The Predictioneer

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

New Scientist has a piece on Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who has successfully branded himself as the predictioneer:

Bueno de Mesquita’s “predictioneering” began in 1979 when he was on a Guggenheim fellowship writing a book about the conditions that lead to war. He had designed a mathematical model to examine the choices people could make and the probability that their actions would result in either diplomacy or war. Like any model, he needed data to test it.

A good opportunity arose when the US State Department asked his opinion about an ongoing political crisis in India. The ruling coalition had become unstable and it was clear that Prime Minister Morarji Desai would be forced to stand down and a new prime minister chosen from within the coalition.

Since his PhD thesis had been on Indian politics, and data on politics didn’t seem a million miles from data on war, Bueno de Mesquita agreed to help. He compiled a list of all the people who would try to influence the appointment of the next prime minister, what their preference was and how much clout they had. He fed this information into his computer programme, asked it to predict how the negotiations would play out and left it to run overnight. His own hunch was that the deputy prime minister, Jagjivan Ram, would take over. Many other experts on Indian politics thought the same thing.

The following morning, he checked the computer and found to his surprise that it was predicting a politician called Chaudhary Charan Singh would be the next prime minister. It also predicted that he would be unable to build a working coalition and so would quickly fall.

When Bueno de Mesquita reported the result to an official at the State Department, he was taken aback. The official said no one else was saying Singh and the result was strange, at best. “When I told him I’d used a computer programme I was designing, he just laughed and urged me not to repeat that to anyone,” says Bueno de Mesquita. A few weeks later, Singh became prime minister. Six months on his government collapsed. “The model had come up with the right answer and I hadn’t,” says Bueno de Mesquita. “Clearly there were two possibilities: the model was just lucky, or I was on to something.”

Three decades later, it is clear that Bueno de Mesquita is on to something.

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