(More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – “the gravest kind of danger”

girl from nier replicant eyes closed

One must take into account the “mental factors.” Better yet, engage in a little empathy and consider how things might look from the other side.

The gravest kind of danger stems from the illusion that, because certain kinds of data can be quantified and processed by a computer, therefore they must be more important than those which cannot be measured.

It appears that an error of this sort lay at the root of the decision to send the American troops to Vietnam: the quantities of weapons, numbers of soldiers and means of transport were, no doubt, carefully calculated without taking into account the mental factors; although a bit of ability to put oneself into other people’s shoes and a wider acquaintance with history could have helped the decision-makers to imagine what might be a popular reaction to a massive influx of tactless, self-indulgent and fabulously paid soldiers of strikingly different physique and with manners extremely repugnant to the natives.

Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery

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(More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – the pseduo-science of counting

nier replicant girl

How did the price of mangos in Kabul influence anti-Taliban operations in the eastern part of the country?

They didn’t.

“…we certainly need statistical investigations, comparative analyses, historical studies and abstract deductive reasoning as well.”

What a great pity, because…

“The reason for that scarcity is the wide acceptance dogma that nothing is worth knowing that cannot be counted, and that any information which is tabulated becomes thereby scientific – surely one of the grossest superstitions of our time, whose vogue can only stem from the fact that it enables a large number of people to make a living by indulging easy pseudo-science.”

Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery

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The urge to “do something” and the need to be patient

the end from metal gear solid 3 aiming his sniper rifle

I’m forever catching up with my podcast queue.

I recently finished two IWI podcasts – one on the role of Air Force Special Operations Command (ep 44) and the other on counter-insurgency (ep 43).

A couple of things stood out.

The Air Force episode featured a discussion on the importance of measures of effectiveness. The crux of the argument was that it’s important to ensure we are measuring things to be certain that we are making progress, especially in messy little wars.

Nothing wrong with that. It makes sense.

But.

The conversation eventually meandered towards just how difficult that is to do. Often, there are no clean measures to determine if the needle is moving in the right direction. And this is often the case in small wars.

As such, smart young men and women contort themselves to put numbers on things where numbers don’t belong.

The military has become obsessed with measures of effectiveness, often shortened to “M-O-E.” Much of this is borrowed from business practices with a shady past and questionable conclusions.

But it is pervasive. A senior leader putting up his hand mid-brief and stating “Ok but how are we going to measure this?” while all of the other officers in the room turn to the briefer with a scowl is one of the reasons we have such a hard time doing anything anymore.

Asking “how are we going to measure it” sounds like a smart thing to ask. And it’s a great way to kill a good initiative.

Quantifying all of the great things that were achieved is also a great way to get a good evaluation.

As a result, we tend to do the things that are easily measured as opposed to the things that are actually effective.

Sometimes, we just know what will be effective. It’s a gut feeling that comes from education and experience.

The schoolyard bully doesn’t need to measure what to say to make the other kid cry; he just knows it. He knows the other kid’s psychic weak point.

He doesn’t need to measure it.

This is a subject I feel strongly about because this hyper-focus on MOE isn’t helping.

The second podcast, on counter-insurgency, featured a pointed short discussion on the limits of military power. What I loved most was Jacqueline Hazelton planting the flag on the source of many of our problems – leaders’ insistence that we “do something” in response to every emergency.

The immediacy of modern communications and the perceived political and social pressure that swells whenever something happens – especially if that something includes dramatic images – compels political and military leaders to “do something” in response.

“How are countering this?”

No one wants to “appear weak,” thus, we escalate, often doing the proximate thing we shouldn’t.


There’s a great short-expression in Arabic – فَٱصْبِرْ صَبْرًا جَمِيلً – which translates to “be patient with beautiful patience.”

We need much more of that.

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On Foreign Fighters

holy knight and dark knight

Good episode from the Irregular Warfare Initiative.

In this fascinating discussion, our guests discuss what political, social, and economic circumstances create the conditions that enable the mass recruitment and radicalization of foreign fighters. Their research on this topic represents a startling departure from conventional wisdom and, as such, offers opportunities to preempt this destructive process before it begins. There doesn’t have to be another wave of diaspora-fueled jihad, they argue, but prevention will require Western governments to take comprehensive and determined action now.

ON THE ROAD TO JIHAD: THE ROLE OF FOREIGN FIGHTERS IN IRREGULAR WARFARE

A few things struck me as I listened to this one.

Foreign Fighters and Information Warfare. Early in the episode, the guests brought up the concept of foreign fighters supporting a cause remotely through information warfare. While the focus of the episode was primarily on foreign fighters who actually pick up and travel to a foreign land, there is so much more to know about what actively supporting the same movements looks like when done digitally. Propaganda support (creating/sharing memes), harassment, actual hacking – there’s a lot to be explored there. We saw a lot of this in the mid-2010s during the rise of ISIS. I’d love to learn more.

It’s our fault. Jasmine El-Gamal plants the flag on the things we’re not allowed to talk about – chiefly, that there are policy decisions that the US has made which may be the proximate causes for motivating foreign fighters in the first place. As she rightly indicates, having those conversations were (and are) rare – and it leads to us coming up with new strategies and magic to try to solve the problem. It’s what led to the GWOT effect.

Stanford Prison Experiment. There was a brief mention of the infamous Stanford Prison experiment, which despite all of its flaws and the continuing information that comes out on it which calls into question the validity of the results, it is still popularly understood to hold water. It is true, of course, for an experiment to be flawed but the results still valid.

Human Rights as Counter-Terror. I like this concept. We don’t really talk about human rights anymore. It used to be a driving force of policy. It has the benefit of allowing you to stand on the moral high ground, as well. It seems we’ve moved very deeply into the realm of states’ interests above all else.

Measures of effectiveness. There’s a conversation at the end discussing possible solutions to the problem of foreign fighters – dissuasion and de-radicalization. This led to the fact that many of these solutions appear to be ineffective because of how difficult they are to measure. If you’ve been reading my newsletters lately, you’ll know that I have an against the grain take on “MoEs” – that is, we don’t always need them. Just because something is difficult to measure doesn’t mean it isn’t working.

We have an obsession with “showing” results – that’s how you get more money, get promoted, get more resources. Thus, we tend to enact policies and programs that are easy to measure instead of actually effective. If we truly want to win, we have to extend some trust. I don’t need to know how you did the magic trick – I just want to be amazed.

The episode ends with a short story of a stunning encounter between one of the guests and a soldier deployed to Iraq. It’s sad, and it captures the absurdity of war and violence neatly. You can do all the planning and training you want, but when war requires men and women to enact violence on behalf of some cause, it will always be nasty and brutish. There will always be trauma. There will always be psychological scarring.

There is no clinical war.

Lastly, as an exercise in self-awareness it’s helpful to ask yourself (or others) in a given country, where do the majority of foreign fighters come from?

The answer will indicate how close they are paying attention.

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