Screw Theory! We Need More Prediction in Security Studies!

Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent; taken from the January 24, 2005 broadcast of The Tonight Show.

Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent; taken from the January 24, 2005 broadcast of The Tonight Show.

My previous post touched on the apparent analytical bankruptcy underlying the U.S. government’s approach to counterterrorism policy. While many fingers were pointed at the government for this state of affairs, at least one scholar admitted that “the leading [academic] terrorism research was mostly just political theory and anecdotes” which has “left policy makers to design counterterrorism strategies without the benefit of facts.”

So what can be done about this? Well, Michael D. Ward, a Professor of Political Science at Duke University, has suggested a radical solution: test the theories to see if they can accurately predict real world outcomes. Ward recently published an article in the Journal of Global Security Studies (read it now before it goes behind the paywall) arguing in favor of less theory and more prediction in the fields of international relations and security studies.

[W]e need less theory because most theory is an attempt to rescue or adapt extant theory. We need more predictions in order to keep track of how well we understand the world around us. They will tell us how good our theories are and where we need better explanations.

As Ward explained,

[P]rediction is deeply embedded in the philosophy of science… The argument is that if you can develop models that provide an understanding—without a teleology of why things happen—you should be able to generate predictions that will not only be accurate, but may also be useful in a larger societal context.

Ward argued that “until very recently, most of this thread of work in security studies had been lost, or if not lost, at least abandoned.” The reason for this was the existence of a longstanding epistemological disagreement: “Many social scientists see a sharp distinction between explanation on the one hand and prediction on the other. Indeed, this distinction is often sharp enough that it is argued that doing one of these things cuts you out of doing the other.”

For the most part, Ward asserted, the theorists have won out over the empiricists.

[M]any scholars (but few others) will tell you that we need more theory. Doubtless they are right. Few of them really mean “theory” in the sense that I reserve for the term. Few of them mean “theory” in the sense of analytical narratives. Many of them mean “detailed, plausible stories” about how stuff occurs.

In light of the uncomfortable conclusion that more detailed, plausible stories about how stuff occurs does not actually yield more insight, Ward has adopted a decidedly contrarian stance.

I am here to suggest that less is more. Thus, let me be the first to call for less theory in security studies. We should winnow the many, many such “theories” that occupy the world of security studies.

Instead, we need more predictions.

He went on to detail his argument.

We need these predictions for four reasons. First, we need these predictions to help us make relevant statements about the world around us. We also need these predictions to help us throw out the bad “theories” that continue to flourish. These predictions will help drive our research into new areas, away from moribund approaches that have been followed for many decades. Finally, and perhaps most important, predictions will force us to keep on track.

But making predictions is only part of the process. Tracking them and accounting for their accuracy is the vital corollary to improving both accuracy and theory. As Ward pointed out, “One reason that many hate predictions is that talking heads make many predictions in the media, but few of them ever keep track of how well they are doing.” Most, in fact, are wrong; few are held accountable for it.

Of course, the use of empirical methods to predict the outcomes of future events animated much of Trevor N. Dupuy’s approach to historical analysis and is at the heart of what The Dupuy Institute carries on doing today. Both have made well-documented predictions that have also been remarkably accurate. More about those in the next post.

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About Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling. All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

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