Monday, December 1, 2008

Latter-day Nostradamus?

The phenomenally named Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is a political scientist at NYU and fellow at the well-known conservative think tank the Hoover Institution at Stanford. He has advised the CIA and Department of Defense. Recently, he has been heralded as a latter-day Nostradamus. The History Channel has a perplexing show called "Next Nostradamus", drawing silly comparisons between Bueno de Mesquita and Michel de Nostradamus, the 16th century French seer. Good magazine ran a considerably better profile on Bueno de Mesquita last year with a similar title "The New Nostradamus". You would think comparisons to Nostradamus would rankle a man devoted to bringing mathematics and scientific rigor to policy and politics. Maybe it does and he just wants to be on television, I don't know.

In any case, Bueno de Mesquita has developed a proprietary algorithm premised on rational choice/game theory to make predictions about the world. Game theory, the effort to mathematically explain behavior in strategic situations, was famously depicted in the Academy Award winning movie A Beautiful Mind about John Nash, one of the theory's well-known advocates. Bueno de Mesquita's predictions have been right on a variety of issues including the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and the Belfast Agreement in Northern Ireland. His model may have also been famously wrong (I don't know), but he seems to have an impressive track record - the Good article cites studies putting his accuracy above 90%. Our government has brokered a deal on North Korea's nuclear program (dismantle not disarm) similar to Bueno de Mesquita's algorithm-guided proposal. His solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis - a mutual incentive structure based on tourism money - would seem more difficult to implement.

I am all for a rational, calculated foreign policy. I don't know the full scope of Bueno de Mesquita's foreign policy thoughts or proposals (though it does seem a little strange that a foreign policy realist would share a think tank with Donald Rumsfeld). Here's a podcast he did in August on threats to America. He's an interesting guy with an interesting, provocative theory. I don't think he's the next or the new Nostradamus. You're better off looking for that person on street corners of large cities.

(image credit: Ethan Hill, goodmagazine.com)