Terrorism research at Carnegie Mellon focuses on objectivity

Julia Eve Napolitano Feb 27, 2017

Defining terrorism is often difficult and vague, especially because people consider it to mean different things. One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, after all. Oftentimes, it is even more difficult to separate fact from political agenda. Terrorism is generally thought to be the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

In an article, titled “Challenges in researching terrorism from the field,” published in Science Policy Forum last month, experts from different fields explored several different aspects of research into terrorism.

These researchers include Carnegie Mellon University’s Baruch Fischhoff, a decision scientist and Howard Heinz University professor in the Institute for Politics and Strategy, and Department of Engineering and Public Policy; Scott Atran, an anthropologist at Paris’ Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and cofounder of ARTIS International; Robert Axelrod, a University of Michigan political scientist; and Richard Davis, a former White House policy advisor now at the University of Oxford.

Acknowledging that there are fundamental aspects of terrorism that remain unclear, they asked the questions, “What identifies terrorists before they act? How do they radicalize? What motivates their violence? When do they act? What countermeasures are most effective?”

They attribute the lack of answers to these questions to flaws in how terrorism is currently researched. The scientists propose an alternative design to researching terrorism, one driven by theoretically informed field research integrated with policy-making. They aim to use field data to better inform and test hypotheses related to terrorism.

“Bridging theory and practice is always challenging, and particularly when diverse forms of expertise are needed, and the people who have it lack opportunities, and perhaps incentives, for collaboration,” said Fischhoff in a university press release. “Research that overcomes these barriers is a hallmark of Carnegie Mellon and of the projects featured in our article. It is essential if the social sciences are to make their essential contributions to the fundamentally human problems that terrorism reflects and represents.”

More advanced research into how terrorists think may be the key to preventing future tragedies. Ensuring the legal and ethical standing of terrorism research through national review boards will also legitimize the information, as opposed to obtaining information through unreliable means such as torture.

“To be more successful in combating terrorism, governments should look at how they can build research capacity that is properly funded, independent of governmental interference, and grounded in systematic data collection, checking and analyses that is devoid of politics,” said Atran in a university press release.

Terrorism is a recurring topic in today’s political climate. Many have seen the havoc terrorist organizations can reek in countries far from the war-torn areas. The memory of Sep. 11, 2001 is fresh on many Americans’ minds. Unfortunately, politicians play on the electorate’s fears and strong emotions. Such subjectivity cannot make its way into research.

Interestingly, researchers have found that terrorism is one of the worst methods of achieving a political goal. In a book called Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict authored by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Columbia University, and Maria Stephan, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, it is revealed that terrorism achieves its political aims only about 25 percent of the time, yet nonviolent methods are successful half the time.