The problem with terrorism ‘expertise’

Like most people I had a fascination with dinosaurs when I was a kid.  I had plastic dinosaurs and books on these grand behemoths.  I loved movies about them, even if they were really bad 1960s sci-fi ones that were as inaccurate as possible.  In my 20s I began to read more recent books on dinosaurs, catching up on the latest scientific discoveries, the most important of which of course was the discovery that a huge asteroid hitting the earth some 66 million years ago was the most likely cause of their demise and the reason why we are not ruled by these reptiles today (although some would argue that a few current leaders have reptilian characteristics!).

As science is always changing in the face of new evidence, the debate over what exactly happened to rid us of these magnificent creatures is still ongoing.  Even though we have strong reasons to believe the asteroid hypothesis (in rock structures which have been found near Mexico) others have put forward massive volcanic eruptions in an area called the Deccan Traps (in modern day India).  It is probable that the extinction was caused by a number of factors working hand in hand.

What is probably NOT a factor is indigestion.  A recent paper presented the ‘biotic revenge hypothesis’, a theory that dinosaurs failed to learn which plants were bad for them and basically starved to death.  Interesting, but with absolutely no evidence.  The authors tried to use modern day caimans, which are NOT related to dinosaurs, to prove their point.  No one seems to be taking their idea very seriously.

Why, then, am I mentioning any of this in a terrorism blog?  Because, it turns out that the authors of the ‘gastric pains’ proposal are, wait for it, two American psychologists (one an ‘evolutionary’ psychologist).  I hope you have the same question I did: what on earth do two psychologists have to do with dinosaurs??  The answer should be: nothing at all (you can click on this to see how they justify their right to comment on a field of which they know nothing).

This is unfortunately all too true in terrorist studies.  Terrorism is a complicated phenomenon that touches on a wide range of fields: political science, history, psychology, sociology, etc.  And we have learned a lot from these various disciplines over the last 20 years or so that have helped us understand more about terrorism.  This does not mean, however, that everyone in these given areas has anything useful to say.  As I have often noted, just because you can spell terrorism does not make you an expert.

In the wake of the awful planned attack in Toronto last Monday, which may or may not be an act of terrorism (I still lean to the latter as do many true experts I have a lot of time for), some of this ‘pseudo expertise’ came out in spades. To cite just one example, on CBC’s The Current, host Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed a trio of ‘experts’ on the incel movement which the suspect, Alek Minassian, is apparently (based on one FaceBook post mind you) tied to.  Here is one excerpt which caught my ear

Great quote.  Except that it is false and there is little evidence I have seen to back it up.  In all my years looking at Islamist extremism in Canada (and to a lesser extent in the West) I very rarely saw this link.  In fact, if memory serves me correctly, I can recall one single case of a Canadian who radicalised to violence who was also a domestic abuser. One. Let me repeat this so it sinks in. ONE.   So much for the ‘almost always’ claim of certainty by Archy Mann, a journalist with the LGBTQ magazine Extra in Toronto who apparently has written on incel.  So this makes him an ‘expert’ on terrorism because????

My point is that when something of the magnitude of Monday’s incident occurs we are inundated with ‘experts’ who have all the answers.  Media outlets struggle to find someone willing to go on air to talk about what just happened, to ‘explain’ what just happened (full disclosure: I did more than 50 interviews for TV, radio and print media and I tried to be careful with what I knew based on the little information then available).  Judiciousness is not always in play here as the demand for immediate comment outstrips the ability to determine true expertise (furthermore, many real experts often work in security intelligence and law enforcement agencies who will not or cannot comment).  We are thus exposed to some really good people and a tonne of really bad ones.

My advice to my readers is simple.  When you listen to a self-styled expert on terrorism check out why they are so.  What have they written?  Where do they get their information from?  Why are they offering comment?  It may not be always so easy to find answers to these questions but it may help you divide true expertise from false.

In the end, a lot of what I read and hear about terrorism gives me ‘gastric pains’.  Maybe I should see a psychologist.  Or maybe I am just a dinosaur.

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.

Leave a Reply