People who think in deterministic terms about terrorism are way off base. (Bad news: the same is true for just about any nontrivial phenomenon involving human beings.) Acts of political violence aren't at all predictable in the Newtonian sense, the way one can predict the movements of bodies under the influence of forces via the laws of classical mechanics. Things are nowhere near that simple.

At best, with good data and much hard work at model-building, one might be able to do a statistical analysis of terrorist activity. Given that analysis, one might be able to estimate probabilities of events --- the chance that something could happen, averaged over a large number of places and times and alternate universes. There's a body of experience with doing this sort of thing in physics: it's called statistical mechanics (when one starts bottom-up at the fundamental low-level atomic end) or thermodynamics (when one begins top-down with the large-scale average values of pressure, temperature, density, etc. in a system).

Perhaps some wisdom could be gained by applying that metaphor to the sphere of human activity? And even if the immediate predictive power of models are minimal, at least one might be able to move the debate away from finger-pointing ("You didn't tell us that this attack was about to happen!") and toward long-term thinking about key factors that increase or decrease the odds. For a given country, focus on metrics like education and literacy, public health, social mobility, economic growth, civil liberties, minority rights, infant mortality, life expectancy, and so forth. Which contribute the most toward stability, prosperity, and peaceful individual flourishing? What are the best investments that one society can make to help another society recover from illness?

(see also LearningAndLosing, 23 December 2001)

TopicScience - TopicSociety - 2002-01-15

(correlates: OppositeAttractions, ThreePhoneCalls, MortalityFunctions, ...)