I read two very interesting articles this Sunday, one in the New York Times and one in the Toronto Star. The NYT article was about preventing and detecting concussions (see it here) and the part that struck me was the fact that renewed interest in this phenomenon, especially in the wake of several high profile deaths of former NFL players, has led to a veritable free-for-all in research money and proposals (“the hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds spawned a research feeding frenzy that led to dubious claims”).
The Toronto Star article was about poverty and the author claimed that for a mere $16 billion a year in guaranteed minimum income we can essentially eliminate poverty in Canada (see article here).
Both these pieces got me thinking about what we know about radicalsation and terrorism and what we are doing about them. Let me start with the latter article. I have no idea whether a guaranteed minimum income is viable or whether or not it would actually eliminate poverty. All I know is that this suggestion strikes me as a simple remedy and I have a feeling that the causes of poverty are complex and hence defy a simple solution. Reducing poverty is truly a noble goal, but eliminating it? Even Jesus Christ said there will always be poor people. And if he said so, it can’t be that easy to defeat.
The NYT piece is related in that like concussion studies, radicalisation and terrorism research over the past decade and a half has exploded (no pun intended!) with some great work and some equally dubious claims.
Most of the research I have read consists of modeling or solutions on how to detect/prevent/solve radicalisation and terrorism. According to the researchers, these phenomena are caused by poverty – or not; alienation – or not; a search for meaning – or not; identity crisis – or not; foreign policy – or not; etc., etc., etc. So what is the underlying cause?
My point is that these are really difficult problems that have many,many contributing factors and many possible pathways. We are not served by a model that seeks – or claims – to paper over these complexities by saying “my theory/model/solution will solve everything”. I get it: researchers want to contribute original work and make a difference.
I am not saying that all research is exactly like this. As I noted, some is excellent and some researchers recognise that this problem is not reducible to simple solutions. But I fear that many people want a simple solution and will promote research that offers the quickest way to deal with these issues. That is probably human nature.
In the end I am not confident that we will ever find a panacea for terrorism and radicalisation. Yes, we still need to sponsor credible research that get us a little closer to a better understanding or provides a tool that can help in some cases. But no, we do not need to put all our eggs in one basket and jump for the simplest proposal.
That would be simply unwise.