Argument

Social Warfare

Budget hawks' plans to cut funding for political and social science aren't just short-sighted and simple-minded -- they'll actually hurt national security.

With the automatic sequestration cuts geared up to slash billions of dollars from domestic programs, military funding, social services, and government-sponsored scientific research -- including about a 6 percent reduction for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) -- policymakers and professionals are scrambling to stave off the worst by resetting priorities. In a major speech last month, House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), proposed outright to defund political and social science: "Funds currently spent by the government on social science -- including on politics of all things -- would be better spent on curing diseases," he said, echoing a similar proposal he made in 2009. Florida Governor Rick Scott has made a similar push, proposing to divert state funds from disciplines like anthropology and psychology "to degrees where people can get jobs," especially in technology and medicine. Those are fighting words, but they're also simple-minded.

Social science may sound like a frivolous expenditure to legislative budget hawks, but far from trimming fat, defunding these programs would fundamentally undercut core national interests. Like it or not, social science research informs everything from national security to technology development to healthcare and economic management. For example, we can't decide which drugs to take, unless their risks and benefits are properly assessed, and we can't know how much faith to have in a given science or engineering project, unless we know how much to trust expert judgment. Likewise, we can't fully prepare to stop our adversaries, unless we understand the limits of our own ability to see why others see the world differently. Despite hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars poured into the global war on terrorism, radicalization against our country's core interests continues to spread -- and social science offers better ways than war to turn the tide. 

In support of Rep. Cantor's push to defund political and social science, a recent article in the Atlantic notes that "money [that] could have gone to towards life-saving cancer research" instead went to NSF-sponsored projects that "lack real-world impact" such as "the $750,000 spent studying the 'sacred values' involved in cultural conflict." Perhaps the use of words like "sacred" or "culture" incites such scorn, but as often occurs in many denunciations of social science, scant attention is actually paid to what the science proposes or produces. In fact, the results of this particular project -- which I direct -- have figured into numerous briefings to the National Security Staff at the White House, Senate and House committees, the Department of State and Britain's Parliament, and the Israeli Knesset (including the prime minister and defense minister). In addition, the research offices of the Department of Defense have also supported my team's work, which figures prominently in recent strategy assessments that focus on al Qaeda and broader problems of radicalization and political violence.

Let me try to explain just exactly what it is that we do. My research team conducts laboratory experiments, including brain imaging studies -- supported by field work with political leaders, revolutionaries, terrorists, and others -- that show sacred values to be core determinants of personal and social identity ("who I am" and "who we are"). Humans process these identities as moral rules, duties, and obligations that defy the utilitarian and instrumental calculations of realpolitik or the marketplace. Simply put, people defending a sacred value will not trade its incarnation (Israel's settlements, Iran's nuclear fuel rods, America's guns) for any number of iPads, or even for peace.

The sacred values of "devoted actors," it turns out, generate actions independent of calculated risks, costs, and consequences -- a direct contradiction of prevailing "rational actor" models of politics and economics, which focus on material interests. Devoted actors, in contrast, act because they sincerely and deeply believe "it's the right thing to do," regardless of risks or rewards. Practically, this means that such actors often harness deep and abiding social and political commitments to confront much stronger foes. Think of the American revolutionaries, who were willing to sacrifice "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor" in the fight for liberty against the greatest military power of the age -- or modern suicide bombers willing to sacrifice everything for their cause.

Sacred values -- as when land becomes "Holy Land" -- sustain the commitment of revolutionaries and some terrorist groups to resist, and often overcome, more numerous and better-equipped militaries and police that function with measured rewards like better pay or promotion. Our research with political leaders and general populations also shows that sacred values -- not political games or economics -- underscore intractable conflicts like those between the Israelis and the Palestinians that defy the rational give-and-take of business-like negotiation. Field experiments in Israel, Palestine, Nigeria, and the United States indicate that commitment to such values can motivate and sustain wars beyond reasonable costs and casualties.

So what are the practical implications of these findings? Perhaps most importantly, our research explains why efforts to broker peace that rely on money or other material incentives are doomed when core values clash. In our studies with colleagues in Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, Iran, the Levant, and North Africa, we found that offers of material incentives to compromise on sacred values often backfire, actually increasing anger and violence toward a deal. For example, a 2010 study of attitudes toward Iran's nuclear program found that most Iranians do not view the country's nuclear program as sacred. But for about 13 percent of the population, the program has been made sacred through religious rhetoric. This group, which tends to be close to the regime, now believes a nuclear program is bound up with the national identity and with Islam itself. As a result, offering these people material rewards or punishments to abandon the program only increases their anger and support for it. Predictably, new sanctions, or heightened perception of sanctions, generate even more belligerent statements and actions by the regime to increase the pace, industrial capacity, and level of uranium enrichment. Of course, majority discontent with sanctions may yet force the regime to change course, or to double down on repression.

Understanding how this process plays out over time is a key to helping friends, thwarting enemies, and managing conflict. The ultimate goal of such research is to help save lives, resources, and national treasure. And by generating psychological knowledge about how culturally diverse individuals and groups advance values and interests that are potentially compatible or fundamentally antagonistic to our own, it can help keep the nation's citizens, soldiers, and potential allies out of harm's way. Our related research on the spiritual and material aspects of environmental disputes between Native American and majority-culture populations in North America and Central America has also revealed surprising but practical ways to reduce conflict and sustainably manage forest commons and wildlife. 

The would-be defunders of social science denounce an ivory tower that seems to exist only in their imagination -- willfully ignoring evidence-based reasoning and results in order to advance a political agenda. Only $11 million of the NSF's $7 billion-plus budget goes to political science research. It is exceedingly doubtful that getting rid of the entire NSF political science budget, which is equal to 0.5 percent of the cost of a single B-2 bomber, would really help to produce life-saving cancer research, where testing for even a single drug can cost more to develop than a B-2. Not that we must choose between either, mind you.

Social science is in fact moving the "hard" sciences forward. Consider the irony: a close collaborator on the "sacred values" project, Robert Axelrod, former president of the American Political Science Association, recently produced a potentially groundbreaking cancer study based on social science modeling of cancer cells as cooperative agents in competition with communities of healthy cells. Independent work by cancer researchers in the United States and abroad has established that the cooperation among tumor cells that Axelrod and colleagues proposed does in fact take place in cell lines derived from human cancers, which has significant implications for the development of effective treatments.

Research from other fields of social science, including social and cognitive psychology and anthropology, continue to have deep implications for an enormous range of human problems: including how to better design and navigate transportation and communication networks, or manage airline crews and cockpits; on programming robots for industry and defense; on modeling computer systems and cybersecurity; on reconfiguring emergency medical care and diagnoses; in building effective responses to economic uncertainty; and enhancing industrial competitiveness and innovation. For example, perhaps the greatest long-term menace to the security of U.S. industry and defense is cyberwarfare, where the most insidious and hard-to-manage threat may stem not from hardware or software vulnerabilities but from "wetware," the inclinations and biases of socially interacting human brains -- as in just doing a friend a favor (like "click this link" or "can I borrow your flash drive?"). In recognition of that fact, Axelrod has suggested to the White House and Defense Department an "honor code" encouraging individuals to not only maintain cybersecurity themselves, but also not to lapse into doing favors for friends and to report such lapses in others.

Elected officials have the mandate to set priorities for research funding in the national interest. Ever since Abraham Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences, however, a clear priority has been to allow scientific inquiry fairly free rein -- to doubt, challenge, and ultimately change received wisdom if based on solid logic and evidence. What Rep. Cantor and like-minded colleagues seem to be saying is that this is fine, but only in the fields they consider expedient: in technology, medicine, and business. (Though possibly they mean to make an exception for the lucrative social science of polling, which can help to sell almost anything -- even terrible ideas like defunding the rest of social science.)

It's stunning to think that these influential politicians and the people who support them don't want evidence-based reasoning and research to inform decisions concerning the nature and needs of our society -- despite the fact that the vast majority of federal and state legislation deals with social issues, rather than technology or defense. To be sure, there is significant waste and wrongheadedness in the social sciences, as there is in any science (in fact, in any evolutionary process that progresses by trial and error), including, most recently, billions spent on possibly misleading use of mice in cancer research.

But those who would defund social science seriously underestimate the relationship between the wide-ranging freedom of scientific research and its pointed impact, and between theory and practice: Where disciplined imagination sweeps broadly to discover, say, that devoted actors do not respond to material incentives or disincentives (e.g., sanctions) in the same way that rational actors do, or that communities of people and body cells may share deep underlying organizational principles and responses to threats from outside aggressors, such knowledge can have a profound influence on our lives and wellbeing.

Even before they revolted in 1776, the American colonists may have already enjoyed the world's highest standard of living. But they wanted something different: a free and progressive society, which money couldn't buy. "Money has never made man happy, nor will it," gibed Ben Franklin, but "if a man empties his purse into his head no one can take it away from him; an investment in knowledge always pays the best interest." He founded America's first learned society "to improve the common stock of knowledge," which called for inquiry into many practical matters as well as "all philosophical Experiments that Light into the Nature of Things ... and multiply the Conveniences or Pleasures of Life." George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and John Marshall all joined Franklin's society and took part in the political, social, and economic revolution it helped spawn. Like the Founding Fathers, we want our descendants to be able to envision great futures for our country and a better world for all. For that, our children need the broad understanding of how the world works that the social sciences can provide -- not just a technical education for well-paying jobs.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Wayward in Waziristan

How the United States is blowing the war on terror in the most dangerous place in the world.

It's possibly the most ominous-sounding region on the planet: Waziristan -- the name alone evokes al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Islamic militancy. These menaces have brought the world's focus to this small mountainous border region of northwest Pakistan, a part of the country's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which U.S. President Barack Obama referred to as "the most dangerous place in the world."

The combined might of the U.S. and Pakistani militaries has been pounding on this impoverished region, which is about the size of Connecticut, for over a decade. Waziristan is the heart of the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan: Out of 351 strikes, 333 of them have occurred there.

Drone attacks have become America's weapon of choice for pursuing its influence in the region. With the looming withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the architect of Obama's drone strategy, John Brennan, now at the CIA's helm, it is clear that the drones over Waziristan are there to stay. While some have lauded the precision and effectiveness of unmanned aerial vehicles, many stories from Waziristan recount the deaths of innocent women and children in the strikes.

With U.S. satellites and drones firmly focused on this tribal area, it seems as if the United States knows everything yet understands nothing about Waziristan. Fixated on the specters of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, U.S. policymakers have ignored the local culture and history of the tribes in Waziristan, primarily the Wazir and Mehsud tribes. To be fair, it's not exactly easy to get a sense of tribal life peering down from a Predator drone 10,000 feet up. Yet it is exactly this tribal society, with its codes of honor and councils of elders, with which the United States has unwittingly entangled itself in its global fight against terrorism. This failure to understand Waziristan -- not to mention the presence of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), widely known as the Pakistani Taliban -- has only made the violence worse.

Traditionally, law and order in Waziristan was maintained through the cooperation of three pillars of authority: tribal elders, religious leaders, and a civil administrator known as the political agent (PA) appointed by the central government. This is the structure that kept a tenuous peace among the tribes and between the central government and tribal periphery. But with America's war on terror, this structure has been torn to shreds, resulting in the upheaval the world sees today.

Entire councils of elders have been kidnapped and killed or targeted by drones, which mistook them for gatherings of "militants." All told, nearly 400 tribal elders have been killed in Waziristan, according to local tribal elders -- a virtual decapitation of a society with such a small population. Many more have fled to Pakistan's larger cities, unsure of when they will be able to return to their homes and their tribes. The religious leadership also has not been spared, as suicide bombers have walked into mosques and blown themselves up.

The presence of the Pakistani military has also undercut the ability of the civil administration to work effectively with the tribal leadership. The TTP has still targeted a number of PAs, whom it views as the representatives of central authority. Without the structure of the three pillars of authority to maintain law and order, unchecked violence reigns supreme.

The United States must realize that a stable Waziristan is a vital part of promoting its own interests in the region, whether its troops withdraw from Afghanistan or not. An unstable Waziristan will only complicate matters in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

From Alexander the Great to the Mughal emperors to the British, this tribal region in northwest Pakistan has a long history of spoiling the best-laid plans of powerful empires. Above all, it has been known for its fierce tribes: Organized into clans defined by descent from a common ancestor, they lived by an ancient code of honor called Pashtunwali, or "way of the Pashtun," and were known for their tribal feuds. Councils of elders, or jirgas, were used to attempt to check this violence through means of mediation.

Throughout history, Waziristan's restive tribes have proved capable of driving political events beyond their borders. Their impact is felt today with the Wazir tribe's support of the Haqqani network, which is fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and the Mehsud tribe's providing a base for the TTP, which is wreaking havoc across Pakistan.

Waziristan first experienced the imposition of some form of central authority with the establishment of British rule in the Indian subcontinent. To govern the tribes, the British Raj organized the border region into tribal agencies in the 1890s, appointing a political agent to each. British authority, however, extended only a hundred yards on either side of the main road, beyond which was the land of riwaj, or tribal customs. George Curzon, the viceroy of British India at the turn of the century, struggled to find a solution to keep restive Waziristan calm: "No patchwork scheme … will settle the Waziristan problem," he said. "Not until the military steam-roller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace. But I do not want to be the person to start that machine."

It would, however, be a Pakistani president, not a colonial official, who would send the steamroller into Waziristan. After the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, under pressure to capture wanted militants crossing the border into Afghanistan and to strike against al Qaeda's senior leadership, sent the Pakistan military into Waziristan in 2004. It was the beginning of a quagmire that continues, in different shapes and forms, to this day. The military was quickly bogged down, and the government signed a series of hastily constructed, short-lived peace agreements with the tribes.

The tension reached a boiling point with the July 2007 assault on Lal Masjid, or the Red Mosque, in Islamabad. Its students had been stopping individuals, even policemen, whom they deemed "un-Islamic" and had been trying to set up sharia courts. After gunfire was exchanged with security forces, the students barricaded themselves inside the mosque. Elite Pakistani commandos stormed the grounds, and in the ensuing firefight at least 100 people were killed, including female students, with representatives from the victims' families saying the death toll was higher than 1,300.

Largely as a result of the Lal Masjid incident, the TTP was formed in December 2007 under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud and the most fearsome clan in Waziristan, the Shabi Khel Mahsud. The TTP started a campaign of destruction in Waziristan and across Pakistan. Two of its most spectacular assaults were the 2009 attack on the Pakistani Army's headquarters in Rawalpindi and the 2011 assault on Naval Station Mehran in Karachi.

U.S. drone attacks have only poured gasoline on this fire. For Waziristan's inhabitants, the buzzing of drones overhead has become a constant, terrifying presence. Too many stories of innocent tribesmen being killed have leaked into the media. The communities are afraid to gather in tribal jirgas or even within their homes, for fear of being targeted as a "militant gathering" by an American drone operator sitting on the other side of the world.

Amid the chaos of Waziristan, it is the innocent people who suffer -- pounded by drone strikes and the military one day, and TTP suicide bombers the next. They have soured on both sides of this war: An authoritative 2012 survey conducted in the tribal areas showed that while 79 percent of the tribesmen opposed the actions of the United States, 68 percent had negative views of al Qaeda and 63 percent of the TTP. Half the individuals surveyed gave priority to education, stable employment, health schemes, and reliable electricity.

It is vital to heed the voices of the tribesmen yearning to keep Waziristan quiet and calm. Winning them over is essential to making progress in rebuilding war-torn Afghanistan and promoting U.S. interests in the region after the departure of American forces in 2014.

Yet, with the presence of the Pakistani military and the constant presence of U.S. drones, Waziristan is now anything but stable. The United States needs to halt the drone campaign and understand the events of Waziristan within a local social and historical context. Traditional tribal structures and a neutral civil administration committed to the rule of law need to be returned. Above all, the Pakistani government, instead of funding military operations in Waziristan, should be funding schools, hospitals, stable electricity lines, and other development projects for one of the country's most poverty-stricken areas.

The United States, meanwhile, should support Pakistan in bringing effective development and aid to this region. It is only through peaceful means that stability can finally be brought to Waziristan.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images