Predictive modelling of societal collapse

Ibn Khaldun, the Tunisian historian (died 1406) is widely credited as the first to apply a scientific model towards understanding history. Epitomised in his work Al-Muqaddimah (The Introduction), he considered that the rise and fall of societies follow patterns of behaviour akin to the natural laws.

Detailed below are some key points from the linked New Scientist article providing a statistical/modelling led analysis on the periodic nature of societal collapse which is termed today as cliodynamics. Some key points:

1. Peter Turchin, a population biologist, describes two cycles, a long cycle that last two or three centuries and a second shorter cycle lasting 50 years, consisting of two generations, one peaceful and one turbulent.

2. As the society becomes more unequal, the cycle enters a more destructive phase, in which the misery of the lowest strata and infighting between elites contribute to social turbulence and, eventually, collapse. According to a recent analysis, the world’s richest 1 per cent now owns half the wealth, and the gap between the super-rich and everyone else has been growing since the financial crisis of 2008.

3. Turchin predicts that the end of the next 50-year cycle, in around 2020, will also coincide with the turbulent part of the longer cycle.

4. This prediction echoes one made in 1997 by two amateur historians called William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their book, The Fourth Turning: An American prophecy. They claimed that in about 2008 the US would enter a period of crisis that would peak in the 2020s.

5. Cognitive scientists recognise two societal level modes of oscillating thought – an automatic mode, and an analytical one. Say a society has a transportation problem, a small group of individuals thinks analytically and invent the car. The problem is solved and there is a shift in the population towards automatic thinking. Climate change resulting from the excess use of fossil fuels without foresight may become a consequence of automatic thinking in the usage of the new transportation mechanism. Others include overuse of antibiotics leading to microbial resistance.

6. Jonathan Cohen, a psychologist at Princeton University, attempts at solving a long-standing puzzle regarding societies heading for ruin: why did they keep up their self-destructive behaviour even though the more analytical people must have seen the danger ahead? “The train had left the station,” says Cohen, and the forward-thinking folk were not steering it.

With the dawn of 2020 nearly upon us and the depressing signs of populism including Trump and Brexit firmly in sight, coupled with the impact of climate change, if these analyses are indeed accurate, then fasten your seatbelts, some turbulence are on the way in the next decades to come.

Political correctness gone mad

One often hears the term, “It’s political correctness gone mad.” At its root this is an expression of frustration by those that would prefer a more unrestricted position on freedom of speech.

The absolutists argue that speech should remain unfettered, amorphous, else it is in the hands of tyrannical governments to determine what we can say or not say. That to create a better society one needs to leave all viewpoints available in the marketplace of ideas and the best way to counter extremist ideas is to allow for them to be naturally countered within the market itself.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that free speech should be constrained based upon the harm principle and later Joel Feinberg also argued for limiting speech that was offensive. The absolutists of free speech make the very reasonable argument, ‘Who gets to decide what is harmful or offensive?’ On face value, it’s a conundrum that’s quite difficult to resolve.

Europe and America have taken different paths towards addressing this dilemma with the defining difference being on the subject of hate speech. In general, European countries take a proactive stance in limiting hate speech, whilst the American constitution offers very limited hate speech constraints. The European model seeks to grant minority groups protection from hate based on the grounds of race, religion, sexual identity, etc.

Some of the arguments posited, for the absolutists to consider are provided below:

1. There is not a country in the world that takes an absolute position on freedom of speech. Even the United States which has the most liberal free speech laws in the world, realised through the First Amendment, has some constraints on what you can say including defamation and imminent incitement to violence.

2. The disproportionality of the First Amendment is possibly brought to light in that it guarantees legal redress to an individual who is verbally abused through the besmirchment of character (slander or libel) and yet the call for (non-imminent) death or violence is given sanction and protection under law. It raises the question of relative value, in that, does life matter less than character malignment?

3. Even the marketplace concept applied to commerce has constraints. Statutory bodies the world-over, including the bastion of free market economics, the United States, actively seeks to re-align the market against monopolistic practices.

4. In cases of crimes against humanity including genocide or ethnic cleansing, they usually begin with hate speech that seeks to dehumanise minority groups. The burden of proof, therefore, is upon the absolutists to justify their position against a litany of historical crimes spawned through hate speech.

5. Free speech should also account for the inequity of access to power i.e. not all voices are created equal. In a society where some have greater access to the levers of power including political and financial, counter positions, particularly from minority groups, whilst expressed may not be heard.

The other aspect of freedom, which it would appear less discussed is the corollary to speech, freedom in action. This is possibly best described by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin who categorises proponents of freedom as negative or positive. Negative freedom as advanced by the likes of John Stuart Mill begins with the premise that individuals have the right to do as they please so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. In our time and despite significant social upheaval it remains the dominant understanding of freedom. In contrast, positive freedom, advanced by Jean Jacque Rousseau, for example, refers to the use of political power to emancipate subjects, even if it means ‘forcing people to be free.’

All movements who seek to create a utopia carry a philosophy centred on positive freedom. It begins with the premise of particular protagonists thinking that they know better than others on how to live one’s life and then forcing others to live by that same standard. Stalin, Hitler and Mao, some of the most influential proponents of social engineering in history took the premise of positive freedom to its logical conclusion, to create ‘better societies,’ but also killed millions of people in the process. As such treading carefully with the positive freedom banner is advised, rather leaving individuals and communities to live their lives in accordance to their ideological or cultural norms seems a more sensible route i.e. expressed in Isaiah Berlin’s semantic as negative freedom. In the same way as free speech though, negative freedom must not be absolute, particularly with regard to hate crimes.

My own position on free speech is that it should be extensible to criticism of religion, culture, values, ideas, practices and concepts but the boundary should be drawn when such speech targets people rather than the ideas or values. Thus a distinction is made between viewpoints which may be dismissed and criticised and people who should have a fundamental right of dignity and protection under law.

Similarly with regard to freedom of action, I posit that individuals and communities should have the freedom to do as they please and live their lives unrestricted, as long it does not infringe upon the rights of others, particularly with respect to hate crime, causing injury to life or limb.

Trends in terrorism

The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) created and maintained by the University of Maryland is the most comprehensive database of terrorist activities with data available from 1970 onwards. The GTD defines a terrorist attack as:

The threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.

Also, the GTD clarifies within its Cookbook:

The perpetrators of the incidents must be sub-national actors. The database does not include acts of state terrorism.

Below are some insights from the GTD data, taken as a decade by decade view with some spotlight explorations around the main terrorist organisations in each decade. The two immediate graphs below show a view of terrorist victims killed on a regional and then on a per country basis.

 

1970s

Terrorism in the the 1970s was primarily a challenge within Western Europe and in particular the United Kingdom with conflict centred around Northern Ireland. The graph below lists the organisations with the top 3 murder count over the course of the decade.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) conducted an armed paramilitary campaign aimed at ending British rule and to create a united Ireland, with a counter response from Protestant groups including the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The conflict stemmed from sectarian grievances between Protestants who were predominately settlers from mainland Britain seeking to remain part of the United Kingdom and Catholics who considered themselves marginalised and sought to restore a unified pre-colonial Ireland. A political settlement was finally reached in 1997 with the Good Friday Agreement, approximately three decades after ‘The Troubles’ started.

To note, a significant terrorist act took place in Iran during 1978 by the MEK of Iran, killing 434 people, although it’s motivation is cited as unspecified by the GTD.

1980s

The 1980s brought about a regional shift with the terrorist death toll moving towards Central and South America.

The terrorist organisations responsible for the most deaths in the region during the decade were the Shining Path of Peru, FMLN of El Salvador and the FDN of Nicaragua. These groups amongst others were either allied to a Communist ideology, backed by the former Soviet Union or were American backed groups.

The FDN of Nicaragua, for example, were part of the Contras (counter revolutionists), a collection of right-wing groups trained and funded by the American administration and according to the GTD responsible for an estimated 6662 deaths in the 1980s.

These groups were generally demobilised within approximately a decade in the backdrop of an ailing Soviet Union, which ultimately fell in 1991, thereby securing American geopolitical preeminence.

1990s

In the 1990s the terrorism death toll shifted again with the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, Hutu extremists of Rwanda and the PKK being responsible for the most deaths.

The terrorist activities of the Tamil Tigers is rooted in the grievances that the Tamil minority had with the Sri Lankan government. Positive discrimination laws, for example in education, where university placements were weighted towards the Sinhalese majority irrespective of performance, creating a view amongst the Tamils that they were being marginalised. Thus a sectarian divide amongst these communities were amplified in terms of ethnic, language and religious differences (the Sinhalese are primarily Buddhists and Tamils predominantly Hindu). The conflict finally came to an end in 2009 with the Tamil Tigers acknowledging defeat following an overwhelming government military offensive.

Whilst the GTD leaves the motive as unknown for the vast majority of ‘Hutu extremist’ related terrorist deaths, these killings took place in the backdrop of the Rwandan genocide, a mass slaughter of Tutsis committed by the Hutu led Rwandan government, killing an estimated 800,000 people over a hundred days in 1994 (BBC). As such the wider genocide related deaths are excluded from the GTD data as its dataset does not include State terrorism. The causal factors behind the conflict are rooted in historic ethnic differences rather than religious, given that both communities are from a Christian background.

The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) were formulated as a far-left organisation campaigning for Kurdish autonomy. The organisation has its root in Turkey suppressing the Kurdish language and culture in the late 1970s. The organisation is still currently active, although there has been several unsuccessful ceasefire attempts.

2000s

The 2000s takes us into the next phase of terrorism, in which extreme Muslim militants weaponise religion through non-normative interpretations of Islam and use it as a vehicle to pursue geo-political objectives. The most spectacular of which being 9/11, in which 3001 people were murdered in the US and Al-Qaeda cited as the culpable party by the GTD. Al-Qaeda were also responsible for deaths in Iraq, South Asia and Western Europe over the course of the decade. The background to the creation of Al-Qaeda is tragically ironic in that similar to Central/South America in the 1980s, it was the United States that facilitated a proxy war with the Soviet Union by funding and training rebel groups operating in Afghanistan.

Post 9/11, the vast majority of Al-Qaeda’s operations were in Iraq, nonetheless there were some significant terrorist atrocities that were committed in Western Europe and South Asia which were almost certainly Al-Qaeda inspired (see chart below).

Subsequent to 9/11, the American administration invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban replacing it with the Karzai administration. As such the Taliban became the non-state actor and has been responsible for over three thousand deaths over the decade.

The third most prominent group during the 2000s were the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) of Uganda, a group led by Joseph Kony, indicted for war crimes by the ICC including for rape, enlisting of children, enslavement, mass mutilation, murder, etc. Kony has been widely condemned as using the cover of Christianity as a mechanism to conceal his own self serving interests.

2010s

Finally we reach the 2010s, in which terrorist Muslim groups come to dominate death tolls. At the time of writing, with GTD data available to 2017, the top 3 are ISIS, Boko Haram and the Taliban and the scale of terrorism related deaths is also unprecedented.

The sheer brutality of ISIS is well recorded with crimes against humanity including rape, slavery, mass executions/beheadings, etc. ISIS is yet another terrorist organisation that gained ascendancy amidst the backdrop of American intervention, this time through the 2003 Iraq War, in which the UN was bypassed and false claims were made that the Iraqi regime had acquired nuclear weapons capabilities. The subsequent power vacuum opened the door for an Al-Qaeda inspired organisation to gain a foothold in the region and as such ISIS was born.

The Taliban related death toll is a continuation of the conflict with the American administration. The Afghanistan War currently stands as the longest in America’s entire history, overtaking the Vietnam War by some considerable margin.

The third on the list, Boko Haram, has allied itself with ISIS including rebranding itself as Islamic State of West Africa, is guilty of copycat crimes against humanity, macabre in their nature in their sheer disregard for the sanctity of life.

Future

Every decade has brought about change in the international terrorism landscape. Whilst prediction is fraught with complexity, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the landscape will change once more during the next few decades. Actions that will potentially drive outcomes will include the level of proxy war gaming that major powers engage in and the subsequent level of regional destabilisations. Also, with an international increase in a vicious cycle of inward tribalism seeking to ‘other’ different communities, if unchecked may also act as the fuel to fire further terrorist activity.

Collective Guilt and Privilege

The collective guilt of minority groups and the privilege of the dominant majority group:

My observation and thesis is that in the general case there are structural disadvantages to minority groups within most if not all modern societies and likewise there are structural advantages in belonging to the dominant majority group. Minority groups are more readily characterised with the qualities of collective guilt whilst privilege is more apt in characterising the dominant group; both are expressed through the subtleties of language.

When politicians choose to take a country to war causing untold deaths and human suffering, the dominant group maligns only the culpable politicians using the solitary words, ‘he’ or ‘she’.

When a mass murderer from the same background (e.g. ethnic, race, cultural, religious) as the dominant group kills innocent people, the murderer is characterised with the language of individual culpability, “he had mental health issues”, “a lone wolf”.

When an abuser with the ethnic origin of the dominant group abuses the vulnerable, he is maligned specifically.

In countries which have had a torrid history of colonisation, enslavement and mass murder, members of the dominant group may highlight that this is the past and ‘the son cannot be held responsible for his father’s crimes’.

However, when a wicked individual with an ‘apparent’ association with a minority group or community is guilty of a heinous crime, quite often the language of culpability is group based, that of, ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’. Connecting threads are more readily introduced that bind the criminal to a much wider group, bound by apparent culture, colour, race or religion.

Why does this behaviour appear and does it say something about our very nature as human beings. Marginalising a criminal from one’s own ethnic or cultural background will generally occur under the guise of individual guilt, otherwise one would vilify oneself; and we are creatures loathed to burden ourselves with the crimes of others. However, maligning another community in the general has no material consequence to the maligner, as it does not affect him or her. So it’s only a moral compass that prevents someone affording others that which he or she would afford oneself.

Next time when you see a newspaper headline reporting a crime, or a politician tweeting about a heinous crime, stop for a moment and consider the subtleties in language that differentiates different members of society based upon their specific background.

Between Faith & Reason

Scholar, writer and former executive editor at The Economist, Anthony Gottlieb, wrote about the Enlightenment in his two books, ‘The Dream of Reason’ and ‘The Dream of Enlightenment’. Counter to the popular narrative, he argues that the overwhelming majority of Enlightenment thinkers reconciled between faith in God and a reason based method of enquiry. From his interview with Spiked:

“So anti-clericalism is a good way of encapsulating the main sense in which the Enlightenment was anti-religious. Its protagonists wanted to limit the power of the church to persecute people and to execute people, merely because they believed and said the wrong things. However, most of the key Enlightenment philosophers – probably the only exception among the main figures is David Hume (1711-1776) – believed in God. So, in the modern sense, in our sense, they were religious. After all, we tend to think of someone as fairly religious if they believe in God, and those who attack religion today tend to attack the belief in God itself.”

“Yes, it was certainly common throughout the period to think that the more science shows you about nature, the more it showed the evidence of God. Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was very specific about this. He endorsed what we now call the argument of design, that is, the idea that there is evidence of design in nature. Newton thought that the further you looked into the workings of the natural world, the more you saw the evidence of God. And most Enlightenment thinkers, except for Hume and some after him, accepted that idea.”

Female Murder and Geographical Disparities

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime provides a wealth of international crime related data. One of the valuable data metric that they have made available is a gender based view of homicide provided on a per country basis.

The map below was created using UNODC data, showing a pictorial view of the percentage of female homicide victims per country [1]; the larger the circles the greater the percentage of female victims. The graph also names the top ten countries that have the highest female homicide percentages.

Some takeaways from the data:

1. The vast majority of homicide victims in the world are male. At a global level, approximately 4 out of every 5 murder victim is male in gender (78%).

2. At 53% Japan and South Korea have the highest percentage of females murdered in the world i.e. for every murder that takes place within these two countries just over half of the victims are female.

3. Europe is significantly over-represented within the top quartile of countries with the disproportionate murder of women relative to the global average. The global murder ratio for women is 22% (i.e. approximately one out of every 5 persons murdered is female) and yet the percentages are significantly higher within Europe; for example, Germany 47%, Czech Republic 46%, Belgium 43%, France 38%, Romania 38%, Netherlands 35% and Spain 34%.

4. India, Myanmar and Bangladesh are the South Asian outliers with their respective female homicide percentages at 41%, 39% and 37% respectively.

The data does raise some very serious questions. Why are the gender percentages of murder so significantly skewed towards women in the Far East, Europe and the Indian Subcontinent in particular? Surely, this is an area that deserves further research to understand underlying causes. Currently based upon my own research in the domain, there is barely an acknowledgement of a problem, let alone a desire to address the status quo.

[1] Countries were filtered for populations greater than 10 million to make the map easier to visualise

Imran Khan, Pakistan and Measuring Success

Pakistan has recently completed its visit to the ballot box and emerged with Imran Khan, the former cricket player, as its new Prime Minister. Much has already been written and spoken about Pakistan’s new leader and many are cautiously hopeful that he will be a positive force for his country.

I’ll add my voice of hope too to the above sentiments, that this is possibly a chance for Pakistan to create a new and positive direction, one that has eluded it from the very date of its inception.

But what of determining success? My preference as ever, is to try and let the story be crafted through a narrative of numbers.

Below are graphs showing key national metrics with both past and present perspectives. Comparisons are made with India and Bangladesh – countries once joined together with Pakistan as a single entity, in addition to China – the economic powerhouse of Asia.

Preservation of life

Any government should have within its agenda the objective of ‘preserving/safeguarding life’, to create an environment in which life matters, be it by reducing murder or the rate of child mortality or taking measures to support the increase of life expectancy. Unfortunately, Pakistan has an abysmal record with respect to these metrics.

It’s child mortality rate suggests that close to one in every 10 children born in Pakistan dies before reaching their fifth birthday, a rate which is approximately double in comparison to India and Bangladesh, and certainly distant when compared to China, which has a child mortality rate nearer 1 in every 100:

Pakistan child mortality

Pakistan’s homicide rates are woeful too, with a rate of 8 in every 100,000 murdered per annum, more than two to four times the rate in India and Bangladesh respectively and an eight fold ratio when compared with China:

Pakistan intentional homicides

The third ‘preservation of life’ metric of average life expectancy is very low at just over 66 years, a near 10 year difference with China and significantly below Bangladesh:

Pakistan life expectancy

Given Imran Khan’s initiatives to date, including his campaign to establish Pakistan’s first cancer hospital, it is hoped that he will create a national focus and strategy on health which will hopefully yield positive outcomes for both child mortality and life expectancy. Also, an increased focus upon law and order and tackling some of the root causes for Pakistan’s high homicide rates will surely be a priority for the new prime minister.

Economic preservation and growth

An important objective for any decent government is to ensure that the wealth of its citizens is ‘preserved’ (i.e. safeguarded) and that there is also an environment facilitating economic growth.

With respect to these objectives, one of the significant metric which undoubtedly has an impact upon the above desired outcome is the corruption level within a country. The Corruption Perception Index, rates Pakistan as 117 out of 180 countries in its economic cleanliness level, a metric in which Bangladesh is even further behind at number 143. India and China perform better at numbers 81 and 77 respectively.

Corruption, in which power is used for private gain, not only has an impact upon public funds which would otherwise be returned back to the society and used for the public good, but it also undermines the fabric of economic activity as corporate decisions are non-meritocratic, the inevitable effect is a stunting of corporate potential and thereby the economic prospects of a society.

With respect to economic growth, Pakistan’s GDP per capita is particularly worrisome, it appears the country has become stagnant in GDP growth which contrasts with India which is making reasonable economic progress, Bangladesh which has been making slow and steady progress [1] and finally China which continues to make its meteoric ascent.

Pakistan GDP per capita

Intellectual development

For any society to flourish it needs to drive its intellectual and research capabilities. A proxy for baselining intellectual capacity is to assess the strength of its tertiary education system.

The QS university ranking places the top universities in China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh at rankings of 17 (Tsinghua University), 162 (Indian Institute of Technology Bombay), 397 (Pakistan Institute of Engineering Applied Sciences) and 801 (Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology) respectively.

China has invested heavily in its education system and the outcome is self-evident. It’s apparent too that India is making progress, but unfortunately Pakistan and particularly Bangladesh are laggards in their efforts to advance their people’s education.

Roundup

Change takes time particularly when viewed through the lens of State governance. As such it will not be an easy endeavour to make an impact on the metrics listed above, nonetheless, Imran Khan and his PTI party have 5 years to hopefully get the dial moving in the right direction.

[1] I aim to write a separate post on Bangladesh which has a particular context for the relative strength of its socio-economic performance.