Roll over von Clausewitz

Scientists claim to be able to use power laws to model insurgencies.

… a mathematical model published today in Nature (see Nature 462,911–914; 2009) suggests that insurgencies have a common underlying pattern that may allow the timing of attacks and the number of casualties to be predicted.

“We found that the way in which humans do insurgent wars — that is, the number of casualties and the timing of events — is universal,” says team leader Neil Johnson, a physicist at the University of Miami in Florida. “This changes the way we think insurgency works.”

Johnson and his colleagues argue that the pattern arises because insurgent wars lack a coherent command network and operate more as a “soup of groups”, in which cells form and disband when they sense danger, then reform in different sizes and composition. The timing of attacks, the authors say, is driven by competition between insurgent groups for media attention.

Johnson, who has presented preliminary versions of the work to the US military, says that the findings allow a glimpse into the heart of insurgency behaviour. “We can get a sense of what is going on and what might happen if we intervened in certain ways,” he says. He is now working to predict how the insurgency in Afghanistan might respond to the influx of foreign troops recently announced by US President Barack Obama.


6 Responses to “Roll over von Clausewitz”

  1. Legal Eagle Says:

    Wow, that’s interesting. Almost like Hari Selden’s psychohistory…

  2. Jc Says:


    Hate to tell ya, but they also used equations in the first world war trying to figure out how to beat the enemy and it turned into a blood bath of incompetence and killing fields.

    Be careful using linearity in non-linear events.

  3. Jc Says:

    OMG sorry Jase…. I thought this was steve’s blog.

  4. Sacha Says:

    Did Hari Selden use anything other than a normal distribution?

  5. Steve Edney Says:

    I think Hari Seldon believed humans were governed by the central limit theorem.

    Its pretty unsurpising really as conventional war casualities aslo follow a powerlaw, as does many many other things.

    Presumably they are pointing to this as evidence of self-organized criticality or some such. Which pretty much means the complete reverse of the nature article title “Modellers claim wars are predictable” as a powerlaw means that they are less predictable.

    The interesting part would presumably if you can infer anything about how insurgencies must work to produce such statistics and how you could best target that behaviour to minimize the effect.

  6. Tinos Says:

    There’s a TED Talk on this.

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