Sunday, March 8, 2015

A new science of terrorism – and of everything else, no kidding!!

An op-ed piece on the NYT web site makes the point that the study of terrorism in recent years has apparently been ineffective – as it has not informed policies that could successfully counter the increase in terrorist activity around the globe. The solution? More randomized experiments – as this is the only method which can produce scientifically valid evaluations of the effectiveness of anti-terrosism tactics. So research on terrorism needs to adopt the same approach that has produced such magnificent advances in other areas – where scientists have identified interventions that effectively prevent problems as diverse as antisocial behavior, depression, schizophrenia, cigarette smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, academic failure, teenage pregnancy, marital discord and poverty. Of course, some of these problems have not exactly declined either, but such a complaint would probably come across as petty. As I was reading, I was reminded of another op-ed I had looked up a few minutes earlier as it appeared just beneath the pitch for scientific anti-terrorism rigor. Called "If an Algorithm Wrote This, How Would You Even Know?," it pointed out that a shocking amount of what we’re reading is created not by humans, but by computer algorithms - and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. To me, the research methodology op-ed surely looked like one - but, if the byline is to be believed, it is written by a human.

The author apparently is a real research scientist – who recently wrote a book called “The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World.It must be full of useful, truly scientifical findings which should help prevent all sorts of child-rearing hiccups and social dysfunctionality. Which reminds me of Adam Grant, the star psychologist at Wharton, who the other day favorited one of my tweets. There – I thought – I ironically praised his and Sheryl Sandberg's advice column, "How Men Can Succeed in the Boardroom and the Bedroom." I am a bit old-fashioned, so I though promoting gender equality through such a crass appeal to male self-interest was a bit lame. But research probably shows that the bigger the buzz around your brand the bigger its value, even with some derogatory comments mixed in – so I got that digital slap on the back. In that case, I was 99 percent sure my human effort was duly recognized by an algorithms – but, indeed, it was hard to make that difference. A few years back Nicholas Carr famously made fretted that all that infograzing on the web was frying our brains and making our thinking more-machine-like. So this is an embrace made in digital heaven – we and bots meeting happily somewhere in the AI middle.