnerabilities may be the best predictor of enemy behavior we’ll ever have. Wargames can certainly help us with that, but we have a lot of poorly preconceived notions to overcome.