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But the way he sees it, the patterns he's discovering about terrorism could be comforting — even empowering. For one thing, even in his most pessimistic probability models, the chances of Clauset or any of his family members getting caught up in a terrorist attack are infinitesimal, much lower than getting in a car crash or getting hit by lightning. For another, one of the reasons terrorism is so frightening is that it appears utterly uncontrollable and unpredictable: As the CELL exhibit says, it could happen anywhere, at any time, to anyone. As Clauset has shown, though, terrorism is in fact much less random and unpredictable.

"Over the ages, humans thought earthquakes and floods were malicious, and then simply unpredictable," he points out, and because people didn't understand the way natural phenomena worked, such events would carry an added level of existential calamity. But once people realized that earthquakes follow a power-law pattern, that rivers have flooding cycles, these disasters, while still costly and deadly, no longer seemed so random or malevolent.

Clauset believes a similar perspective shift could be useful with terrorist attacks. "There is a very large cognitive difficulty in thinking of terrorism as a natural phenomenon, as a natural consequence of modern society," he says. After all, the aim of terrorism is to terrify. His research might help change that, might help to neutralize terrorism's psychological threat."Mathematics is one of the few things that allow us to be unemotional about things," he says. And the impassive lens of mathematics, which creates a big-picture view of terrorism, is what helps Clauset work on the subject without becoming overwhelmed by the trauma involved. "My work is sufficiently abstract that it doesn't have that visceral feeling," he says. Still, he adds, "a theoretical attack that kills 3,000 people is going to be a brutally gory, terrible event. If I stop and think about the details..."

Aaron Clauset has big ideas about Big Data.
Anthony Camera
Aaron Clauset has big ideas about Big Data.
Aaron Clauset found that the frequency and severity of smaller terrorist events, like the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack that killed twelve, could point to the frequency and severity of much larger attacks like 9/11.
Aaron Clauset
Aaron Clauset found that the frequency and severity of smaller terrorist events, like the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack that killed twelve, could point to the frequency and severity of much larger attacks like 9/11.

He catches himself, leaving the thought unfinished. He doesn't want to start imagining the sort of horror he witnessed at the CELL. Instead, he turns his attention back to Parker, resting happily in his arms. He works hard to maintain a balance between work and home life, to rein in his data-science curiosity regarding his own family. Yes, for a while after Parker was born, he was tracking her sleeping habits and every bowel movement on his iPhone, to see what sort of interesting patterns might emerge. But after a few months, he dropped the experiment.

"You're spending time with your baby, and here you are, trying to enter all this data into your phone. What the heck?" he says with a laugh. Sometimes, it's better to leave the patterns blissfully unknown.

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2 comments
vx951
vx951

CELL is the villain organization in the video game Crysis 2.

John708
John708

As a student majoring in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, I find this article fascinating. 

Well done Joel Warner! 

 
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