The idea of prediction in the study of international relations has been a persistent thought in my head for some time. Ostensibly, in our (mostly) non-experimental discipline, prediction represents the preeminent demonstration of a theory’s veracity. Of course, this perspective derives from simplistic conceptions of science as practiced in the natural sciences and as a consequence fit poorly with IR. Regressions struggle to develop models that ‘explain’ more than a small percentage of the variance in the dependent variable(s)—making prediction of outcomes nearly impossible. Our discipline defining structural theories also struggle to make more than vague predictions about systemic patterns—Waltz after all rejected the idea that structural realism is a theory of foreign policy, which would commit the theory to a much more exacting level of prediction. Nonetheless, despite the problems with prediction, my sense is that remains with us as an ideal. Continue reading
Some of the big news out of Europe this week surrounded Mario Monti’s upcoming resignation from his current post as Prime Minister of Italy. Recall that Monti became prime minister on November 11, 2011 as the leader of a technocratic government. Monti’s government was charged with beginning to dig Italy out from significant economic turmoil, including record bond spreads and fear that Italy could be the next Greece.
Well, as we learned on Monday morning, Monti is resigning as soon as he passes his budget through the Italian parliament. Why did this occur? Due to the withdrawal of support from Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party. Financial markets were clearly surprised – and that’s rarely a good thing. The key question from the perspective of my ongoing work is whether or not this was predictable.
I don’t follow the news as closely as I should. I am not up on everyone’s blogs. I don’t check the Brookings Institution for every new report it issues. I am a lazy blogger. But I do seem to recall when this whole Libya thing started and didn’t end successfully immediately that all kinds of “foreign policy analysts” came out of the woodwork to say it wouldn’t work, that we were merely facilitating and prolonging a protracted civil war stalemate. We couldn’t will the means that would be necessary.
I say that not because they got the prediction wrong, but rather that they tried to make a prediction at all. I wish we could just admit that we generally have no earthly idea how a civil war, humanitarian intervention, tsunami response, military coup, financial crisis, etc. will work out. I
Eat humble pie, boys. I said, “Eat it!”
am an international relations academic not because I don’t want to be on TV, but because I have a sense of shame and dignity. I simply could not get up in front of millions, or even dozens, of people and claim that I had any notion of how any of those things was going to work out. We can only work out explanations well after the fact when we know what was going on on the ground, what people were thinking, etc. Every social phenomena of interest is simply too complicated. I appreciate it when folks like Steve Saideman tell us the mistakes of the past. But I wouldn’t like it if he predicted the future. And he doesn’t.
I am not going to name names, because I’d have to look them up. Like I said, I’m lazy. But the next time that one of these things happens again, like tomorrow, and someone offers you a prediction of how it will end, respond like this: “Ew, get that away from me. That’s been up your butt.”
What are you watching?
I’m tuned to the History Channel’s “Next Nostradamus“:
Two men sharing startling visions of the future possess distinctly different backgrounds: Michel de Nostradamus was a French apothecary and healer in the 16th century; he would become the most famous seer in history. His 21st century counterpart is Dr. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a renowned political scientist who teaches game theory at New York University and Stanford. While Nostradamus looked to the stars and mysticism to divine his apocalyptic revelations, Dr. Bueno de Mesquita relies on the most omnipotent tool ever designed by man to predict future events: the computer. This special explores not only the commonalities of these men’s visions about World War III, famine and the coming of the Anti-Christ, but it also traces the evolution from mysticism to hard math, and determines whether science has always existed in prophecy, manifesting itself in different forms through the ages.
I was on the phone and watched most of the first hour with the sound off.
However, in addition to Bueno de Mesquita, I know the program also features John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and at least one on-screen appearance each by Ethan Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. Historian Pamela Smith and a few other scholars are also interviewed.
If you missed the program, it is on again at 1 am ET and Saturday December 6 at 5 pm ET. Check it out. You can also buy it.