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Statistical Analysis of Terrorism 265

Posted by Soulskill
from the concept-episode-for-numb3rs dept.
Harperdog sends in a Miller-McCune story about Aaron Clauset, a researcher whose studies on the statistics and patterns that arise from large numbers of terrorist attacks could help governments better prepare for such conflicts and reduce uncertainty about their frequency and magnitude. Quoting: "After mapping tens of thousands of global terrorism incidents, he and his collaborators have discovered that terrorism can be described by what mathematicians call a power law. ... Using this power law relationship — called 'scale invariance' — the risk of a large attack can be estimated by studying the frequency of small attacks. It’s a calculation that turns the usual thinking about terrorism on its head. 'The conventional viewpoint has been there is "little terrorism" and "big terrorism," and little terrorism doesn't tell you anything about big terrorism,' Clauset explains. 'The power law says that's not true.' Massive acts of violence, like 9/11 or the devastating 1995 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, obey the same statistical rules as a small-scale IED attack that kills no one, Clauset's work suggests. 'The power law form gives you a very simple extrapolation rule for statistically connecting the two,' he says."
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Statistical Analysis of Terrorism

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  • No doubt this sort of analysis will soon be used to plan terrorist attacks.

    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      Given the amateurism of most if not all recent attacks, and the only slightly better level of counter-terrorism, I would not bet on it
  • The government is very happy letting irrationality dictate discourse. Fear keeps rational discourse out of the conversation. It is much better to have the people think that it is a good idea to duct tape themselves into their homes and suffocate. Fewer trouble makers that way.

  • nonsense (Score:4, Insightful)

    by t2t10 (1909766) on Monday December 13, 2010 @07:12PM (#34541324)

    The observation of scale invariance in this kind of data tells you nothing about the short term relationship between low level and high level attacks. Physicists really shouldn't be doing statistics...

    • by drolli (522659)

      Physicists should do statistics. What they should not do is do statistics which they dont know about.

      • How about, physicists who are not statisticians shouldn't claim to be, and physicists who aren't should make sure they know at least a little?

      • You should read up on the true Scotsman fallacy.

        I have taught stats, was a physics major (Masters level, switched to an applied Math PhD), and have done more graduate stats than many of my stats colleges. I am in no way unusual.
    • by vxice (1690200)
      "Massive acts of violence, like 9/11 or the devastating 1995 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, obey the same statistical rules as a small-scale IED attack that kills no one." So basically large attacks that kill a bunch of people at once but rarely happen affect the same proportion of the population that smaller attacks do since while they happen more often the number of people they affect is still insignificant compared to the world population?
      • A "power law" just states that the relationship follows frequency = K*magnitude^P, for some values of K and P which are obviously dependent on time. The answer to your question is yes, during any period in which P is approximately -1. Then frequency*magnitude = K. "Magnitude" here is proportional to "number of people affected".
    • The observation of scale invariance in this kind of data tells you nothing about the short term relationship between low level and high level attacks. Physicists really shouldn't be doing statistics...

      You're right... it's the bloody politicians who should be doing the statistics. After all, they govern a millions of people. They face problems which should be approached by statistics, and nothing else. But since they don't, someone else has got to do it, right?

      Politicians are too busy with incident-management.

      I applaud the attempt.

    • Physicists really shouldn't be doing statistics...

      Just calculus.

      by what mathematicians call a power law. ... Using this "power law" relationship

      I actually just stopped and laughed.
      Also:

      'The conventional viewpoint has been there is "little terrorism" and "big terrorism," and little terrorism doesn't tell you anything about big terrorism,' Clauset explains. 'The power law says that's not true.'

      Now it's like a zero-tolerance law for a terrorist act. (And we all know how effective those are...)

      ...

      On another note anyone have a copy of the article or is able to grab a snippet? - because I really like to actually read these things and it seems we have crashed the site atm. (Math articles = I read)

    •   Statistic should not be used to try and predict phenomena which depend on variables or data that are neither quantifiable nor reliable.

      SB

      • The number of attacks that have happened is very quantifiable. Its a matter of fact. What you do with that fact, is perhaps more subjective.
    • While it tells you nothing about the short term relationship, it does tell you that the chance of a major terrorist incident is more likely than it would be if these attacks followed a normal distribution.

      If it were a normal distribution, the World Trade Centre attack would be an aberration, orders of magnitude bigger than typical terrorist attacks. There would be no need to preempt such attacks.

      But the scale invariance shows us that we should be prepared for the possibility of an attack of this magnit

    • by Artifakt (700173)

      Scale invariance always demonstrates one thing clearly. Wherever it occurs for a real phenomenon, there is no sharp line between two or more things that are usually being called by different names (at least by somebody involved), and so, it's logical to infer that they are really not such different things at all. As one of my instructors put it back in the dark ages, "When you analyse data on smooth flow and turbulent flow and the problem turns out to be scale invariant, you have a situation where there are

  • Interesting article. I however have a beef with the thought that "“This gives you hope that terrorism is understandable from a scientific perspective.” " Furthermore, I have a problem with his thought that patterns of probability can be seen to develop over time, while not explicitly stating _when_ an attack will happen. To me, that's akin to stating that the San Andreas fault-system will trigger with a mounting probability over the years. Of course it will - as tension builds at some point i
  • Analyse this ! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Wowsers (1151731) on Monday December 13, 2010 @07:15PM (#34541348) Journal

    Statistical analysis shows that the amount of terrorist incidents is actually quite small, but the governments around the world like to exaggerate how many there actually are, to deprive decent hard working people of their freedom and democracy, and pee a lot of money up a wall in the process.

    • Re:Analyse this ! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by gknoy (899301) <gknoy@anasazisys ... ems.com minus pi> on Monday December 13, 2010 @07:53PM (#34541712)

      And by "up a wall", you mean "into other peoples' pockets", right?

    • No offense, but I didn't need statistical analysis to figure that out. :)

    • Statistical analysis shows that the amount of terrorist incidents is actually quite small, but the governments around the world like to exaggerate how many there actually are, to deprive decent hard working people of their freedom and democracy, and pee a lot of money up a wall in the process.

      Your sig is, "Take Nobody's Word For It." Very fitting. You don't know what you are talking about.

      The list of terrorist attacks in just 2008 [wikipedia.org] isn't short, and doesn't include the many arrests and foiled plots. Wikipe

  • Bullshit (Score:4, Insightful)

    by aeoo (568706) on Monday December 13, 2010 @07:18PM (#34541390) Journal

    These are the same type of guys that gave us statistically accurate risk modeling for the complex derivative securities and we know how well that turned out. One must be careful with mathematical models, especially when you're modeling sentiment.

    • Re:Bullshit (Score:5, Insightful)

      by rcamans (252182) on Monday December 13, 2010 @07:54PM (#34541720)

      BS on you. The mathematicians gave a statistical analysis for a specific purpose. The brokerage managers miss-used it, and were told by their own people that they were applying it to something they should not. They went ahead and crashed the whole thing anyways. No fault to the mathematicians. Just the fault of a bunch of managers and bean counters, probably at best with a MA in business.
      Losers.
      Oh, wait, many of them got big bonuses and promotions. Some of them work for Obama. I guess they aren't losers, after all.

      • I'm not so sure about that. For instance, the '98 Long-Term Capital Management Crisis [wikipedia.org] was a pretty big deal, and that hedge fund was run by Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, who won a Nobel prize in economics. Granted, that's not the current crisis, but the point is I'm not convinced the "real economists" were blameless.
      • Re:Bullshit (Score:5, Insightful)

        by shadowbearer (554144) on Monday December 13, 2010 @10:31PM (#34542654) Homepage Journal

        Some of them work for Obama. I guess they aren't losers, after all.

          You know what I find most disgustingly ironic about all the rhetoric lately?

          Too many people are forgetting that the real roots of the problems we have now don't stem from just this administration or this congress, but from decades worth of corruption and self-serving jackasses that WE - yes, WE - have elected into office.

          As George Carlin said once: "Where are all the bright, honest people of conscience?"

        SB

         

        • by LoRdTAW (99712)

          As George Carlin said once: "Where are all the bright, honest people of conscience?"

          In just about every other profession/occupation except for politics and management.

    • Actually, they were going to use statistical tools from, I think, the futures market to assess various risk vectors for terrorism. I read an overview of it and, well, it seemed as good as anything else when trying to predict what a society of billions of individuals will generate. I thought it was enough outside the box to be interesting. But then the media so misreported it that people truly thought a market was being set up to *wager* on terrorist events. I remember it because it was one of the final thin

    • by khallow (566160)

      These are the same type of guys that gave us statistically accurate risk modeling for the complex derivative securities and we know how well that turned out. One must be careful with mathematical models, especially when you're modeling sentiment.

      I challenge you to name a nontrivial model that stays "careful" when you gamble on it with 50 to 1 leverage.

  • by Tanman (90298) on Monday December 13, 2010 @07:19PM (#34541398)

    This is just like all those crap magazines you can buy to show you how to make millions in the stock market. There is always someone willing to look at a graph of past occurrences, draw a line through it, and show you the formula for what happened.

    The trick being, of course, that they are all 100% worthless for predicting future trends. The only thing you know in the stock market is this: If a stock is going up, it can continue to go up. Or it might stay the same or go down. The only thing this guy will learn from his analysis is that there might be another terrorist attack. Or there might not. And it might be more, equal, or less severe than previous attacks.

    • by Fex303 (557896) on Monday December 13, 2010 @07:40PM (#34541588)

      The trick being, of course, that they are all 100% worthless for predicting future trends.

      Actually, they're pretty good at predicting broad trends. It's just that they're not good at predicting specific outcomes. In the same way that understanding the odds of roulette doesn't let you predict what number will come up on a specific spin. The only way to really use the odds is to bet across the entire table to take advantage of the trend - that's what the house does.

      • by Junta (36770)

        Actually, they're pretty good at predicting broad trends.

        The problem with this and the market compared to random or natural phenomenon is that an accepted, accurate model changes things to make the model invalid. In this example, if the model is shown to be accurate predictor, is well published, then the organizers unconsciously making the current pattern will change their behavior if they are about to do something a model is going to predict. Similarly in the economic market, accurate models drive behavior changes that heavily distort the market. Simple fact

        • by Steeltoe (98226)

          You pose an interesting dilema: If the market is accurately modeled and understood, that very model changes the market, thus rendering the model invalid.

          From my experience, I would say it really depends on the model, and how well you're at keeping secrets if it's any good ;)

          During the past 200 years, people have modeled the markets in so many ways, yet, the dynamic expression of markets is very much the same as so long ago. There is not much difference, when comparing the same levels of liquidity, which is

      • by pz (113803)

        The trick being, of course, that they are all 100% worthless for predicting future trends.

        Actually, they're pretty good at predicting broad trends. It's just that they're not good at predicting specific outcomes. In the same way that understanding the odds of roulette doesn't let you predict what number will come up on a specific spin. The only way to really use the odds is to bet across the entire table to take advantage of the trend - that's what the house does.

        I have two friends who work in finance (I'm sure I'm not alone in this here), one as a trader and one as a quant. The trader does very, very well. The quant, who is using some very sophisticated mathematics (say, "power law" to him, and he'll retort, "most examples aren't actually power laws, just things that look like power laws that people don't bother checking; a severely skewed distribution does not a power law make") does not do quite as well, but still has a positive return.

        Not everyone in finance i

    • by Steeltoe (98226)

      Sounds like you've been had there my friend. However, do you think we now know everything there is to know? For it sure sounds like that.

    • > The only thing you know in the stock market is this: If a stock is going up, it can continue to go up. Or it might stay the same or go down.

      Not really. There are a few things you can say. For example, increases in volume almost always come before significant increases in movement, and forecast them--they just don't tell you whether the stock will go rapidly up or rapidly down. You can also say "Look, I can buy a share of company X for Y dollars, when the company as a whole, based on its balance shee

  • Then they wouldn't be terrorist attacks. The element of surprise is the chief weapon.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by exentropy (1822632)

      Then they wouldn't be terrorist attacks. The element of surprise is the chief weapon.

      It's the same concept behind password cracking; passwords are supposed to be difficult to predict, however certain passwords (e.g. 123456) are used very frequently and so if I want to crack your account I'll try that first. Just because people try to be unpredictable doesn't mean they act in a way that cannot be predicted.

    • Fear and surprise.

      • by Scryer (60692)

        > Fear and surprise.

        And ruthless efficiency.

  • ... misleading, after all many so-called terrorists are merely frustrated people who have not had their voices heard or who have been abandoned by lawless and reckless rulers or who've had their countries unlawfully invaded.

    I wonder if these studies check the conditions that these "terrorists" arise out of.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Steeltoe (98226)

      Actually, it's very simple: Blowing up innocent people, just because you can, is terrorism.

      Wether you do it from a Comanche helicopter or with pipe bombs doesn't make much difference.

      Why make it more complicated than that?

      • Terrorism is also threatening to blow people up just because you can. It's also threatening economic sanctions or embargoes if certain ultimatums are not satisfied. By this measure, the United States government is the largest and best funded terrorist organization in the world.

        There are a variety ways we express it: an private diplomatic threat, a publicly implied threat, an threat of economic sanctions through the UN (while we ignore UN resolutions against us), military "exercises", CIA coups, and of cours

      • by h00manist (800926)
        I second that.
        The people with weapons are the terrorists.
      • "Actually, it's very simple: Blowing up innocent people, just because you can, is terrorism."

        That isn't even close to the definition of terrorism. Blowing them up in the hopes of some outcome in the name of some cause, no matter how misguided, is terrorism. Blowing up innocent people just because you can is more likely to be the act of someone who is a sadist with Antisocial Personality Disorder, but is definitely not terrorism at all.

      • > Actually, it's very simple: Blowing up innocent people, just because you can, is terrorism.

        No--terrorism requires some component of "terror." Blowing up innocent people often qualifies, but not always. For example, blowing up innocent people may be genocide, with an intention of eliminating--rather than terrifying--a population. Or it may be an untempered reaction to being a twenty-year old who's just seen his friends killed--a twenty year old with automatic weapons, who lashes out too easily at a r

    • Terrorist = "someone opposing any government who should be dead"

      Calling someone a terrorist is just a lame excuse to place them outside the law.

      • Terrorist = "someone opposing any government who should be dead"

        Calling someone a terrorist is just a lame excuse to place them outside the law.

        So your thinking is that no government in their right mind would label the people who do things like ths terrorists?

        Two nearly simultaneous car bombs killed at least eight people in the capital Sunday, and officials said the death toll from a giant suicide truck blast that killed at least 115 a day earlier could be much higher. Iraq Truck Bomb Kills At Least 115 [cbsnews.com]

        Or

  • Does the quoted author mean the 1998 Nairobi embassy bombing [wikipedia.org]?

    Or is he just so meta he doesn't even need to get the date right?
  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Monday December 13, 2010 @07:36PM (#34541558) Journal
    An old prof told me that everything is a straight line in the log-log paper. You can literally draw any conclusion you want once you choose the axes to be logarithmic.
  • by antifoidulus (807088) on Monday December 13, 2010 @07:45PM (#34541634) Homepage Journal
    Americans seem to ignore the most important stat about terrorism that there is, you are almost infinitely more likely to be killed by an SUV than you are by a terrorist. And yet Americans are uber paranoid about terrorism and yet go apeshit for their shitty ass, ugly, poorly performing, insanely dangerous SUVs. Wake the fuck up people.
    • I don't know what American's you're using to make that over-generalization, but it's certainly false.

      Maybe you spend too much time watching sensationalist media, but most of us aren't concerned about terrorism at all. Rather, we're much more concerned with the bullshit the gov't does using counter-terrorism as an excuse.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by schwnj (990042)
      I assume you're taking into account being hit by an SUV while driving a different car. There are plenty of incidents involving SUV drivers hitting and killing others when those injuries would have been far reduced if the person was driving a smaller car. Put another way, if everyone drove mid-size cars instead of SUVs, how many lives would be saved each year? (It's certainly a non-zero number; whether it's more than terror victims I don't know.) I tried to explain this recently to my elderly mother who nee
      • by Solandri (704621)

        I assume you're taking into account being hit by an SUV while driving a different car.

        Actually, NHTSA studied fatality rates by vehicle type [dot.gov]. SUVs do offer more protection in collisions by virtue of their greater mass. But this is almost exactly offset by their greater tendency to roll over (and higher fatality rate in roll-overs). Consequently, occupants of mid-size SUVs are only slightly safer than occupants of small cars, and occupants of full-size SUVs are slightly more likely to die than occupants

    • More people are killed every year in the USA by colds and flus than by cars and SUVs. But enjoy your two minutes hate against SUV drivers.
      • I think the parent thread is pointing out that in terms of saving lives, money spent on road safety campaigns and improving driving ability might be better value than spending it on counter-terrorism in the way we do right now.

        But you also make the fine point that spending money on public health and health education would also be a fine use of that money, perhaps even a better one. It's probably easier to spend money on driver education and reducing road deaths than curing the common cold but anti-poverty m

    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      The other important stat about terrorism : don't live in Iraq and you'll be safe.
  • I question whether road-side bomb attacks against soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan should be considered terrorism (I am, perhaps wrongly, assuming that most such attacks are against soldiers rather than civilians). If soldiers are being 'terrorised' by the threat of facing bombs, they probably aren't very good soldiers.

  • by spasm (79260) on Monday December 13, 2010 @09:05PM (#34542264) Homepage

    "'The power law form gives you a very simple extrapolation rule for statistically connecting the two,' he says" ..as long as all terrorists are perfectly spherical and act in a complete vacuum.

  • According to this 2005 Nature News [nature.com] article about Clauset and his research, the observation that social interactions (deadly feuds) follow a power law distribution dates back at least half a century. Along a similar vein, Neil Johnson (of University of Miami) and research collaborators recently produced a decent model for this kind of distribution (see their paper in Nature from last year [nature.com]).
  • ... I remembered reading about a study like this years ago. Turns out, I did. http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/21465 [physicsworld.com]

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