Can Game Theory Predict Conflict?

New York University’s Bueno de Mesquita presented his research a TED earlier this year and the New York Times Magazine recently featured his work on conflict forecasting. His forthcoming book, “The Predictioneer’s Game,” is written for a popular audience and includes dozens of stories the forecasts he has made over the past 20 years.

Professor de Mesquita has developed a computer model that allegedly predicts the outcome of any situation in which political parties try to persuade or coerce one another.

“Since the early 1980s, C.I.A. officials have hired him to perform more than a thousand predictions; a study by the C.I.A., now declassified, found that Bueno de Mesquita’s predictions ‘hit the bull’s-eye’ twice as often as its own analysts did.”

That’s not saying much if the CIA’s accuracy was miniscule to begin with. In any case, vaccording to de Mesquita’s calculations, Iran won’t be making a nuclear bomb. His forecast suggests that Iran will get very close to developing one, but will then cease from going any further.

If his predictions are correct, then all the “dire portents we’ve seen in recent months—the brutal crackdown on protesters, the dubious confessions, Khamenei’s accusations of American subterfuge—are masking a tectonic shift. The moderates are winning, even if we cannot see that yet.”

Critics of de Mesquita’s work argue that “the proprietary software he uses can’t be trusted and may cast doubt on the larger enterprise of making predictions.” I tend to be sceptical about people in the business of making predictions. What I find surprising about de Mesquita’s predictions on Iran is the apparent lack of reference to the recent violence. Why didn’t his model correctly predicted the election fiasco and political wrestling that ensued?


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