'The true Soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because He loves what is behind him.' -G. K. Chesterton

08 August 2010

Predicting The Future

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is an interesting guy. I watched his special tonight on Discovery and it got me to thinking (Lu is already complaining about the smell of burning hair). He's being called by some the New Nostradamus.

I don't take Nostradamus too seriously. His quatrains are general and obscure enough to be interpreted about any way you want. He's interesting to read but I'm not basing decisions on his prophecy's.

De Mesquita is a little different. Instead of prophecy he relies on mathematics, specifically game theory.

Reportedly he has a good track record but I'm skeptical. In listening to him talk I was bothered when he mentioned how national foreign policy wasn't any different from domestic. All leaders operated basically from a selfish standpoint and made decisions based on their own education, experience and prejudices. I think he right but what struck me was he failed to ascribe these same criteria to the values he inputs into his algorithms where he produces his predictions. Reminded me a little of the AGW models but I may be wrong (BP can explain that better than I can). Everyone is a product of their environment to a greater or lesser extent

There's also the Measurement Problem
"The measurement problem asks how a definite event can arise out of a theory that only predicts a continuous probability for events."

They're talking about quantum physics of course but you get the idea. Measuring something, or in this case predicting something, alters the conditions that were used in the algorithm to make the prediction in the first place. In the short term it may be fairly accurate but it seems to me that the further down a particular line of thought he goes the further from reality he'll get because of the inherent errors that must be present and that will magnify over time.

Isaac Asimov envisioned something similar in his Foundation series with Hari Seldon, the mathematics of Psychohistory and The Mule except that even Asimov recognized the futility of predictions on a small scale. Psychohistory was concerned with masses of people. Micro versus macro. To my mind trying to predict the actions of even countries, much less individuals within those countries no matter how powerful, is dicey at best.

Do predictions affect actions and shape reality? Causality is complicated but it is manifest in our world of imperfect and essentially unpredictable humans. If there is a cause it follows that there will be some effect. A prediction about what a given person or group will do could be construed as a cause but a nation's (or even a ruler's) actions that result (effect) are subject to all the vagaries of human nature. Even contrariness.

The problem is how to know? If a prediction is right Mesquita can point to his math and say "See, I told you so". If he's wrong he can point to his accurate predictions and say "Hey, the math was good. The result was because of bad data I didn't have access to". There's no way to know (bar a confession from one of the principles) if the prediction itself had anything to do with the outcome.

It just seems like snake oil to me. I'm much more inclined to follow the lead of an expert in a given field where his predictions ans suppositions are based on long study and exceptional experience and knowledge. Predictions based on mathematical models sounds a little too much like astrology for my comfort, no matter how smart the proponent.

Or am I wrong?



dick said...

All of them qualify as snake oil.
But like you, I enjoy reading or watching them.
I also enjoy Harry Potter.

The DO said...


Here's his TED talk from '09 (it's about 19 minutes long) and a few things become very clear when you listen to him lecture. The first is that he is highly arrogant, and he confuses his models with wisdom. He claims that the traditional analysis is simply "seat of the pants wisdom", which implies that analyst's aren't really all that smart, and are, in fact, useless. As a former Intel Analyst I think I can tell him where to put his "wisdom". However, leaving the personal aside, there is something more profound going on here.

He speaks several times about manipulation, and that he is selling manipulation, and yet he seems to think that not only is this not a bad thing, but that it is in fact a GOOD thing. Did I mention arrogant yet?

He is also highly hypocritical. He makes the claim that he needs experts (historians) to give him the information his equations need, yet he also claims that he needs no history when making his predictions.


The third point that is obvious is that he is so self assured of his outcome that he has stopped questioning both his means and methods. To put it mildly, he is so in love with what he has created that, even when asked if his predictions themselves could affect the outcome, his belief is that all his input would do is to hasten the inevitable, making the world a better place. His words, not mine.

So, yes, I would say he's on to something here. His computer models do what a human analysts would, it just doesn't have any personal input into the analysis. My problem is that he is so overwhelmingly in love with his own work that he's stopped looking to see if it is becoming a monster.

Hitler was convinced of his own superiority as well. Just 'cause you think you're great doesn't mean you are.

Six said...

Exactly Dick and I ain't buying.

DO. That's great Jen. Dang it, I knew I should have had you write that post. What we need to do is buy this guy a cat, name it Schrodinger and teach it to sit on his shoulder all day and say "You're only as asshole" over and over again.

The DO said...

Nah, I just proved a slightly different point. You had a point that I wouldn't necessarily have seen. That's why this is a more then one person ship:)

Oh, and I can't even train my kids, how am I suppose to train a cat??

Anonymous said...

actually predicting the future is very easy. But trust in the Lord that he is only our savior.