The Unthinkable War

by Joshua Foust on 5/18/2009 · 1 comment

Can you compute an insurgency? Multiple people have pointed to this TED talk by physicist Sean Gourley as evidence that there is an underlying mathematical foundation for how insurgencies can be behaved and studied:

Does this, in fact, “break anthropology’s grip on irregular warfare’s strategic evolution and introduces the mathematical contribution to winning -and preventing- 21st century conflicts,” as DefenseTech says? Hardly. This is a classic example of someone trying to dig deeply into a subject with which he is obviously unfamiliar, and trying to draw broad, appealing, but ultimately unsupportable claims. I mean, it looks like this guy’s team just re-invented the entity extractor, and then got a TED fellowship out of it.

For starters, Gourley assumes that news reports are a reliable indicator of civilian casualties. Within Iraq itself, the Lancet Controversy is only the most well-known of the disputes over the precise numbers of dead in that war. Afghanistan is its own issue, which we have covered intensely here, though Moon of Alabama has discussed just how clearly imprecise our powers of estimation are when it comes to casualties.

Next, Gourley, whose background does not obviously contain a study in warfare, seem to assume that there is something novel in realizing it is easy to kill one person but difficult to kill many. Let’s put it another way: I can walk up to someone on the street and stab them, or shoot them, or run by truck into a bus when the Queen of Denmark is aboard. It is relatively easy to kill an individual person, especially in a conflict zone. It is relatively difficult to kill more than one person, even in a conflict zone. In Afghanistan, 10 suicide bombers couldn’t kill more than 9 innocent civilians at a government center (suicide bombers had a similar success when they attacked Kabul two months ago). Indeed, the insurgents are actually quite terrible at killing people—the U.S. is much better, which could explain why the Taliban have taken to hiding behind civilians during air strikes.

Furthermore, Gourley doesn’t demonstrate a grasp of emergence, complexity, and self-organization in his talk—something that, especially in Iraq, you must understand first in order to understand how these groups behave. He shows no grounding in group behavior, or even a reasonable grasp of the typical behavior of insurgencies (which can form a baseline for understanding future ones).

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly given Gourley’s status as a scientist: you cannot draw meaningful conclusions about behavior based on two variables. Even ignoring everything else, that cardinal sin makes all of his research suspect. You can see this when Gourley admits his research has limited explanatory power, as his predictions about the Surge proved wrong. It is the epitome of ex post facto analysis, of taking historical data and creating a curve that fits.

I applaud Gourley’s effort, both from a bias that prefers cross-disciplinary approaches and because falsified theories are still useful. But this isn’t an especially revelatory, or explanatory thing he’s going.

Update: I see Wired’s Katie Drummond picked this apart last week as well. Glad I’m not alone in seeing this for the snake oil it is.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

TCHe May 18, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Clausewitz, On War, 2nd book, 2nd chapter.
Fun to read as he’s basically making fun of all the quantitative attempts to capture war in simple formulas (as, for example Jomini tried).

I don’t have the Paret translation handy so I can’t quote, unfortunately.

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