"Alternative Facts": Social Science is Useless for Warfighting and National Security

September 2, 2017

Since the turnover of the presidential administration in January, the American public and the world have been introduced to a range of new political characters. Some of these characters have become household names; Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, and Kellyanne Conway immediately come to mind. Somewhat lost in the fray, however, have been a few others that have been placed in positions of similar power. Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to the president and former member of the national security advisory council, is one of these. In the Spring, several prominent terrorism researchers and experts spoke out on Twitter with concerns about Gorka's credentials and his understanding of the details surrounding individual trajectories towards terrorism. They have said that conclusions about terrorism, like any social action, require unreasonable things like "evidence." They have further that he should not report statistics about terrorist recidivists "so ridiculously wrong."

 

But today, I'm not here to write about this nitpicking. I want to write about a comment he made on Twitter related to social science and its place in the analysis and performance of war. In an exchange with one of these annoying academics who had the gall to post an article from the New York Times challenging the travel ban imposed by the Trump administration (which itself was based on that old bugaboo, data), Gorka responded with snark skepticism about the role of social science in winning a war.*

 

And rightfully so. Everyone knows that wars are won in the absence of any conception about the people that fight them. Soldiers are victorious when placed in combat situations that are devoid of any detailed understanding about those they fight against. We can best discourage our enemies by misunderstanding what it is that compels them to fight us. Military commanders are best-equipped to make decisions without recognizing the social dynamics and consequences of their orders. Propaganda is most effective when there is no consideration of the words that make up the messages. 

 

Given the clear uselessness of social science in warfighting, I thought I would produce a list to show just what a waste of time social science really is in this domain. There's a lot of ground to cover, so let's get started, shall we?

 

1) There certainly aren't literally hundreds of studies on the psychology of terrorism, and those studies certainly haven't been summarized by personnel at the U.S. Defense Technical Information Center.

 

2) Military institutions in the United States certainly don't offer courses in social sciences, especially not in political science, history, or culture. That would be ridiculous.

 

3) I haven't heard anything about anthropologists working with the U.S. Human Terrain Team to promote an understanding of tribal relations in Afghanistan which has been credited with reducing combat operations by 60% in 2007. I also haven't heard about such a program being praised by soldiers on the ground before it ended in 2014. 

 

4) Speaking of anthropologists, they were useless in the late 1800s and pre-World War I 1900s, when the British recruited them to help in the administration of violent uprisings in the outskirts of Empire.

 

5) Economists never worked with military personnel in 1942 and 1943 to determine if and when the U.S. could sustain material and industrial output for a sustained invasion of Europe.

 

6) Other economists working for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II never performed analyses that helped select optimal enemy targets, determine enemies' and allies' intentions, or informed postwar negotiations.

 

7) These individuals (and others, like political scientists) definitely haven't used classic theories of economics, like rational choice theory and game theory, to influence the eventual American successes during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

 

8) Geographers are some of the most useless. They don't even work with historians to analyze the geography of past battles like the Battle of Thermopylae to inform the use of terrain as a force multiplier.

 

9) In fact, the work of historians can probably be discounted altogether. It's not like their work with war scholars helped to learn lessons from The Brecourt Manor Assault (attack on a fixed position), The Battle of Austerlitz (combining maneuvers with battle tactics), or the Battle of the Chongchon River and Lake Changjin (how an enemy can turn to guerrilla warfare).

 

10) Communication researchers like myself are pointless when it comes to war. I mean, it's not like we can analyze messages intended to achieve key objectives of war, including mobilizing the homefront, demonstrating unity, communicating strength, or facilitating enemy surrender.

 

11) There is no way that each of these discipline ties in to other disciplines that are more overtly involved in the science of war, including public policy, military science, sociology, or psychology.

 

12) Finally, some of the most useless books ever written have never influenced how the United States approaches the psychology and execution of war.

 

This is only a short list. There are an endless number of ways that other social scientific disciplines fail to produce useful information about political violence. If you are one of these useless social scientists, feel free to leave a comment at the bottom about ways that you (or others in your discipline) haven't contributed to our knowledge of terrorism or war. 

 

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Obviously, I'm being sarcastic in my criticism of social science and its place in our understanding of war, terrorism, and the processes that lead to both. Unfortunately, there are those in the government that believe victories against violent extremism and our more traditional political enemies do not require social scientific analysis. Even more unfortunately, this has led many individuals in these disciplines to become disheartened, believing their work to be falling on deaf ears.

 

Should this blog post reach any of those individuals, I'd implore them to keep the faith. Keep doing your research. Keep gathering data. Keep pursuing the important questions. My discussions with several policymakers, analysts, and warfighters have shown me that they recognize the importance of this work, even if blowhards like Gorka can not.**

 

 

* I should note that I can no longer see Gorka's posts. He blocked me on Twitter a few hours after I responded to a tweet by Walid Phares. A discussion following one of Phares's tweets mentioned that academics do not work with the intelligence community and therefore Gorka is right in ignoring terrorism researchers. I indicated that I could identify several academics (myself included) that have worked with the FBI, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, The Department of State, The European Union, and so on. A few hours later, I was blocked by Gorka. So, I apologize for not having the exact language Gorka used during this period (aside from the above screenshot), but you can sort through the tweets from Phares and/or Gorka from late February/early March to find the context for the exchanges. Anyway, this is all to say that Gorka may have changed his stance in the last few months, but I doubt it. His public non-Twitter statements have certainly been consistent, if ill-informed.

 

**In the time between when I started this blog post and when I posted it, Gorka has been relieved of his duties in the White House. He claims to have resigned, but all indications are that he was forced out. For me, it doesn't matter which. Although there remain a number of individuals in the government that weaken our fight against violent extremism by dismissing social science, the removal of one such individual is a victory, albeit a small one.

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© 2018 by Kurt Braddock

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