Lone wolves. Terrorist cells. Bad apples. Viral infections.
The language we use to discuss violent extremism is rife with metaphors from the natural world. As we seek to understand why some humans behave so utterly inhumanely, we rely on comparisons to biology, ecology and medicine.
But what if we’ve been working in the wrong scientific discipline? What if the spread of hate is less like the spread of cancer through the proverbial body politic and more like … the formation of bubbles in a boiling pot of water?
That is the contention of Neil Johnson, a professor of physics at George Washington University and the lead author on a study published this week in Nature analyzing the spread of online hate. If that sounds like an odd topic for a physicist – it is. Johnson began his career at the University of Oxford, where he published extensively on quantum information and “complexity theory”. After moving to the US in 2007, he embarked on a new course of research, applying theories from physics to complex human behavior, from financial markets and conflict zones to insurgency and terrorist recruitment.
The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.