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Black Swans and Radicalisation


Black Swans and Radicalisation

How important is an idea for action? How many people think something, but don’t act on it? Are ideas like costumes – occasionally picked up, worn, and taken off? What exactly are the combined effects of identities, ideas, grievances and opportunities?

Such questions are the fundamental building blocks to try to understand ‘radicalisation’. Accepting that there are basic unresolved and subjective issues concerning what actually does or does not constitute ‘extremism’, there are largely two school of thought on this issue: there are those that see ‘extremist’ ideas as seedbeds for action – their mere existence causally associated with a specific outcome, and those that argue that ideas are, at best, insufficient but necessary causes to participate in an action.

What is meant here? Take for example those that assert that there is a link between extremism, radicalisation and terrorism in much recent commentary and political discussion. Some journalists have suggested that non-violent extremism is a necessary and expected precursor to terrorism. Other blogs and think tanks promote a line of analysis which simply portrays radicalisation as a conveyor belt phenomenon, from introduction, to ideological commitment, to isolation, to violence. Such an assertion appeals to a media desperate for a narrative that explains what is happening, and who themselves have little time to fully investigate these cases of terrorism in depth.

As evidence of this seedbed/conveyor belt/entry chamber of hypothesis, various think tanks, commentators and blogs choose case studies of terrorists to prove their point. They pick out examples such as that of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, popularly known as the Detroit Bomber, or Richard Reid, popularly known as the Shoe Bomber as examples to prove their point. Such studies often meticulously account for specific memberships, acts of participation, and general behaviours as indicative of a specific trajectory into terrorism. From these clear descriptions of how these individuals became terrorists, this form of analysis seeks to generalise from the particular. Take, for example, Abdulmutallab – if he was a member of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), and anyone else who ever participated in and/or was convicted of terrorist acts was a member of FOSIS, then, the argument goes, there must be something about FOSIS which is contributing to the outcome of becoming a terrorist.

Yet this approach is flawed and disingenuous, because it looks good for newspaper copy but is inherently unscientific. The technical explanation is that it neither takes case selection seriously nor adopts a systematic comparative strategy. By only focusing on cases where terrorism occurs is an example of the erroneous practice of ‘selecting on the dependent variable’.

Let’s take an example here slightly adapted from Popper (as discussed in Herbert Keuth’s, 2004, The Philosophy of Karl Popper). Two amateur biologists decide to study the local lake’s animal population, in order to explore the descriptive connection between the type of animals and their colour. They base their study on a pond which is down the street from them. They observe a huge number of brown ducks, some pink flamingos, many white swans, and a couple of black swans. Then, the amateur biologists make some simple concrete conclusions from the data collected. From these observations, the amateur biologists might conclude that not all swans are black, but all black animals are swans, because they actually observed a consequential number of non-black swans, many non-black non-swans, some black swans, but no black non-swan animal.

Another parallel example? Let’s say we were doctors trying to get at how and why people get cancer. So we begin a study of a handful of localised cases of cancer – say how many people in our specific square mile are struck down with this condition. Let’s say we don’t differentiate between kinds of cancers – i.e. lung vs. skin vs. colon vs. prostate, etc. Furthermore, a general lifestyle questionnaire throws up no immediate commonalities except for some very basic shared characteristics. The individuals all lived within a square mile of each other. They all drank water, they all went to school, but they didn’t all eat the same, weren’t all exposed equally to specific environmental factors, didn’t all smoke etc. So if we now feel forced to determine what is causing cancer in this square mile we are at a loss. Are there more or less cases in this square mile compared to other square miles? If we search for commonalities, how common is drinking water, breathing, the mundane and basic shared factors between those that suffered cancer and those that didn’t? Because we never situated the study, never made systematic negative (where the outcome isn’t present) comparisons, or even systematic positive comparisons (for example, in other square miles), then these scientists cannot stake any valid or scientific claim as to what exactly is going on here.

Why raise these kinds of issues with regard to the relationship between extremism and terrorism? Because non-academic research that makes generalised claims from very specific case studies may in fact suffer from naive inductivist reasoning, that is, extending the characteristics of a non-representative sample to the whole population. Equally, a unique emphasis on cases where extremism appears to precede violence automatically means that a researcher can not claim that these results are true in a wider population – how much evidence is there in this kind of research of cases where ‘extremism’ has not led to violence? Furthermore, in the case of Islamically inspired terrorism and the relationship to ‘extremist’ ideas, what evidence is there of a comparison outside of specific Islamic issues? Asserting that Islamically inspired terrorism is related to Islam is a tautology – the observance of the outcome is defined in the term. If there is neither comparison between the presence/absence of extremism where there is or is not terrorism, or alternatively, there is no comparison outside of a relatively unique and rare universe of cases, then the research has absolutely no scientific value in understanding the relationship between extremism and violence.

Dr Jonathan Githens-Mazer is Co-Director of the European Muslim Research Centre at the University of Exeter.

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