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New Nostradamuses

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New Nostradamuses

Not only professionals specializing in "decision under uncertainty", but also the proverbial "man in the street", take it for granted that the ability to accurately predict future events is one of the most onerous challenges facing humankind — especially persons in authority, persons responsible for the management of business or economic organizations etc.

A notable exception to this rule is the New _Nostradamus" : Prof. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a political science professor at New York University and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Who, according to Good Magazine, specializes in predicting future events — at least in the area of international conflicts.

The claim is that this distinguished political scientist can actually predict the outcome of any international conflcit!

To do this Prof. Bueno de Mesquita does not use a Crystal Ball, but a thoroughly scientific method which he claims, is based in a branch of applied mathematics called Game Theory.

According to,

" ... Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is a political scientist, professor at New York University, and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He specializes in international relations, foreign policy, and nation building. He is also one of the authors of the selectorate theory.

He has founded a company, Mesquita & Roundell, that specializes in making political and foreign-policy forecasts using a computer model based on game theory and rational choice theory. He is also the director of New York University's Alexander Hamilton Center for Political Economy.

He was featured as the primary subject in the documentary on the History Channel in December 2008. The show, titled Next Nostradamus, details how the scientist is using computer algorithms to predict future world events ..."

Here is an interview with Prof. Bueno de Mesquita (with Riz Khan - The art and science of prediction - 09 Jan 08):

And here is a 20-minute lecture on the ... future of Iran (TED, February 2009):

Apparently, all you need to accomplish this is a computer, expert-knowledge on Iran, and game theory!

Some of the predictions attributed to Prof. Bueno de Mesquita are:

  1. The second Palestinian Intifada and the death of the Mideast peace process, two years before this came to pass.

  2. The succession of the Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev by Yuri Andropov, who at the time was not even considered a contender.

  3. The voting out of office of Daniel Ortega and the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, two years before this happened.

  4. The harsh crack down on dissidents by China's hardliners four months before the Tiananmen Square incident.

  5. France's hairs-breadth passage of the European Union's Maastricht Treaty.

  6. The exact implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement between Britain and the IRA.

  7. China's reclaiming of Hong Kong and the exact manner the handover would take place, 12 years before it happened.

Impressive, isn't it!

As might be expected, these and similar claims by Prof. Bueno de Mesquita have sparked a vigorous debate not only in the professional journals but also on the WWW. Interested readers can consult this material to see for themselves, whether Bueno de Mesquita's claims attest to a major scientific breakthrough or ... voodoo mathematics.

Also, in addition to consulting this material you may want to have a look at a short video clip by Matt Brawn (right) which, he compiled in response to a short note entitled This man can actually predict the future!.

Of particular interest is, of course, the "success" rate of the Prof. Bueno de Mesquita's predictions: over 90% — yes over ninty percent!

Here is Trevor Black's common sense reaction to this claim:

I am a little skeptical about anyone who claims to have a 90% success rate. I just don't buy it. Especially when they say that they can explain away a lot of the other 10%.

If you come to me and tell me you have a model that gets it right 60% or 70% of the time, I may listen. Skeptically, but I will listen. 90% and I start to smell something.

All I wish to add here is that Prof. Bueno de Mesquita (left) makes his predictions under conditions of "severe uncertainty" which of course render them hugely vulnerable to what Prof. Naseem Taleb (right) dubs the Black Swan phenomenon.

Hence, the very proposition that such predictions can be made at all, let alone be reliable, is diametrically opposed to Nassim Taleb's categorical rejection of any such position. For his thesis is that Black Swans are totally outside the purview of mathematical treatment, especially by models that are based on expected utility theory and rational choice theory.

Interesting, though, this is precisely the stuff that Prof. Bueno de Mesquita's method is made of: expected utility theory and rational choice theory!

Even more interesting is the fact that Nassim Taleb (right) and Bueno de Mesquita (left) are staff members of the same academic institution, namely New York University. So, all that's left to say is: Go figure!

As indicated above, the debate over Bueno de Mesquita's theories is not new. It has been ongoing, in the relevant academic literature, at least since the publication of his book The War Trap (1981).

For an idea of the kind of criticism sparked by his work, take a look at the quotes I provide from articles that are critical of Bueno de Mesquita theories.

Of course, there are other New Nostradamuses around.

According to the Associated Press, the latest (2009, Mar 4, 4:39 AM EST) news from Russia about the future of the USA is that

" ... President Barack Obama will order martial law this year, the U.S. will split into six rump-states before 2011, and Russia and China will become the backbones of a new world order ..."

Apparently this prediction was made by Igor Panarin (right), Dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry diplomatic academy and a regular on Russia's state-controlled TV channels (see full AP news report).

Regarding the future of Russia,

"You don't sound too hopeful".
"Hopeful? Please, I am Russian. I live in a land of mad hopes, long queues, lies and humiliations. They say about Russia we never had a happy present, only a cruel past and a quite amazing future ..."
Malcolm Bradbury
To the Hermitage (2000, p. 347)

We should therefore be reminded of J K Galbraith's (1908-2006) poignant observation:

There are two classes of forecasters: those who don't know and those who don't know they don't know.

And in the same vein,

The future is just what we invent in the present to put an order over the past.

Malcolm Bradbury
Doctor Criminale (1992, p. 328)

So, we shall have to wait and see.

And how about this more recent piece by Heath Gilmore and Brian Robins in the Sydney Morning Herald (March 27, 2009):

"... COUPLES wondering if the love will last could find out if theirs is a match made in heaven by subjecting themselves to a mathematical test.

A professor at Oxford University and his team have perfected a model whereby they can calculate whether the relationship will succeed.

In a study of 700 couples, Professor James Murray, a maths expert, predicted the divorce rate with 94 per cent accuracy.

His calculations were based on 15-minute conversations between couples who were asked to sit opposite each other in a room on their own and talk about a contentious issue, such as money, sex or relations with their in-laws.

Professor Murray and his colleagues recorded the conversations and awarded each husband and wife positive or negative points depending on what was said. ..."

Such interviews should perhaps be made mandatory for all couples registering their marriage.

More details on the mathematics of marriage can be found in The Mathematics of Marriage: Dynamic Nonlinear Models by J.M. Gottman, J.D. Murray, C. Swanson, R. Tyson, and K.R. Swanson (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002.)

On a more positive note, though, here is an online Oracle from Melbourne (Australia: the land of the real Black Swan!).

You may wish to consult this friendly 24/7 facility about important "Yes/No" questions that you no doubt have about the future.

Enter your "Yes/No" question:



Disclaimer: This page, its contents and style, are the responsibility of the author (Moshe Sniedovich) and do not represent the views, policies or opinions of the organizations he is associated/affiliated with.

Last modified: Friday, 30-Dec-2011 13:08:18 MST