The Evolutionary Brain Glitch That Makes Terrorism Fail

Go read this Bruce Schneier essay, which explains and interprets a paper from International Security. Here’s a boiled-down version:

  1. Terrorists have specific goals.
  2. Killing civilians is a means to those goals.
  3. Correspondent inference bias leads people to the incorrect belief that killing civilians is the goal, rather than a means to one.
  4. Ergo, terrorists’ stated goals are just lies that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Because people think that terrorists want to kill civilians, they ignore the terrorists’ actual goals.
  5. Result: terrorists don’t achieve their actual goals.

It explains so much. Everyone is wrong about everything.

UPDATE: Steven’s suggestion on how to phrase #4 is much better.

The argument makes more sense if you replace point 4 with “Because everybody thinks that terrorists want to kill civilians, everybody ignores the terrorists’ actual goals.”

The comments that both Bruce’s postings on this subject has attracted, are interesting - right on the heels of the explanation of how the mistake works, a large fraction of the commentators proceed to make the mistake themselves, very loudly.

I’m not sure I see how the connection between (4) and (5) goes - it only seems to work if you assume that (2) is read to suggest something like a commercial transaction where the terrorists allow themselves to be bought off with whatever it is they wanted. But that’s not the only way terrorism can influence people - it’s probably not even the best, even if it did work. Wouldn’t a better explanation for the tendency of terrorist groups to fail to achieve their aims be just that (1) terrorist groups generally are terrorist groups (as opposed to other sorts) because their aims aren’t ones they have the ability to achieve without terrorism (which is to say, they have little chance of achieving those aims in general), or (2) generally only groups with significantly unlikely to be achieved aims attract the sorts of people who feel comfortable using terrorism as a means?