Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. Image Source: Good Magazine.
One of the alarming trends of the turn of the Millennium is its extreme literal mindedness. The notion that all information on Earth can be pooled and tabulated to yield the ultimate secrets of human existence and the mysteries of the universe is a great fallacy. This assumption shows how the new technology has bewitched us and altered our judgement in the post WWII era. At the same time, however, science and tech are genuinely pushing the boundaries of what we understand at an exponential rate. It is a great time to be alive, to see this incredible revolution in human thought unfold, along with all its unforeseeable ramifications, and the amazing tension-filled overlap it generates between fact and fiction.
Maybe it's all good, just so long as everyone understands that any random accumulation of information does not necessarily constitute 'a fact.' Looking at it from another angle, perhaps there's no worry that extreme literal mindedness will lead to an official bean counters' version of reality, since scientists, computer researchers and logicians are showing a marked taste for mysticism and other esoteric arts.
Perhaps we may count Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, eminent Professor of Politics at New York University and Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution among these Millennial figures, who has turned number-crunching into the fine art of discerning oblivion. He has developed a rational choice theory computer model over the past 25 years, which purportedly predicts the future in international relations and politics. In other words, he believes he is cracking the ultimate mystery: time.
Bueno de Mesquita advises Fortune 500 companies, the CIA and the US Department of Defense. Several of his predictions are scarily accurate. From a report at Good Magazine:
The core assumption at the heart of the system is that humans will compete in their self interest. Here is an example of a data set that backs this core assumption. In short, "math underlies the nation-scale consequences of individuals acting for personal benefit" and "every motive has a number.""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.
"The days of the digital watch are numbered," quipped Tom Stoppard. After spending a few hours with Bueno de Mesquita, you might come to believe that so is everything else. Numbered as in "mathematics"-more precisely, game theory, an esoteric branch of mathematics used to analyze interaction. "Game theory is math for how people behave strategically," Bueno de Mesquita says. ...
As one of the foremost scholars of game theory-or "rational choice," as its political-science practitioners prefer to call it-Bueno de Mesquita is at the center of a raging hullabaloo that has taken over some of the most prestigious halls of learning in this country. Exclusive, highly complex mathematically, and messianic in its certainty of universal truths, rational-choice theory is not only changing the way political science is taught, but the way it's defined.
To verify the accuracy of his model, the CIA set up a kind of forecasting face-off that pit predictions from his model against those of Langley's more traditional in-house intelligence analysts and area specialists. "We tested Bueno de Mesquita's model on scores of issues that were conducted in real time-that is, the forecasts were made before the events actually happened," says Stanley Feder, a former high-level CIA analyst. "We found the model to be accurate 90 percent of the time," he wrote. Another study evaluating Bueno de Mesquita's real-time forecasts of 21 policy decisions in the European community concluded that "the probability that the predicted outcome was what indeed occurred was an astounding 97 percent."
As a younger man, he faced a lot of criticism. When he developed the "first attempt at a general mathematical model of international conflict" in the mid-1980s, he was roundly dismissed. Bueno de Mesquita eschews traditional political analyses, which take into account historical, cultural and social factors. The 2001 American Political Science Association meeting featured an intense debate on the games theory approach to quantification of political science (similar methodologies are encroaching on the field of history, which I mentioned in a post here):
Meanwhile, in another trademark Millennial move, Bueno de Mesquita stepped back from partisan political analyses, avoiding bipartisan solutions and seeking nonpartisan explanations of world affairs. Some of his critics maintain that the real silver bullet in Bueno de Mesquita's system is in fact a human aspect. They think the key to the system is the data that Bueno de Mesquita collects in the first place. Hence, the magic lies in a brilliant algorithmic system that really depends on the special talents of Bueno de Mesquita himself: he is an astute interviewer and remarkable observer of people.There is a "hegemonic threat out there," warned John J. Mearsheimer, a noted professor of international relations at the University of Chicago. "This is about the mathematicization of political science," he said.
Bueno de Mesquita publishes his predictions, with data, but does not submit his secret algorithms to the scrutiny of fellow scholars. As a consequence, the mathematical system cannot be held to scholarly standards. He wrote a book in 2009, The Predictioneer's Game. He runs a consultancy in New York City, Mesquita & Roundell, which serves the private sector on issues such as litigation, mergers, acquisitions and regulation; the consultancy even serves private clients.
But the real interest in Bueno de Mesquita's work, for those who follow him, relates to nuclear war, Iran-US relations, Asia, Russia, China, India, Syria, the Great Recession and so on. In 2009, Bueno de Mesquita predicted Iran would not develop the bomb in 2010. The prediction all boiled down to one number: 160. But then again, as the NYT reports,
To me, this sounds like a systematizer's overweening confidence inspired by the seemingly boundless powers of computers. Yet there is something in us that will elude computers and tech; these tools remain our creations and are reflections of ourselves. And so, they carry within them some of the unsolved mysteries of our nature and will mirror those cryptics back at us."I’m not an Iran expert," Bueno de Mesquita told me cheerfully as we walked down his tree-lined street on our way to grab some Burmese food. Indeed, his career has been built on a peculiar concept: If you want to predict political events, wisdom and expertise, deep knowledge of a country’s culture and history, aren’t enough. To forecast the future, you need to be an expert not in statecraft but in the way individual people make decisions. You need “rational actor” game theory.
Looking at Bueno de Mesquita's blank assumptions about self interest, I can't stop thinking of The Fog of War, the 2003 documentary that allowed Robert S. McNamara, the US Secretary of State most associated with the Vietnam War and the domestic protests against it, to muse on statecraft as an elderly man. The documentary constantly portrayed McNamara as a highly intelligent person who had excessive faith in quantified analyses of war and international relations. McNamara rose to prominence through his confident rationalizations of business, then politics, then international politics, and finally war. In retrospect, McNamara insisted that war was a black hole as far as rational (or even irrational) intentions were concerned. He said that rationality will not save us (and presumably, rationality includes self interest):
Years after the Crisis, Castro personally told McNamara in a meeting that there were nuclear warheads already in Cuba during the Crisis; and Castro had sent the order to bomb the United States. McNamara had not known this, or claimed he had not known this. No doubt, Bueno de Mesquita would point to Mutually Assured Destruction as the motivating self-interest that prevented nuclear war back in 1962. This is the conventional wisdom around the Cuban Missile Crisis. But Mutually Assured Destruction was not in play at that time. Castro clearly understood that Cuba would be destroyed if he attacked the United States with nuclear warheads, and he was prepared to go ahead anyway:"I want to say, and this is very important: at the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today. The major lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is this: the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations."
McNamara commented that there are simply too many factors, too many elements at play, for people to be able to discern the catalysts and outcomes of conflict, and it is fundamentally misleading to assume that war, while at play, can be successfully rationalized or analyzed. Even for those who remember personal experiences with war, or for historians, grasping its chaotic enormity is exceedingly difficult. McNamara pleaded for the development and institution of rules of war to try to impose some order on the conduct of armed conflict. But in this film, so shortly before his death in 2009, McNamara conceded that something about organized violence eluded him, and indeed, eludes all of us. Perhaps that is why war exists: it simply cannot be encompassed by any given human system of understanding.It wasn't until January, 1992, in a meeting chaired by Castro in Havana, Cuba, that I learned 162 nuclear warheads, including 90 tactical warheads, were on the island at the time of this critical moment of the crisis. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, and Castro got very angry with me because I said, "Mr. President, let's stop this meeting. This is totally new to me, I'm not sure I got the translation right."
"Mr. President, I have three questions to you. Number one: did you know the nuclear warheads were there? Number two: if you did, would you have recommended to Khrushchev in the face of an U.S. attack that he use them? Number three: if he had used them, what would have happened to Cuba?"
He said, "Number one, I knew they were there. Number two, I would not have recommended to Khrushchev, I did recommend to Khrushchev that they be used. Number three, 'What would have happened to Cuba?' It would have been totally destroyed." That's how close we were.
EM: And he was willing to accept that?
Yes, and he went on to say: "Mr. McNamara, if you and President Kennedy had been in a similar situation, that's what you would have done." I said, "Mr. President, I hope to God we would not have done it. Pull the temple down on our heads? My God!"
See my subsequent post on Bruce Bueno de Mesquita.