Posted on November 13, 2009 by

buenodeA 2007 article in Good Magazine summarized the work of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita who claims to predict mathematically, “virtually any international conflict, provided the basic inputs are accurate.” Bueno de Mesquita can also be seen on You Tube giving lectures. His work, which some dismiss too readily, raises important issues concerning the use of statistics and game theory to reliably envision the probable outcome of major world events. Who is this guy? He’s an NYU Professor of Political Science who has also studied statistics and has created a model simulation program. In the program, he takes a particular world flashpoint and plots out the probable way things will unfold based on what is known of the nation-state leaders and their actions assuming they work from a point of self interest. He acknowledges the existence of Black Swans, the events we can never anticipate but says their existence does not do away with his ability to determine a probable scenario and outcome. Allan Stam, Professor of Political Science at Penn State, examined the validity of Bueno de Mesquita’s work in the October 2000 British Journal of Political Science. He supported Bueno de Mesquita’s work, within certain limitations. A year before, Stephen Walt on the faculty at Harvard, attacked the assumptions of Bueno de Mesquita’s approach using “rational choice” models. (players promoting their own interests which Walt says is not always the case, especially when emotions or mental illness come to play). Bueno de Mesquita is asserting that consistent and repeatable findings that can reliably determine the outcome of major international conflicts. What has yet to be considered is what happens when other people use the same model? Can they achieve the same results consistently, using the same model and methods? Given that Bueno De Mesquita is claiming to use the scientific model, this, measure is the essential measure of his work. Looking more broadly, human behavior is obviously difficult to predict. However, decisions made by world leaders in crises do seem to have their own internal logic and statistical modeling is advancing swiftly in sophistication. Here where I think all of this fits. If Bueno de Mesquita and his model could reliably predict the outcome of international crisis points, he would be one of the wealthiest and most influential persons on the planet, which he isn’t. However, we now have an enhanced and growing ability to amass volumes of information quickly and to access meaningful data previously kept secret. This, combined with an increasing knowledge about the dynamics of world affairs and the internal workings of nations may allow us to reach a point where these kinds of model simulations will set a reliable base point for projecting of world trends. (As an aside, I think Bueno de Mesquita would make a great character for a dystopian sci fi novel placing him into the time when such models work and showing what horror it would wreak on his life and the lives of those around him. Sometimes, it doesn’t pay to know too much). What do you think?

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