November 21, 2007


The New Nostradamus: Can a fringe branch of mathematics forecast the future? A special adviser to the CIA, Fortune 500 companies, and the U.S. Department of Defense certainly thinks so. (Michael A.M. Lerner, GOOD)

If you listen to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, and a lot of people don’t, he’ll claim that mathematics can tell you the future. In fact, the professor says that a computer model he built and has perfected over the last 25 years can predict the outcome of virtually any international conflict, provided the basic input is accurate. What’s more, his predictions are alarmingly specific. His fans include at least one current presidential hopeful, a gaggle of Fortune 500 companies, the CIA, and the Department of Defense. Naturally, there is also no shortage of people less fond of his work. “Some people think Bruce is the most brilliant foreign policy analyst there is,” says one colleague. “Others think he’s a quack.”

Today, on a rare sunny summer day in San Francisco, Bueno de Mesquita appears to be neither. He’s relaxing in his stately home, answering my questions with exceeding politesse. Sunlight streams through the tall windows, the melodic sound of a French horn echoing from somewhere upstairs; his daughter, a musician in a symphony orchestra, is practicing for an upcoming recital. It’s all so complacent and genteel, which is exactly what Bueno de Mesquita isn’t. As if on cue, a question sets him off. “I found it to be offensive,” he says about a colleague’s critique of his work. “This is absolutely, totally, and utterly false,” he says about the attack of another.

The criticism rankles him, because, to his mind, the proof is right there on the page. “I’ve published a lot of forecasting papers over the years,” he says. “Papers that are about things that had not yet happened when the paper was published but would happen within some reasonable amount of time. There’s a track record that I can point to.” And indeed there is. Bueno de Mesquita has made a slew of uncannily accurate predictions—more than 2,000, on subjects ranging from the terrorist threat to America to the peace process in Northern Ireland—that would seem to prove him right. [...]

How does Bueno de Mesquita do this? With mathematics. “You start with a set of assumptions, as you do with anything, but you do it in a formal, mathematical way,” he says. “You break them down as equations and work from there to see what follows logically from those assumptions.” The assumptions he’s talking about concern each actor’s motives. You configure those motives into equations that are, essentially, statements of logic based on a predictive theory of how people with those motives will behave. From there, you start building your mathematical model. You determine whether the predictive theory holds true by plugging in data, which are numbers derived from scales of preferences that you ascribe to each actor based on the various choices they face.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma, a basic in game theory, explains it well: Two burglars are apprehended near the scene of a crime and are interrogated separately by the police. The police know these two goons did it, but they don’t know how, so they offer each one a deal. If they both confess and cooperate, they’ll both get a minor sentence of five years. If neither man confesses, they’ll both only get one year (for having been caught with some of the stolen loot on them). But, and here’s where it gets interesting, if one confesses and the other doesn’t, the one who confesses walks out scot-free while the other will do 10 years. What will they do? Will they trust each other and do what’s obviously in their best interest, which is not confess? Based on game theory’s assumptions about human nature, the math derived from this dilemma tells you squarely that the two goons will turn each other in.

Which illustrates the next incontrovertible fact about game theory: In the foreboding world view of rational choice, everyone is a raging dirtbag. Bueno de Mesquita points to dictatorships to prove his point: “If you liberate people from the constraint of having to satisfy other people in order to advance themselves, people don’t do good things.” When analyzing a problem in international relations, Bueno de Mesquita doesn’t give a whit about the local culture, history, economy, or any of the other considerations that more traditional political scientists weigh. In fact, rational choicers like Bueno de Mesquita tend to view such traditional approaches with a condescension bordering on disdain. “One is the study of politics as an expression of personal opinion as opposed to political science,” he says dryly. His only concern is with what the political actors want, what they say they want (often two very different things), and how each of their various options will affect their career advancement. He feeds this data into his computer model and out pop the answers. [...]

Recently, he’s applied his science to come up with some novel ideas on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “In my view, it is a mistake to look for strategies that build mutual trust because it ain’t going to happen. Neither side has any reason to trust the other, for good reason,” he says. “Land for peace is an inherently flawed concept because it has a fundamental commitment problem. If I give you land on your promise of peace in the future, after you have the land, as the Israelis well know, it is very costly to take it back if you renege. You have an incentive to say, ‘You made a good step, it’s a gesture in the right direction, but I thought you were giving me more than this. I can’t give you peace just for this, it’s not enough.’ Conversely, if we have peace for land—you disarm, put down your weapons, and get rid of the threats to me and I will then give you the land—the reverse is true: I have no commitment to follow through. Once you’ve laid down your weapons, you have no threat.”

Bueno de Mesquita’s answer to this dilemma, which he discussed with the former Israeli prime minister and recently elected Labor leader Ehud Barak, is a formula that guarantees mutual incentives to cooperate. “In a peaceful world, what do the Palestinians anticipate will be their main source of economic viability? Tourism. This is what their own documents say. And, of course, the Israelis make a lot of money from tourism, and that revenue is very easy to track. As a starting point requiring no trust, no mutual cooperation, I would suggest that all tourist revenue be [divided by] a fixed formula based on the current population of the region, which is roughly 40 percent Palestinian, 60 percent Israeli. The money would go automatically to each side. Now, when there is violence, tourists don’t come. So the tourist revenue is automatically responsive to the level of violence on either side for both sides. You have an accounting firm that both sides agree to, you let the U.N. do it, whatever. It’s completely self-enforcing, it requires no cooperation except the initial agreement by the Israelis that they are going to turn this part of the revenue over, on a fixed formula based on population, to some international agency, and that’s that.”

Not only is there no rational man, but the more closely power is held the less likely a state will behave rationally. If Kim Jong-il just kept quiet few would care what he did to his own people.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 21, 2007 6:28 AM
Comments for this post are closed.