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I am So So Very Done with Sebastian v. Gorka’s Dissertation

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I promised a Part IV, but Foreign Policy asked me to do a piece for them… so I’m pointing you all there. You’ve seen some of the arguments before, but not all of them. For example, it turns out Gorka played a fast one with the—already extremely weak—evidence he uses in his efforts to show a trend toward terrapocolypse.

As he writes in his dissertation, “For the years 1998 until 2003, the average number of terrorist victims per attack jumped to 13.71. In 1992 the number of victims per attack was 2. In 2003, the number was 20.5 victims per terrorist attack.”

When we zoom in on this claim, we can see the sloppiness of Gorka’s methods. Not only is this an unacceptably truncated period, but the aggregate, descriptive statistics he gives just aren’t remotely good enough. The period from 2001 to 2003 covers not only the 9/11 attacks but also the first years of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. He does not even bother attempting to identify the proportion of such attacks carried out by groups — including in the Middle East and Central Asia — that would qualify as “irrational, transcendental” terrorists rather than, say, secessionists or guerrilla movements. In other words, this is an exercise without any evidentiary value.

Just to expand on this for a minute. If we were to use Gorka’s ‘method’ in 2004, we’d include the Beslan school siege, which killed around 330 people in North Ossetia. That’s a lot of deaths for a terror attack. But it wasn’t carried out by Gorka’s irrational-transcendental terrorists. The culprits were Chechen separatists. Many of the deaths were likely avoidable as well.

So, basically, the evidentiary value of his measure is approximately zero.

GTD
Figure 1: Average number of fatalities per terrorist attack, per the Global Terrorism Database. Prepared by Peter Henne.

It gets worse. The data Gorka relies on does not extend beyond 2012, so I asked former students to run the same measure using counts from the Global Terrorism Database (for some of the limitations of this data, see, for example). The lethality of attacks — that is Gorka’s own measure — while consistently rising, remains consistently lower than Gorka reports. It does not, to be blunt, seem like evidence of growing “hyper-terrorism” that would require a total paradigm shift in how Western states secure themselves against threats.

As I discuss there, the differences in these numbers aren’t a consequence of different datasets.

I also discovered, in a different work, this gem of a quotation from 2010: “[w]e need not prepare in the short or even medium terms for conventional warfare between nation‐states, using tanks and aircraft carriers. For the foreseeable future our enemies will be non‐state actors — with or without state sponsorship — using irregular means against us.” This is how much he hypes the terrorism threat—and on so little evidence.

Anyway, I conclude on a more serious note than kicking someone who likes to kick other people for lacking his supreme gravitas.

It is precisely attention to the significance of inconvenient facts that distinguishes good scholars and true experts from pretenders. Pretenders present themselves as scholars and experts. They adopt the language, get the credentials, and perform as they — or, at least, their audience — imagine scholars and experts sound. Rather than speak truth to power, they peddle what their ideological compatriots want to hear, wrapped up in the trappings of intellectual authority.

The more that political movements, politicians, and leaders move into a universe of alternative facts, the more they render themselves vulnerable to these intellectual grifters. And the more these fake experts influence actual policy, the more damage that they can do. I do not believe that a doctorate, let alone an academic background, is a prerequisite for good policymaking. But the president of the United States is best served by advisors who place facts before ideology, who care about the substance more than the credential, and who would never make sweeping judgments about millions of people grounded on essentially no evidence at all. This is particularly the case for a new president who has repeatedly demonstrated that when ideology — or even vanity — runs into inconvenient facts, he expects the facts to bend. In this sense, Gorka seems a perfect fit for the worst impulses of this administration.

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