Alfred Mele’s Aspects of Agency

An emergent theme of my on-going PhD research is to develop a causal understanding of terrorist organisational decision-making and ways to counteract it. (This will be possible future research under the heading of causal counterterrorism.) This has led me to read current philosophy on causal agency.

 

Florida State University professor Alfred R. Mele has a new book on my ‘reading pile’ to consider: Aspects of Agency: Decisions, Abilities, Explanations, and Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). Mele’s discussion of proximal and distal causes is relevant to my analysis of cultural transmission, social learning, and folklore as possible mechanisms. A summary of Mele’s new book:

 

The libertarian theory of free will combines a negative thesis and a positive thesis. The negative thesis is that free will is incompatible with determinism. The positive thesis is that there are actions that involve exercises of free will—‘free actions,’ for short. While remaining neutral on this negative thesis, Aspects of Agency develops a detailed version of the positive thesis that represents paradigmatically free actions as indeterministically caused by their proximal causes and pays special attention to decisions so instigated. The bulk of Mele’s work is a masterful defense of a positive libertarian thesis against objections to theses of its kind. Aspects of Agency includes solutions to problems about luck and control that are widely discussed in the literature on free will and moral responsibility. The seven chapters on free will are preceded by an introductory chapter and three chapters on central issues in the philosophy of action that bear on standard treatments of free will: deciding to act, agents’ abilities, and commitments of a causal theory of action explanation.

Dissuasion By Denial

In a new article for the Australia Journal of International Affairs, Macquarie University’s Adam Lockyer and Michael D. Cohen go beyond anti-access denial and area denial to introduce ‘dissuasion by denial’:

 

Dissuasion by denial seeks to deter an opponent by promising to inflict greater costs on the attacking forces than what the political benefits would be to the attacker if they succeeded. In other words, dissuasion by denial reasons that an attacker will not attempt a conventional military attack on Australia if they expect it to be a pyrrhic victory. (Lockyer and Cohen 2017).

 

The article has a lot of insights about Glenn Snyder, Paul Dibb, J.O. Langtry, and Desmond Ball’s work in United States and Australian strategic thinking. It has a good discussion about threat analysis and how it is relevant to which type of strategic denial that policymakers could select.

 

Lockyer and Cohen’s work is also relevant to the current debate about North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile program and whether or not Australia should invest in missile defence capabilities.

 

 

Beyond The Pale?

Washington and Lee University’s Seth Cantey has a new article out in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism on negotiating with Al Qaeda and Islamic State:

 

This article argues that prospects for negotiations with al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) have been undertheorized. Drawing on nearly two thousand pages of primary source material – all issues of Inspire and Dabiq magazines published at the time of writing – it examines these groups’ statements about their motivations for violence, their objectives, and their views about the possibility of dialogue with the West. It finds stark differences in all three areas and suggests that assumptions that have prevented theorizing about negotiations with these groups should be revisited.

 

Strategic culture deals with strategic bargaining situations. Its potential use in negotiating with terrorists remains under-explored. Cantey’s article is a first step to further theorising.

Adversary Group Decision-Making Regarding Choice of Attack Methods

Sarah E. Knight, Carys Keane and Amy Murphy (of the UK-based Defense Science and Technology Laboratory  and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service) have a new article out in Terrorism and Political Violence:

 

Anticipating whether an adversary group will continue to use their usual (“conventional”), expected attack methods is important for military and counterterrorism practitioners tasked with protecting the security of others. Conventional attack methods are by their nature easier to plan and prepare for whilst “innovative” methods may take those responsible for security and counterterrorism by surprise and, as such, may have more impact and more serious consequences. The present study aimed to develop understanding of how, when, and why adversary groups might decide to use conventional attack methods or opt to do something innovative instead. A literature review was conducted and findings were applied to develop a thorough understanding of the decision-making process that underlies an adversary group’s choice of attack method. Identified are three stages preceding the execution of an attack: a) “strategic direction”; b) “incubation”; and c) “planning and preparation,” plus “overarching” and “contextual” factors that can influence the process at each stage. It is suggested that it is these factors and how they influence decision-making that result in innovative methods being used to execute an attack, or convention prevailing. Findings can aid practitioners and policy-makers in counterterrorism, security, and law enforcement, to support their understanding, evaluation, and countering of current and future threats.

PhD Books

This week, I’m revisiting several PhD books including Patrick Dunleavy’s Authoring A PhD (New York: Palgrave, 2003), and David Sternberg’s classic How To Complete And Survive A Doctoral Dissertation (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 1981).

 

Dunleavy has some excellent advice on thesis structure, chapters, and writing sections. Sternberg deals in part with a PhD’s psychological journey and the dynamics of how a dissertation committee works.

 

I’m working to transform my working notes into redrafted chapters — so hope these books help.

 

I’m also eyeing off Patricia Goodson’s Becoming An Academic Writer (Thousand Oaks CA: SAGE, 2016) for further developmental work.

Academic Moneyball

Inside Higher Ed reports that a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology academics have created a Moneyball style data analytics model to predict and evaluate tenure track applications and performance.

Here are some of my thoughts on Academic Moneyball from December 2014:

The Moneyball Thesis

 

Oakland A’s coach Billy Beane faced a dilemma: competing teams poached his high-performance players and the baseball team faced budget restraints. Beane used Bill James’ sabermetrics – the statistical analysis of baseball player skill – to build a team of contrarian baseball players using performance-based optionality; that experienced positive asymmetric payoffs (a winning streak of successful games); and that achieved a dramatic change in competitive tournament rankings.

 

Definition of Academic Moneyball: develop a Moneyball valuation framework for academic research programs.

 

Definitions

 

Academic: a higher education staff member who does teaching, research, and academic service.

 

Researcher: a higher education staff member whose main work activity Is to conduct research.

 

Research Program: a programmatic suite of research activities including collaboration, dissemination, publishing, and contract research.

 

Structure

 

  1. The University’s Enterprise Bargaining Agreement defines the Minimum Standards for Academic Levels (MSALs): the expected scope and observable impact of an Academic’s teaching, research, and academic service activities (i.e. MSALs establish the baseline for expected performance).

 

  1. An Academic’s work can be modelled as a Present Value cashflow stream of value creation activities from: (i) undergraduate and postgraduate student fees for the Academic’s units of study; (ii) Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) funding, and Research Support and Research Training program funding, received from the Australian Government for the Academic’s eligible research publications, competitive grants, Higher Degree by Research student completions, and other eligible research income (Category 1 to 4); (iii) consulting and contract research income that is non-HERDC eligible; (iv) intellectual property rights income such as patents, joint ventures, and spin-outs; and (v) Academic contribution to Field of Research scores in national and international performance rankings, such as the Excellence for Research in Australia and Shanghai Jiao Tong ranking exercises.

 

  1. The gap between the MSALs and the Academic’s Present Value cashflow stream creates a potential spread in terms of work expectations versus value creation activities that create arbitrage conditions. The University can extract Alpha (excess return above a benchmark) through active management of an Academic’s research program, such as gaining new contract research income, exercising options on intellectual property rights, or creating new, scalable research enterprises. Alternatively, the University can extract Beta (passive returns from a market index) through cultivating an Academic cohort / group’s expertise, and matching it to relevant grant and consulting income sources.

 

  1. Developing an Academic’s research program is one way to change the Future Value cashflow stream from research activities, in a structured process.

 

  1. Moneyball strategies for research programs include: (i) scalability and international scope; (ii) target journals for publication; (iii) book publisher selection for publication; (iv) research methodology training (as a Doctoral candidate and as a Post-Doc); (v) co-authors or collaborative research team; (vi) international conference attendance for collaborative network and referral building; (vii) matching to grant and consulting income opportunities; and (viii) research enterprise development.

Responding to Russia’s Information Warfare

Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. He has penned an interesting New York Times op-ed on responding to Russia’s information warfare. He also actively tweets and blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows.

 

In his NYT op-ed Dr Galeotti has several suggestions for his readers. First, strengthen cybersecurity including for targets such as domestic media outlets and political parties. Second, educate the public about disinformation and propaganda, such as how to critically evaluate media and news sources. Third, use multilateral agreements to target Russia’s finances. Fourth, use economic statecraft measures such as asset freezes and sanctions. Fifth, strengthen and uphold collective security treaties. Sixth, target Vladimir Putin’s psychological vulnerabilities such as his fear of failure.

 

These suggested policy actions reflect an on-going debate in international relations circles. University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer has advanced an offensive realist approach: (1) the international system is anarchical; (2) great powers seek asymmetric military strength over other nation-states; and (3) great powers in a defensive stance will use alliances and other means as buck passing to prevent the emergence of threatening rivals and competitors.

 

Dr Galleotti’s suggestions reflect a liberal internationalist approach that differs from Mearsheimer’s offensive realism. The domestic populace is educated and key institutions are secured from other great powers who seek to influence them. Alliances and treaties that impose a rules-based liberal order on the anarchical international system are prioritised and strengthened. Foreign policy is broadened from diplomatic and military responses to include cybersecurity, economic, and sociological dimensions. As part of this policy shift, insights from political psychology are used to understand foreign leaders, politico-military institutions, and the decision elites who mobilise them.

 

At the end of his NYT op-ed Dr Galeotti observes:

 

All of this requires a new mind-set. It means accepting that Russia has chosen to be at war with us – albeit a special and limited war. Russia needs to be treated as a political combatant.

 

Understanding limited, special warfare that has economic, psychological, and sociological dimensions does need new thinking. This is the shadowy realm of disinformation, information warfare, propaganda, and psychological operations. These are areas that Russia has sophisticated conceptual / theoretical and applied expertise in. The United States and its allies need to gain a similar level of knowledge. Policymakers need to better appreciate what living in a possible multipolar world (rather than a neoconservative ‘unipolar moment’) is like. Other great powers and strategic actors (such as those in Adam Segal’s recent book The Hacked World Order) do not necessarily have a liberal internationalist worldview.

 

Dr Galeotti’s policy advice is a first step. More can be done.

On The Russia Moment

Expanded notes from a Facebook exchange with South Africa’s Damon Leff about Russia Today and allegations of Russia hacks:

 

1. Most credible Western sources note that Russia Today is Kremlin-funded. It would not be able to operate unless it reflected Putin Administration aims and interests.

 

2. Is television producer Peter Pomerantsev biased about Russia Today’s funding? Two relevant quotes from Pomerantsev’s book Nothing Is True And Everything Is PossibleThe Surreal Heart of the New Russia (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014):

 

Russia Today is Russia’s answer to BBC World and Al-Jazeera, a rolling 24/7 news channel broadcastng in English (and Arabic and Spanish) across every hotel and living room in the world, set up by presidential decree with an annual budget of over $300 million and with a mission to “give Russia’s point of view on world events.” (p. 46)

 

And:

Once things had settled down it turned out that only about two hundred of the two-thousand-or-so employees were native English speakers. They were the on-screen window dressing and spell-checkers of the operation. Behind the scene the real decisions were made by a small band of Russian producers. (pp. 47-48).

 

Is Russia Today funded the same way as the BBC and CNN? The BBC is funded by an annual license fee and its BBC World Service reflects UK Government interests. CNN is privately funded via Time Warner and there is academic work on the so-called CNN Effect (Piers Robinson and others).

 

A BBC or CNN comparison involves things like journalistic standards, editing choices, narratives, and guest selection. If you watch any of these stations for a long time period then you can observe this for yourself. Having watched RT for a year for me it is interesting — and it has clear biases.

 

3. If Russia or Wikileaks hacked the Democratic National Party in mid-2016 then they are not going to say ‘yes’ when confronted. Effective deception and information warfare operations involve several layers of plausible deniability. For example, Ray McGovern’s recent claim to Russia Today that email has a “tracing mechanism” omits that this can be re-routed in an information warfare operation.

 

4. The Central Intelligence Agency has claimed Russian involvement in the hacks. Articles critical of the CIA that allege a fake campaign against Russia (such as by CounterPunch‘s Dave Lindorff) are often either more about domestic politics or about the CIA’s historical operations in other countries.

 

5. In a multipolar world it is important to debias your worldview and to consider situations from other viewpoints. For example, in PhD research I look at Russian sources on nuclear strategy and Islamic State. But in doing so you should not be a naive idealist about others’ aims and intentions. Russia’s Putin Administration has particular strategic goals. It is helpful to be familiar with Russian sources such as geopolitics expert Alexander Dugin who is quite open about Putin Administration goals and intentions.

 

6. Russia also has a history of effective disinformation and tactics like Kompromat: compiling dossiers of compromising information about public figures. Kompromat fits how Wikileaks released information about Hillary Clinton’s senior campaign officials but not Donald Trump’s campaign. Russia Today often adopts a ridicule strategy on public figures it doesn’t like. What this suggests is that such tactics and strategies are migrating from Russia to a United States or Western context.

 

7. It is helpful in assessing Russia Today to have some familiarity with the propaganda work of writers like Jacques Ellul, Jason Stanley, Randal Marlin, Edward S. Herman, and Noam Chomsky. The emergence of new players like Russia Today also reflects the maturation of inter-state rivalry using new communications and media platforms.

 

8. Having an academic background can be misunderstood by activists. You learn what argumentation and evidence is. You often get to be immersed in the scholarship of a particular field. You learn from specialists. You may have relevant industry experience. (In my case, working as a journalist and writing / editing for the Disinformation website for almost 10 years.) You learn to do careful source evaluation of all sources. This stance can be frustrating to some issues-motivated activists. They may want a simple enemy.

 

Research Notes

A few research notes from my PhD thesis draft:

 

  • The journal International Affairs may be a source for Russian perspectives on Jack Snyder’s original conceptualisation of strategic culture, and the SALT nuclear arms reduction talks. In particular, a comparative US-Russia historical perspective is needed.
  • Robert Jay Lifton and Haruki Murakami’s interviews with Aum Shinrikyo renunciates provide possible secondary data to identify possible hypnotisibility. The APA Division 30 definition of hypnotisibility (2014): “An individual’s ability to experience suggested alterations in physiology, sensations, emotions, thoughts, or behavior during hypnosis.”
  • Coercive persuasion sequelae in Aum Shinrikyo and Islamic State would be coded as Other Specified Dissociative Disorder in DSM V (following the work of Robert Jay Lifton and Edgar Schein).
  • A social psychological perspective suggests that the renunciates were sensitised to Aum Shinrikyo’s leader Shoko Asahara from Aum propaganda such as media reports, books, and short anime films. Haruki Murakami documents how Aum renunciates often provided the labour for this media to be produced and disseminated.

Terrorist Group Aims

An excerpt from my PhD thesis notes:

 

Particular outcomes identified for terrorist groups include: (i) the achievement of a particular strategic vision (Y1); (ii) asset expropriation for decision elite or leadership control (Y2); (iii) promulgation of a particular political or religious ideology (Y3); (iv) continuation through a successor group or institution (Y4); (v) evolving into a political party or developing a political wing (Y5); (vi) devolution into an earlier developmental phase or form (Y6); and (vii) negotiation of a peace deal with a nation-state’s government (Y7).

 

Process tracing can be used to identify these group aims from terrorist communiques and propaganda.