Can Science Predict Political Turmoil?

The big brain pundits are engaged in their annual round of new year-predictions about major world events. But if the past is any measure they will fail miserably. A legion of experts on the Middle East failed to predict the rise of the Islamic State, much less the attacks in Paris and elsewhere over the past few weeks. Neither did a generation of Sovietologists foresee that street protests would lead to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and finally the Soviet empire, nor Arabists the Arab Spring, nor international observers the outbreak of World War I. Does the rise of Trump herald an era of home-grown fascism? Human intelligence and vast quantities of metadata seem ill-equipped to help forecast geopolitical events at this scale. Despite decades of sophisticated political science and game theorizing the truth is that we are very bad at anticipating great historic turns. Why?

The obvious answer is that human affairs are simply too complex to be predicted at the scale and precision that political leaders and security officials require. But many complex systems and processes have been modeled well enough to provide a modicum of predictive power. As recent hurricane forecasts have shown meteorology is far from perfect, but surely the French government would have preferred to overreact to a warning than to be caught so unprepared for barbaric attacks. In the next weeks and months extant methods of intelligence gathering will no doubt be intensified and perhaps improved, yet in reality the change will be quantitative rather than qualitative.

Some believe that advances in certain fields, like neuroscience and genetics, combined with traditional disciplines like anthropology and criminology, as well as longstanding arts of observation and analysis, can change the way political forecasting is done. The idea is not entirely new. During the Second —> Read More