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The dubious 'science' of radicalisation revealed Open in fullscreen

Hilary Aked

The dubious 'science' of radicalisation revealed

The basis of the Prevent strategy is just a single, classified study, writes Aked [Getty]

Date of publication: 4 October, 2016

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Comment: Hilary Aked uncovers the flimsy and unreliable nature of the 'science' on which Prevent - the UK's counter-extremism strategy - is founded.

If allowing criticism of state policies is a fundamental characteristic of democratic government, rigorous peer-review is the foundation upon which academics claim validity for the knowledge they produce. But when it comes to its policies that counter so-called "radicalisation", the UK government has sought to prevent both, simply by withholding the evidence upon which they are based.

An important new study by the advocacy body CAGE "The 'Science' of Pre-Crime" explains that the "evidence base" underpinning the official counter-extremism strategy Prevent (and the related Channel programme) is little more than a single study carried out by two psychologists.

Produced in-house for the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), the study remains classified and has never been subject to proper peer-review. Yet the framework developed as a result - the "Extremism Risk Guidance or ERG 22+" - which lists at least 22 factors said to be potential indicators of "radicalisation", informed the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act.

After this law made it a statutory duty for all public sector bodies to "pay due regard" to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism, public sector workers - from teachers to prison officers, lecturers to GPs - have begun being trained to spot "signs of radicalisation".

This training often consists of little more than a 45-minute video or a two-hour presentation. But critically, even if it were longer, the factors they are being asked to watch out for - on the assumption that these are possible indicators of an individual's propensity to commit an act of terrorism in future - are behaviours typical of most normal teenagers.

This much was already known and the absurdity of it widely acknowledged. What was not clear was who chose these 22 factors and why, or how they were reified and legitimised.

What can only be classed as a pseudo-scientific tool has provided a veneer of academic legitimacy

It turns out that forensic psychologists Monica Lloyd and Christopher Dean based them on case work notes from a sample of people imprisoned for terrorism-related offences. Without release of the original data used in the small-scale qualitative study, it is impossible to know what crimes the individuals in their sample had been convicted of, or what influence response bias might have had on the results, let alone seek to replicate the study. Devoid of any critical scrutiny, its wider validity and reliability is highly suspect.

Worryingly, the CAGE report shows that the authors of the study in question have themselves admitted this. In 2015 – long after the ERG 22+ had been incorporated into practice and legislation – they conceded its "lack of demonstrated reliability and validity" was a problem. Perhaps back-pedaling slightly, they also referred to it as a "work in progress" - which CAGE suggests means that the population at large are essentially being used as "laboratory rats".

Huge damage has been done to civil society in general and to Muslim communities in particular. Ultimately, what can only be classed as a pseudo-scientific tool has provided a veneer of academic legitimacy to the deeply subjective decisions of multi-agency Channel panels, inevitably influenced by the prejudices of their members, empowered to make decisions with far-reaching implications for people's lives.

The findings of a study based on a small sample of prisoners have been generalised to the population at large

The CAGE report also highlights a number of legal cases in which the ERG 22+ has been cited approvingly, as if a sound basis on which to rest judgements, raising the possibility that families have been separated (in ward of court cases), people imprisoned (or prevented from release) on the basis of a framework which is little more than speculative and has no real predictive power.

The way the government has used the psychologists' study raises profound questions. The findings of a study based on a small sample of prisoners have been generalised to the population at large, a huge leap - particularly given that some of those in the original sample were not guilty of violence but other terrorism-related offences.

Yet the ERG 22+ and the entire concept of "radicalisation" are taken to indicate a future propensity to violence.

Moreover, despite Dean and Lloyd cautioning that their framework requires "professional judgement", in demanding that public sector workers apply the tool, the government has sought to instrumentalise the research far beyond its original intent or any purpose for which it is fit.

The government has sought to instrumentalise the research far beyond its original intent or any purpose for which it is fit

The government's Prevent strategy was already unravelling, with Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham the latest to call for "root and branch review". Following the CAGE exposé its legitimacy looks even more tattered.

Over 100 academics have signed a letter criticising the lack of evidence for the "science" of "radicalisation" (full disclosure: I was a signatory) and the Royal College of Psychiatry has called for the ERG 22+ data to be "comprehensively published", saying "public policy cannot be based on either no evidence or a lack of transparency about evidence".

The revelations raise timeless questions about academic independence and the uses of scientific knowledge in society. The psychologists in question have written that they "came to this work as practitioners with a strong imperative to develop products for correctional and managerial purposes".

This turn of phrase perhaps hints at the reason they never spoke out, even though the state misused their research; both have built successful careers on the basis that there was demand for their "product" from government.

The government has little interest in whether its mechanisms for assessing 'radicalisation' are correct or not

While not on the level of scientific racism - such as the bogus "science" of phrenology that helped to underpin and justify colonialism and slavery - this psychological research has, as CAGE points out, helped to create an "environment of over-reporting" in which just seven percent of 2015 Channel referrals were later deemed worthy of intervention, meaning that (at least) 93 percent have likely been needlessly traumatised by the experience. 

In the last analysis it is difficult not to conclude that the government has little interest in whether its mechanisms for assessing "radicalisation" are correct or not. It seems it merely wanted to legitimise and embed a framework which exonerated its own foreign policy of any role in fostering political violence, instead pathologising radicalism at the level of the individual.

The Dean and Lloyd study excluded political grievance as a factor, which even its authors concede was "perhaps an omission" - surely a contender for understatement of the year - laying bare the untenable and unaccountable nature of the "science" at the heart of UK counter-extremism policies.


Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom. Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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