Predicting the Future in Science, Economics and Politics — by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

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Gazing into an animal’s gut was once considered the best way to ascertain an uncertain future. These days we are more inclined to use mathematical modelling and, as Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita explains, this can lead to astonishingly accurate predictions in science, economics and even politics.

As long as there have been people there has been a desire to predict the future. Nearly every imaginable method of doing so, from staring at the stars to inspecting sheep entrails, was tried and proved wanting. Even as tea leaf lookers and oracles expounded on the future, a long, gradual, quiet revolution in mathematics and the scientific method was transforming our ability to predict and even engineer the future. Few of us think of Pythagoras, for instance, when we contemplate prediction and yet Pythagoras provided a way to predict the length of any one leg of a right triangle if we know the length of the other two legs. This is true for whether that triangle was found in Greece in the 5th Century BC, in China in 2014, or on the moon or beyond. That science coupled with mathematics has given us the means to anticipate the future when it comes to matters of the cosmos, chemistry, or even branches of biology, is little in doubt. Yet the wisdom of our time insists that politics, and to a lesser degree economics, cannot be predicted. As common as this claim is, it is also utterly and demonstratively false.

Politics, at least as I conceive of it, inhabits almost all social issues. Political matters always involve the competitive give and take that allows us to seek resolutions to divisive issues by confronting opportunities for compromise against the backdrop of the threat or reality of coercion. That, as it happens, is the essence of business competition, litigation, legislation, regulation, and even war and peace. It is at the core of all social competition, whether organized along ethnic, religious, geographic, or occupational lines. Politics is the primary source of interference in or the breakdown of market competition (as well sometimes as a corrective for market imperfections) as reflected in an idealized, apolitical, approach to economics. In short, politics is a perfect domain in which to investigate Edward O.  Wilson’s ideas of consilience – the bringing together of knowledge into a unified whole – and to ascertain the extent to which such a unification of knowledge opens the way to predicting and improving the future.

Political prediction tests the efficacy of the scientific method as a means to study political issues. As such, political prediction is crucial both as a means to test theory and to the extent that the tests prove successful, to facilitate the formulation and implementation of public policy based on logic and evidence rather than opinion, partisanship or ideology. Just as physics provides a way to anticipate the location of heavenly bodies at pretty much any time in the past, present or future, so too ought the rigours of logical reasoning and evidence provide the means to anticipate political outcomes, whether over small questions like elections, or big questions, like the paths to war or peace. In an effort to establish that this can be done, I have spent a significant part of my research and consulting life over the past three decades developing mathematical models of strategic interaction – game theory models – and applying them to difficult policy questions before outcomes were known.

Mindful that much of the study of politics has long been grounded in normative and judgemental investigations rather than in applications of mathematical reasoning and systematic evaluations of evidence, I decided early on to dare to be embarrassed by publishing predictions in peer reviewed journals and books before the actual issue outcomes were known. The idea was twofold: (1) to establish a track record against which others could decide whether the particular models I developed proved more reliable than alternative approaches in anticipating important events; and (2) to challenge those invested in other methods, such as area studies, statistical analysis, case histories and the like, to also dare to be embarrassed by testing the efficacy of their methods before they knew the outcomes of the issues that interested them.

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‘Predicting the Future in Science, Economics and Politics’ edited by Frank Whelon Wayman, Paul R. Williamson, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Solomon Polachek

As it happens, a focus on how “players” in the game of politics interact with one another has proven to accurately anticipate detailed outcomes in about 90% of the cases to which the method has been applied. The United States intelligence community alone has used the method in more than a thousand cases. They attribute a 90% accuracy rate. Hundreds of additional political predictions based on my particular game theory method, some done by me and many done by other researchers, have been published in journal articles and books, again with a comparable accuracy rate. And journalists likewise indicate an equivalent accuracy rate while private consulting clients continue to use the method year in and year out, attributing an equally high accuracy rate to the game theoretic model. Literally hundreds of other people have used and are using the same model (available for classroom use on-line: www.predictioneersgame.com) and indicate a similar success rate.

The model itself solves for Bayesian Perfect Equilibrium with four different sources of uncertainty. And what does it take to anticipate the detailed unfolding of events? It just requires quantified inputs on four variables for each stakeholder with an interest in trying to influence the outcome of the issue at stake in the game: (1) what does each player say he or she wants as the outcome; (2) how high a priority (salience) does each player attribute to the issue in question relative to other issues on their agenda; (3) how stubborn or flexible does each stakeholder claim to be about their issue position; and (4) how much persuasive clout or influence could each stakeholder exert if he or she tried as hard as possible (knowing from their salience just how hard they will try initially). Each variable’s value for each stakeholder can, and generally does, change over time as the game’s dynamics unfold, producing an assessment of all player interactions and the conditions under which they prefer to end the game, whether with an agreement having been reached or not.

I report these results not so much out of pride in the effectiveness of a particular model at forecasting political outcomes – there are other models that are competitive in their accuracy, albeit on different, more cooperatively-oriented, issues – but rather to open minds to the realization that political prediction is not pie in the sky; it is here, it is being done successfully; and it relies on mathematical reasoning and the scientific method and not star gazing or the dissection of entrails.

It is illustrative of the central theme, as articulated by Edmund Wilson, in Predicting the Future in Science, Economics and Politics. Knowledge, it appears, is on the path to unification and that unification opens the door to successful prediction and successful improvement in outcomes whether in our understanding of physics, the environment, nuclear threats, or every day economics and politics. That which humanity has sought for millennia is now in our grasp if only we are open to abandoning the habits of mind that tell us that prediction, at least in the social arena, cannot be done. Since it demonstratively has been and is being done we can no longer persist in denying the efficacy of consilience in bringing knowledge together to predict and shape the world.

 

bdm_homeBruce Bueno de Mesquita is the Julius Silver Professor of Politics at New York University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. A specialist in policy forecasting, political economy, and international security policy, he received his doctorate in political science from the University of Michigan. Bueno de Mesquita is the author of fifteen books and more than one hundred articles as well as numerous pieces in major newspapers and magazines. He has appeared on all the major networks as well as television broadcasts in Brazil, China, Korea, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. He is the co-editor of the new book Predicting the Future in Science, Economics and Politics, published by Edward Elgar.

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