Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Not All Human Conflicts Are Created The Same

Apparently. The latest issue of the journal Nature has a paper detailing the statistical analysis of insurgencies that strongly suggests that, casualty-wise, insurgencies follow the same trend as conventional wars yet they are significantly different in terms of the frequency of casualties and the underlying mechanics generating them. (Click read more below to read this entry)
Nerd Alert/Warning: this entry may contain some stuff that likely put you to sleep. Do not operate heavy machinery after reading this. :)

Power laws are everywhere you look at: earthquakes, forest fires, stock trading ... Not even wars escape them. Processes explained by power laws share something in common: frequent events with minor consequences and less frequent events with catastrophic reach. Some bold scientists have even suggested that power laws may be an universal tool to describe nature.

Coming back to the Nature article, the researchers make mainly two new contributions: (i) the statistical parameters describing frequency of casualties are different in insurgencies and conventional wars; (ii) a mathematical model (or a nerds' war game, if you will) to explain those casualties. It is quite a model, I must say, because it fits the data quite well.

As opposed to what some news commentator posted in Nature's website  ("Modellers claim wars are predictable"), the beauty of this work is not that you can predict a war (war will always be as unpredictable as earthquakes) but rather that we now have a model to understand and possibly trace strategies to fight insurgencies. For example, the model predicts that if military pressure rises, the insurgent groups fragment into smaller ones.

If you have some inclination for science, I would recommend you to get familiar with power laws because it is likely you will hear about them more and more in the future.

This book is engaging, readable and a perfect introduction to the topic.

If you feel brave, this other book will provide some more serious scientific basis to power laws.


No comments: