Scientific Theories and Improvised Explosive Devises

Dr. Harris was a skillful instructor. He explained abstract concepts in a way that made his students feel as if they were part of an intelligent conversation rather than pupil-shaped furniture in the room being lectured to. His most impassioned lecture was on testing scientific theories: To the students in the WSU Social Psychology program, this lecture was known as “The Roadside Bomb Lecture”.

Dr. Harris would deliver this lecture on the first day of his social cognition course each fall semester. All the social psychology graduate students, regardless of whether they were currently enrolled in the course or not, showed up to hear the renowned Dr. Harris preach about the gospel of falsificationism and risky predictions. As Cal would soon learn, attending this lecture was one of the many unwritten rituals that existed within the tribe of WSU Social Psychology graduate students.

Room 153 of the WSU Psychology Building looked like a small movie theater. The rows of seating gradually descending to a stage in front that ran all the way from the left wall to the right. A WSU logo was projected onto the screen that took up the entire front wall. The room gave the instructor full control over the dimming of the lights and the loudness of the audio system that fully surrounded the students. To instructors who had a knack for flair and showmanship, students could have a full-sensory experience. And, for this reason, Dr. Harris chose this room for his classes.

Dr. Harris stoically stood behind the podium that sat off to the side of the stage and watched students enter through the door in the back of the room. He was well aware of how unusual it was that students who had already sat through this course were returning to see this lecture one more time. But his awareness of how unusual this was fed Dr. Harris’ already-inflated ego.  

The instant the clock turned 10 AM, Dr. Harris pressed a button on the remote he held in his right hand. A title slide projected onto the screen: “Theory Testing In Social Psychology”, which indicated that it was time to begin. He broke the silence with an authoritative voice. “Scientific theories allow one to make predictions about the world: If this theory is true, then we ought to expect some particular observation. If gravity pulls objects towards the center of the Earth, then we ought to expect things to fall.” Dr. Harris slowly raised a pen that was clutched in his fist up to his eye level, and then opened his hand and let the pen fell to the floor. “Gravity,” then he paused for dramatic effect, his arm fully extended, and his fingers spread wide, “works every time,” he said with a chuckle. The class laughed along with him to acknowledge the joke.

“We use our theories to make predictions. We then gather some observations and compare those observations to our predictions. Sometimes these predictions we get from our theories are correct and sometimes these predictions are incorrect. Sometimes it is a hit and sometimes it is a miss. Researchers really learn something when our predictions are incorrect.” Dr. Harris emphasized the last word to ensure his students didn’t mis-hear him. “Getting it wrong lets us know that our theory needs some work; that our ideas are not as good as we once thought. Counter-intuitively then, the goal of a good study is to put your theories in grave danger of making incorrect predictions. We want our theories to be put at risk of being wrong, we want to expose their weakest parts, to make them vulnerable, because that is when we have the greatest potential to learn. Did our theory make a correct prediction despite dire odds? Or is there some aspect of our theory that needs tweaking? If you really want to make progress we need to design studies where our theories really ‘stick their neck out there’ or, as Popper says, to make ‘risky predictions’. The theories that survive several attempts at being falsified, the ones that have survived several risky predictions, the ones that have proved their mettle time and again, are the ones that are most useful. The more situations, and more dire those situations, that these theories have survived, the more useful the theories.”

This was all abstract philosophy of science. It mapped onto the Popper and Lakatos that all of the students would eventually read as part of their course assignments. This is the point at which most instructors would try to find an example from the field of social psychology to “bring it back” to the course or they would stop and move onto a different topic altogether. But the real genius of Dr. Harris was in his storytelling; his ability to use a well-placed and well-timed anecdote. To hover over a topic long enough for students to understand, but also not so long that it felt tedious and repetitive.

Dr. Harris also had a knack for intuiting how well the students understood a concept. Students may think they understand a concept, but they also hadn’t fully developed their skills in distinguishing true understanding from the ability to parrot back the information. Dr. Harris seemed to know when students really and truly understand a concept even better than themselves. Even the most precise words pass through the filtering process of individuals’ subjective interpretations. And this subjectivity creates a situation where each student is looking at the same concept through their own idiosyncratic lens. And when you use one abstract concept to elucidate another abstract concept, which is used to elucidate another abstract concept, the idiosyncratic understanding of the students compounds itself until it is easy to be in a situation where nobody is sure whether they are talking about the same thing anymore. The students’ ideas drift off into the land of academia that is commonly divorced from real world phenomena all without their awareness of being adrift. But Dr. Harris could cut through the fuzziness of students’ understanding. He always had a story that peeled away the layers of abstractness and painted a concrete mental image. An idea so clear and crisp that students felt they could reach out and touch it. He communicated the most academic sounding concepts in a way that was intuitive and relatable. He would tell a story that was on the surface not about social psychology to help students relate these concepts to social psychology.

And so the real lecture began.

“Who knows where the term ‘Shock-and-Awe’ comes from?” Dr. Harris asked the class. A handful of hands went into the air. Then Dr. Harris paced back-and-forth across the stage at the front of the classroom. He explained that the term comes from the initial air bombing campaign of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He gave a brief history of the prelude to Operation Iraqi Freedom, which ended with him animatedly pointed to the ceiling as if he was pointing to an actual airplane and threw his arms into the air to mime the buildings exploding.

“OK, who knows what an Improvised Explosive Device is?” No hands went up. After a minute of silence, Dr. Harris joked that “he felt old” and that students should “ask your parents”. The students laughed again to acknowledge the joke.

Dr. Harris again slowly paced back-and-forth across the stage in the front of the room. He clasped his hands behind his back and looked down at his feet as he talked in his slow and authoritative voice. “In 2003, a coalition of countries that was primarily led by the U.S. military invaded Iraq. After the Shock-and-Awe bombing, the U.S.-led coalition rolled into Iraq with overwhelmingly superior military might. They came into Iraq from Kuwait, which is just south of Iraq, and it was a race to Baghdad. They had the best tanks, the most impervious armored vehicles, the fastest helicopters, etc. This was the most technologically sophisticated military in the world at the time. The coalition military forces were the best-trained too.

The coalition military forces expected to overcome the Iraqi defenses, there was no doubt about that. However, the surprising part was that there was so little resistance during this traditional military campaign. There was some resistance, but much, much less than what was expected. For the most part, the Iraqi army folded quickly. I talked to one of the soldiers who was in this initial invasion–he was a tank driver who later came back to school to use up his G.I. Bill–and he had a story where they rolled their tank up to a bunker and found Iraqi military uniforms and cups of coffee that were still warm. Think about that. The Iraqi soldiers saw the coalition military forces coming, knew there was no chance in hell they were going to get out of this alive, and left like five minutes before the Americans got there. The Iraqi soldiers took off their uniforms, grabbed their AK-47s, and just receded into the civilian population. Some of these Iraqi soldiers went home to their families and some would go on to fight as insurgents.

So after the coalition military forces overtook Baghdad, they pretty much had free reign in Iraq. They set up a bunch of bases and started going about the business of rebuilding the country. These bases the coalition military forces set up were surrounded by the infantry and artillery. They built up 20-foot dirt berms around the perimeter. They had drones circling overhead. They were pretty much impenetrable.  

Everything was going just as planned.

So you have the most technologically-advanced military fighting against a bunch of rag-tag insurgents who had AK-47s who had no real military and no uniforms. It should have been no problem for the coalition military forces to move around Iraq and go about the business of rebuilding the country, right?” Dr. Harris paused for dramatic effect. Unseen by the students in the class, Dr. Harris rolled his thumb across across the remote he was holding behind his back. The lights dimmed. Then a video of a convoy of U.S. Army vehicles driving down a road in the middle of a dessert was projected onto the screen. Boom! An explosion on the side of the road threw up a cloud of dust that completely filled the screen, and the video stopped abruptly. The lights slowly came back on as smoothly as they were dimmed. Then, in a solemn voice, Dr. Harris said “Two Americans died in that explosion”.  

This lecture was undoubtedly entertaining. The students were witnessing a master at his craft.

“What does this have to do with theory testing?” The classroom was quiet. The students who were hearing this lecture for the first time eagerly waited for Dr. Harris to answer his own question. This was the part that the other students had returned to hear. “Here’s how this is relevant to theory testing. The coalition military forces trained their soldiers with a particular theory in mind. They had a theory about how the war was going to proceed. So they trained their soldiers and armored their vehicles for that theoretical war. The coalition military had their combat troops who were the “front line” troops and their combat support troops who were behind the front lines. The combat troops trained heavily for situations where they would exchange fire with the enemy and the combat support troops did not. The combat troops had armored vehicles and the combat support troops did not. So you build up these bases, surround them by combat troops, and put the combat support troops inside. This made sense for the theoretical war where there is a ‘front line’ and a ‘behind the front line’.

The Iraqi military knew they could not compete with the coalition military in this theoretical war, so their soldiers abandoned these traditional tactics. They became guerilla fighters; they became insurgents. Then, once they were insurgents, they knew they could not overtake the coalition military bases in Iraq. These insurgents, who were hell-bent on fighting at all costs mind you, had to use irregular, non-traditional, and unconventional ways of fighting.

So what did these insurgents do? They pretty much left the coalition military forces’ bases alone. They didn’t bother the tanks that guarded the front gates of these bases. They let the coalition military forces fly their planes in-and-out of the country without much ado. Instead, they watched and studied; they poked and prodded. What blind spots were the coalition military forces overlooking? What vulnerabilities were left unchecked?

The insurgents found that, although the coalition military forces bases were well-defended, the convoys, especially convoys of combat support troops, were not well-defended. These convoys would leave the bases as if they were merely driving from point A to point B. From one well-defended base to another well-defended base. But when the troops moved from one base to another, that is, when they were not hidden behind the perimeter of the well-defended bases, they were exposed and vulnerable. Thousands of troops would step out from behind the berms and the tanks, they would drive their under-armored vehicles through the Iraqi countryside.

To make matters worse, the Iraqi countryside was filled with trash that these convoys would just drive right past. A truck driver’s attention was only so big, so the drivers’ focus was to be vigilant in the towns and merely keep it on the road in between towns. The insurgents found what they were looking for: Convoys of unarmored vehicles would mindlessly drive right past, or nearly right over, trash on the side of the road day in and day out.

So the insurgents started using these makeshift bombs called Improvised Explosive Devices. They buried these bombs in the shallow sand, in a piece of trash, or roadkill on the side of the road. The roads with these bombs were indistinguishable from any other stretch of road in the whole country. The coalition military forces would drive their vehicles right up to these explosive devices and the unarmored underbelly of these vehicles would be exposed. Boom! It was extremely bothersome and dangerous for these convoys. It’s not like you can stop a whole convoy everytime you come across a piece of trash. And if there was a bomb that went off, there may or may not be an insurgent nearby. All you could do was stop the convoy and try to minimize the damage.”

The entire class was nodding along and hanging onto every word Dr. Harris spoke. Cal was always a diligent note-taker, but this lecture was too entertaining; he didn’t even try to write down any notes, he just set his pen down and enjoyed the show.

“At this point you might wonder why these attacks were not anticipated. Why weren’t the coalition military forces trained for this sort of fighting? And why were so many vehicles left unarmored? The coalition military forces spent billions of dollars on their military training and equipment. They hired the best contractors who hired the best engineers. The coalition military forces educated their generals at the best universities in the world. And yet, these mistakes seem so obvious in hindsight. Why? How could so many smart people get it so wrong?” Dr. Harris paused for rhetorical effect. “The insurgents found these weaknesses because of their mindset,” Dr. Harris said as he pointed to the side of his head. “They would have never found these weaknesses if they weren’t thinking like insurgents. They would have never found these weaknesses if they weren’t desperate. If they didn’t have that primal mindset of a predator chasing the prey, a mindset that you cannot simulate”. The class nodded along in silence.

“The Iraqi insurgents were only able to identify these weak spots in these convoys because they were ruthless and desperate to find something, anything they could exploit. They desperately tried to find a chink in the armor of a seemingly solid defense. This was not an academic exercise for the insurgents of what they speculated was a possible weakness; they were not trying to win a defense contract by showing how tough the armor was, they were trying to win a war by showing that there was at least one flaw in the overall armor. Finding a weakness…one weakness…was the difference between winning and losing. If you chose to fight, one weakness, one flawed assumption, was the difference between life and death. And when these insurgents found a vulnerability, they mercilessly exploited it to full effect. They wreaked havoc.” A long pause fell over the class as this information settled in.

“So what did the coalition military forces do in response? They modified their theory of how the war was going to be fought. They addressed their once-hidden assumptions that the insurgents had so violently exploited. They re-armored all their vehicles and re-trained all their soldiers for the new realities of unconventional war. They tweaked their convoy protocols to address the threat of IEDs. Their updated and tweaked convoy protocols were provisionally considered “the new standard”. However, at some point the coalition military had to go beyond training or assuming their armor was fixed. At some point they had to send another convoy out the gates and get feedback from these pestering insurgents. Which of these convoys that were following the new protocols were safe? What was the new weakness in the armor that the insurgents had found? And they would incorporate that feedback into ways they could improve. This led to more re-armoring in the newly-found weak spots. It led to re-revised convoy protocols. Etc.

And this went on and on. The insurgents would desperately try to find new weaknesses and new ways to exploit these weaknesses. The coalition military would adjust. Then new weaknesses would be found and new adjustments would be made. It was iterative. The coalition military and the insurgents went back-and-forth, conjecture-and-refutation. In other words, these insurgents made the coalition military better, stronger, and safer because they kept pointing out the flaws in the coalition military’s thinking. It made the armor stronger and placed more smartly. The desperation and ruthlessness of the insurgents found weak spots in the coalition military that the smartest generals couldn’t anticipate. These insurgents made the coalition military severely pay for leaving these vulnerabilities exposed. And these insurgents wouldn’t let the coalition military get complacent. There was a constant stress and tentativeness that would never let the coalition military to feel like their convoys were perfected. There was always some as-yet-undiscovered vulnerability. But remember, this evolution in the coalition military’s strategy was only possible because of the insurgents’ mindset. There is no substitute for the harshness and ruthlessness of war to force you to evolve. There is no substitute for the vigilance of soldiers fighting under different banners trying to kill one another to bring these hidden assumptions into awareness.

This is the mindset that you need to have when testing scientific theories. Ruthless. Tireless. Merciless. There is no compassion when it comes to trying to expose flaws in our theories. Find the weakness in an idea and blow it up with whatever tools you have available. If you don’t have a tool, make one.” Dr. Harris made a hand gesture like a bomb exploding as he said this last sentence.

“You are all going to learn to think like scientists. Testing theories like a scientists involves two things. First, you need to patiently study our theories for the weakness and then maximally exploit it where it will do the most damage. What is the weak spot? What is the hidden assumption? Where is the place that others have overlooked? And how can you maximally exploit that assumption? What tools, what weapons, do you have access to? If you don’t have a weapon, make one. What materials do you have to make a weapon?

Second, it’s more than trying to think of theories’ weaknesses. It’s more than trying to address these weaknesses. When we are talking about ideas, and not people’s lives, you want to maximally expose your theories to scrutiny. If you really want to test your vehicle’s armor, you don’t just look at your vehicles and say ‘it looks safe to me’ and you don’t want to drive it through where the enemy isn’t. If you really, really want to know whether your vehicle’s armor works, you want to drive it right through where your enemy is strongest. If you really want to know where your armor is weakest, you want to let the most ruthless assholes desperately trying to find a way, any way, to kill your drivers with whatever weapons they have. As a scientist, you want to say ‘here are my methods, here are my data…do your worst’.  If you do that, you will learn fast. Scientists who fail to do that are cowardly. They are depriving themselves and others of the full knowledge of whether their claims can hold up to ruthless scrutiny. It would be like a shipbuilder who builds a ship, but then is too cowardly to actually put it into the water.”

Dr. Harris scanned the room as if he looked into each student’s eyes. “This is key,” Dr. Harris slowed his voice to convey the seriousness of his upcoming admonition, “I am talking about ruthlessly criticising a theory, an idea. I am not telling anybody to criticise the individual who proposed the theory. All too often we hear stories of brash young researchers who want to make a name for themselves. Individuals who want to break away from the crowd and make a splash. They want to win Twitter for the day. They don’t do it by proposing a clever idea. They don’t do it by contributing something positive to the field. They try to make a name for themselves by tearing down a high-profile target. This is why we know the names of Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth. Because these individuals made their name by tearing down people. It is a short-term gain and a long-term loss. Do not do it. Don’t be those people.”

The message was clear: Be an insurgent for others’ ideas, not the humans behind the idea.


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