How science and counter terrorism have their parallels

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 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.

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.  First, 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.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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