Positive Feedback and the eruption of violence

In general the idea of positive feedback and negative feedback is applied to science, and not to society, but I will indulge in speculation about its role in society.

I remember reading that Western suicide bombers often live in a small world of like-minded types.  They reinforce each other, and suddenly you get enough positive feedback (and no negative feedback), and something extremely nasty ensues.

I’m not sure this self-imposed echo chamber idea is always true, but in the case of Islamic suicide bombers, they will travel thousands of miles from America or the West to join likeminded believers in Jihad, or they will spend time on Islamic State websites.

Positive feedback generally means that some cause causes an effect that then increases the cause.  For example, if you depolarize a neuron, ions rush in that further depolarize it, which in turn lets more ions rush in.  This feedback cannot go on forever, and can be terminated by an increasing negative feedback.

Another example is Climate Change models.  They assume a positive feedback – the increasing CO2 in the atmosphere causes enough warming to evaporate water, which is also a greenhouse gas, which causes more warming, which evaporates more water – until doom approaches.  But there are also negative feedbacks in climate, for instance, if you increase the temperature of the atmosphere, it radiates away the heat into space proportional to the 4th power of the new temperature.

When a chemical explosive is heated sufficiently, some of its molecules will combust, increasing the temperature of the substance, so if the combustion of one molecule releases enough heat to combust ten more molecules, then one single molecule combustion will result in ten, which will result in a hundred, which will result in a thousand, which will result in ten thousand combustions, and so on.   That’s more of a cascade than the mutual reinforcement that I’m suggesting fanatics have.

This is also why a country like North Korea, or Cuba, or Iran, or Nazi Germany, can become so dangerous.  The rulers have an ideology that they want to impart, and they try to remove all obstacles to the acceptance of the doctrine.

  • They may see the family unit as a possible obstacle, and indoctrinate or even remove the children as soon as possible.
  • They will generally censor outside sources of news and opinion.
  • They imprison or kill people who disagree.

So they create an echo chamber, and (for example) suddenly North Korean missiles are available that can reach the United States,  Iranian meetings are started with chants of “Death to America”, and surprised “subhumans” end up in gas chambers or having fiendish medical experiments done on them by Nazi doctors and, more recently, astonished Americans who knew little about radical Islam see passenger jets fly into skyscrapers in downtown Manhattan.

You don’t need to live in a hermetically sealed society though to believe things radically at odds with most of your fellow citizens.  There are many movements that are exposed to the outside world, and yet their adherents still are true believers.   One of the leading Islamic theorists, Sayyid Qutb, was exposed to the Western lifestyle in America, and he rejected it completely.   In America, we also had the Nazi Bund marching in New York and elsewhere before World War II started.  They were marching for a non-democratic system even though their members probably had learned more about Democracy in high school than most students do today in college.


Recently, most Americans were surprised at the election of Trump, including myself.  One reason liberals were surprised was that they often do not read the conservative press.  If they had, they would have seen a volcano building of dissatisfaction with the Obama administration.    There was also a backlash by people, even nonpolitical types, against the censorship by “political correctness” .   Trump somehow connected better with these people than the other Republicans did.   Or at least, he connected with Americans who were uneasy at the excesses of the left, even if they had originally voted  for Obama.
I’ve was surprised by the new habit of shouting people down who should not be controversial at all.  The most recent example I read was of California and the push for single-payer health care in that state – a very lavish package that would include dubious treatments such as acupuncture and chiropractic and cost hundreds of billions of dollars.  The surprising part was when a few people raised the reasonable question “How will we pay for this”, they were shouted down!

I was even more surprised when my mother told me a friend of hers had a son at medical school who told his father “please cancel the gift subscription of the Wall Street Journal you gave me.  It appears outside my dorm door and it has made me a pariah here!”


One technique people use to shut out other opinions is to label them as beyond the pale – extremist, hateful, etc.  “Don’t take his opinions too seriously – he’s a ‘trump-hater'” or “Don’t read that book, its published by an extremist publishing house” or “She’s a racist, because she says ‘all lives matter’, not just ‘black lives matter'”   “Antifa” (shown above) seems to feel anyone to the right of Hillary Clinton is a fascist.

People in the United States are creating their own echo chambers.  They talk to similarly minded people, they ignore what the opposition is saying, and they get a positive feedback.   There is negative feedback available to damp down their beliefs, but they avoid the negative feedback.

Thomas Sowell, a black conservative, was asked by Larry Elder (a black conservative with a radio show), whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future.  He said “pessimistic”, because the schools were not teaching children to think critically.

Consider the following sermon by a Palestinian cleric.  If you are the type who gets news from some American news site, chances are you miss this type of rhetoric.

..Servants of Allah, the White House Satan Trump, who lacks minimal human and moral values, is about to meet the rulers of the wicked mini-states,…

The Muslim prisoners in the prisons of the occupation are on a hunger strike, yet the rulers of Saudi Arabia spend millions on welcoming the head of heresy, Trump. Oh servants of Allah, this is indeed a Crusader war against Islam and the Muslims. Oh servants of Allah, oh nation of Islam, your rulers have taken action, but not in order to support you. Instead, they have conspired against you.

The Traitor of Jordan [King Abdullah] has mobilized his army, not to liberate the place from where the Prophet Muhammad ascended the heaven, but to kill the Muslims in Syria, in order to please his masters.

Oh Allah, bestow upon us a rightly-guided Caliphate in the path of the Prophet soon. Oh Allah, annihilate Trump and the conspirators. Oh Allah, annihilate all the Jews.

This cleric was preaching in the Al Aqsa mosque, only a short walk away from the Western Wall, where Jews often go to pray.  The mosque is right in the middle of Jerusalem, not far from scenes such as this:


So far, readers who I showed this post to have told me it tells them nothing new.  But we could conclude that we do have to be aware of what people who oppose us say among themselves.  The above quote by the cleric (Ali Abu Ahmad) was gathered by MEMRI, which does scan such statements, but only for the Middle East.  We should be aware of the anti-American propaganda in other countries, and in movements in our own country.   What exactly are they saying about us?  If an explosion is building, we have to try to defuse it.

We also have to be aware that some people do not have the moral brakes that the rest of us do, and in some circumstances, they can go down a path through doors that we could not think of opening, faster and faster until a terrible end is reached.




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