Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Not Understanding Terror

By Simon Grose

Science is not up to the challenge of divining the behavioural roots of Islamic terrorism.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

In his conScience column in the previous edition (AS, Jan/Feb 2015, p.39), Peter Harrison argued that science and religion can peacefully coexist. So while we may deprecate religion as a denial of the reality of the mortal condition we should be so kind as to allow believers their folly. OK – as long as it’s a victimless folly.

Science has an advantage over religion. It can study it as a subject of rational inquiry. Yet it seems this advantage amounts to little when it comes to explaining the victim-littered folly of gratuitously murderous men who invoke Islam as their motivation.

A survey of recent publications by psychologists and psychiatrists on the topic reflects an underlying difference between the social sciences and physical sciences. When it comes to dealing with threats like an emerging flu virus or a close-flying asteroid, the hard sciences can analyse and predict with increasing certainty. When it comes to the threats posed by Islamic zealots with guns and internet access, psychoscience is a delta of meandering streams.

One is that terrorists are no more likely to be mentally ill than the rest of a population. This is generally agreed for those who join terrorist groups, less so for “lone wolves” such as the perpetrator of the Martin Place siege.

Another stream is that if you commit random murders in the streets, behead journalists...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.