In the future, we're still all raging dirtbags.
December 4, 2007 10:27 AM   Subscribe

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita uses rational choice theory to predict the future.
posted by anotherpanacea (55 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hari Seldon?
posted by matthewr at 10:30 AM on December 4, 2007 [2 favorites]


Amazing. Sounds like it's time for me to change psychics. Where can I get this guy's e-mail? You think he's booked up?
posted by dead_ at 10:36 AM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


If you listen to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, and a lot of people don’t, he’ll claim that mathematics can tell you the future. In fact, the professor says that a computer model he built and has perfected over the last 25 years can predict the outcome of virtually any international conflict, provided the basic input is accurate. What’s more, his predictions are alarmingly specific. His fans include at least one current presidential hopeful, a gaggle of Fortune 500 companies, the CIA, and the Department of Defense.

ERROR: OVERFLOW IN BUFFER 2134. PLEASE INCREASE PARAMETER "NUMBER OF RIDICULOUS STATEMENTS ALLOWABLE PER PARAGRAPH".
posted by DU at 10:38 AM on December 4, 2007 [4 favorites]


Haven't we been through all this before?
posted by cytherea at 10:42 AM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


Um, I don't know. The examples they give in the end of the article are just not all that compelling. China's hardliners will crack down harshly on dissenters? Surprise!
posted by nasreddin at 10:42 AM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


After extensive number-crunching and analysis, with intimate modelling of commenter's actions, motives, and rewards, I can accurately predict that this will not wendell.
posted by suckerpunch at 10:44 AM on December 4, 2007 [3 favorites]


His fans include at least one current presidential hopeful, a gaggle of Fortune 500 companies, the CIA, and the Department of Defense.

So does this mean that Bruce counts the current debacle in Iraq on his list of successful predictions, or was the DoD not a fan of his at the time?
posted by dead_ at 10:45 AM on December 4, 2007


Where can I get this guy's e-mail? You think he's booked up?

E-mail's in the first link. For $50,000 he'll answer two questions. And here's why you'd think the money well-spent:

His first foray into forecasting controversy took place in 1984, when he published an article in PS, the flagship journal of the American Political Science Association, predicting who would succeed Iran’s ruling Ayatollah Khomeini upon his death. He had developed a rudimentary forecasting model that was different from anything anyone had seen before in that it was not designed around one particular foreign-policy problem, but could be applied to any international conflict. “It was the first attempt at a general mathematical model of international conflict,” he says. His model predicted that upon Khomeini’s death, an ayatollah named Hojatolislam Khamenei and an obscure junior cleric named Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would emerge to lead the country together. At the time, Rafsanjani was so little known that his name had yet to appear in the New York Times.

Even more improbably, Khomeini had already designated his successor, and it was neither Ayatollah Khamenei nor Rafsanjani. Khomeini’s stature among Iran’s ruling clerics made it inconceivable that they would defy their leader’s choice. At the APSA meeting subsequent to the article’s publication, Bueno de Mesquita was roundly denounced as a quack by the Iran experts—a charlatan peddling voodoo mathematics. “They said I was an idiot, basically. They said my work was evil, offensive, that it should be suppressed,” he recalls. “It was a very difficult time in my career.” Five years later, when Khomeini died, lo and behold, Iran’s fractious ruling clerics chose Ayatollah Khamenei and Hashemi Rafsanjani to jointly lead the country. At the next APSA meeting, the man who had been Bueno de Mesquita’s most vocal detractor raised his hand and publicly apologized to him.

posted by anotherpanacea at 10:45 AM on December 4, 2007


To dissuade a bit of the inevitable bashing that comes with these posts, Bueno de Mesquita does really amazing work in political science, and, unsurprisingly, the article is a little bombastic and somewhat overstates the case. He is a game theorist, which gives him a really interesting perspective on world affairs, from the article:
Recently, he’s applied his science to come up with some novel ideas on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “In my view, it is a mistake to look for strategies that build mutual trust because it ain’t going to happen. Neither side has any reason to trust the other, for good reason,” he says. “Land for peace is an inherently flawed concept because it has a fundamental commitment problem. If I give you land on your promise of peace in the future, after you have the land, as the Israelis well know, it is very costly to take it back if you renege. You have an incentive to say, ‘You made a good step, it’s a gesture in the right direction, but I thought you were giving me more than this. I can’t give you peace just for this, it’s not enough.’ Conversely, if we have peace for land—you disarm, put down your weapons, and get rid of the threats to me and I will then give you the land—the reverse is true: I have no commitment to follow through. Once you’ve laid down your weapons, you have no threat.”

Bueno de Mesquita’s answer to this dilemma, which he discussed with the former Israeli prime minister and recently elected Labor leader Ehud Barak, is a formula that guarantees mutual incentives to cooperate. “In a peaceful world, what do the Palestinians anticipate will be their main source of economic viability? Tourism. This is what their own documents say. And, of course, the Israelis make a lot of money from tourism, and that revenue is very easy to track. As a starting point requiring no trust, no mutual cooperation, I would suggest that all tourist revenue be [divided by] a fixed formula based on the current population of the region, which is roughly 40 percent Palestinian, 60 percent Israeli. The money would go automatically to each side. Now, when there is violence, tourists don’t come. So the tourist revenue is automatically responsive to the level of violence on either side for both sides. You have an accounting firm that both sides agree to, you let the U.N. do it, whatever. It’s completely self-enforcing, it requires no cooperation except the initial agreement by the Israelis that they are going to turn this part of the revenue over, on a fixed formula based on population, to some international agency, and that’s that.”
posted by blahblahblah at 10:48 AM on December 4, 2007


Also, an interesting paper of his where he tests the idea of democratic peace, that democracies do not go to war with each other. It also shows how he is applying fairly rigorous methods to political science.
posted by blahblahblah at 10:56 AM on December 4, 2007


Yeah, I thought this was really interesting—games theory splits the difference between the two big IR schools, that of realists/conservatives and structuralists/liberals.

Ultimately, I can't help but see this take over the "science" part of political science, but I'd think that there're still powerful Continental theory critiques available, mostly because the nature of large political questions is fairly intractable—defining "justice" is still incredibly hard, and the questions about what constitutes a just ordering of a contentious pluralistic society are still both important and inherently outside the purview of modelling (they're the "assumptions" that shape structures).

But all of this makes me wish that I had a better grounding in statistics and game theory. Ah well, maybe in grad school.
posted by klangklangston at 10:57 AM on December 4, 2007


can predict the outcome of virtually any international conflict, provided the basic input is accurate

And therein lies the rub.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:59 AM on December 4, 2007


anotherpanacea, I did read that in the article, but I'm not convinced.

That Bruce de Mesquita managed to predict the next leader of Iran doesn't impress me much. The article trumpets that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's name hadn't yet been in the New York Times, but what does that tell us? Not much, especially considering that Mesquita, and those studying Iranian politics, would be very familiar with Rafsanjani--after all, he was the first speaker of the Majils of Iran, not exactly your obscure politician.

This isn't to say that his models in rational choice are trash or that the specific prediction on Iran is bogus--quite the contrary, there is a lot to learn from Mesquita and from game theory. It is important to note, however, that he isn't predicting the future, nor is he 100 percent accurate. His estimation of international relations is just one way to look at an incredibly complex system, and to rely completely on it--as this article seems to want to convince us--would be folly.

Plus, his predictions just aren't really that compelling, for me.
posted by dead_ at 10:59 AM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


realists/conservatives

*spittake*
posted by DU at 11:01 AM on December 4, 2007


it requires no cooperation except the initial agreement by the Israelis that they are going to turn this part of the revenue over, on a fixed formula based on population, to some international agency, and that’s that.

Heh.
posted by dead_ at 11:06 AM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


His fans include at least one current presidential hopeful,

Ron Paul? It's gotta be Ron Paul.
posted by inigo2 at 11:12 AM on December 4, 2007


realists/conservatives

DU: *spittake*"


'Conservatives' are called 'realists' or 'neorealists' in political science. It's just shorthand, in keeping with the academic habit of coming up with entirely new names for things that nobody uses.
posted by koeselitz at 11:17 AM on December 4, 2007


Economists wailing about how such-an-such a crash "Could only happen once in a hojillion years according to the model" to thread.
posted by bonaldi at 11:28 AM on December 4, 2007


How come we only hear about the predictions that came true? I'd love to see the list of predictions that did not come true and his current crop of near future predictions.
posted by ranchocalamari at 11:30 AM on December 4, 2007


I figured that must be it. Didn't keep my take from spitting, though.
posted by DU at 11:31 AM on December 4, 2007


Full disclosure: I'm really, really uncomfortable with predictive rational choice theory. All the objections about incomplete information, lack of normative scope, and observer/participant problems pale before my anxiety that something essential about my freedom is lost when it can be reduced to a statistical abstraction that is nonetheless accurate. That's why I love black swans, emergent events, and secret revolutions so very much.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:32 AM on December 4, 2007 [2 favorites]


I think the problem here is the author, not the mathematician. It's a classic case of Bad Science Writing.

Also, his tourism idea isn't all that great. For one thing, who would get the money? Hamas or Fatah? And what about money going to Hamas from Saudi Arabia and such? Couldn't that money exceed tourism revenues? In that case, what sense would there be in Hamas agreeing?

And on the Israeli side, why would they agree to such a program? They get lots of money from the US, and also have a high-tech sector

But there are limits to what his company will do. For example, Bueno de Mesquita may already know, but he won’t say who’ll succeed George W. Bush in the White House. “We have a corporate policy that we will not, on a commercial basis, use the model in campaigns,” he says. “We don’t think it’s appropriate to manipulate the democratic process.

More likely, he just doesn't want to be seen as 'political'. That would be damaging, since most of his clients are in government or high up in the corporate food chain.
posted by delmoi at 11:33 AM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


11:15, restate my assumptions: 1. Mathematics is the language of nature. 2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. 3. If you graph these numbers, patterns emerge. Therefore: Predicting the future and cherrypicking instances where those predictions turned out to be correct will lead to widespread publicity from a publication that really should know better.
posted by Mayor West at 11:33 AM on December 4, 2007 [5 favorites]


A shame there was no mention of Kahneman and Tversky's work when mentioning those against rational choice theory.
posted by hopeless romantique at 11:36 AM on December 4, 2007


I just flip a coin, or if it's something really complicated I use a magic eight ball.
posted by Elmore at 11:38 AM on December 4, 2007


His solution to the Palestinian problem is an old one. After the Crusader state of Jerusalem fell to Muslims, there was no real impetus to take it back because they were so hospitable to pilgrims (tourists), because they could make money charging to see shrines. In fact one could extend this to what's happened to Europe, it's become a giant tourist venue which helps maintain the peace.
posted by stbalbach at 11:39 AM on December 4, 2007


“You configure those motives into equations that are, essentially, statements of logic based on a predictive theory of how people with those motives will behave.”

That there is the tricky part. Getting all the data, deriving what the political actors want and translating those real world variables into a formal system. And of course, keeping partisanship out of it, eliminating the rhetoric, that’s the killer.

Successfully doing that last bit alone, and maintaining that discipline within an organization would naturally lead to a more successful and realistic analysis, whatever the methodology.

As it is, there’s way too much cowboy in intelligence analysis.
Easy as pie to derive accurate specific predictions from accurate data (“Bin Laden determined to attack within the U.S.” and so forth), but if you screen that with a political agenda or partisan filter you get “no one could have predicted 9/11.”

I’d argue you can’t get the “flavor” for lack of a better word, of how events will unreel without cultural considerations and so forth (which would govern the nature of your intercession, if any), but on the large scale, sure, calculating how people will act based on their self-interest is fairly obvious a thing to model.
Figuring out what someone determines to be in their self-interest (apart from obvious economic factors) is the tough part of deriving your assumptions.
But it appears that’s what most of his accurate predictions were based on (e.g. it’s obvious what the IRA wanted, obvious what Britain wanted, Andropov -given the war in Afghanistan, his economic agenda, especially with all the state secrets he held, tougher to leave him out than to put him in charge). Pull the self-beguiling rhetoric from those situations, the predictions become fairly clear.
...oh, I’m not saying I could do it m’self, and I’m a bit at odds with hammering down any specific solutions derived solely from this method, but y’know, it’s not magic rabbit out of a hat type stuff, which, yeah, the author seems at pains to make it into.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:41 AM on December 4, 2007


Did anybody read the original Iran paper? The citation is:

Forecasting Policy Decisions: An Expected Utility Approach to Post-Khomeini Iran
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita
PS, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Spring, 1984), pp. 226-236,

where PS is the name of the journal. I don't have jstor so I can't see it. Given that this is his big claim to fame I would like to see what the model looks like. Google scholar has it cited 5 times, so not that groundbreaking.
posted by shothotbot at 11:43 AM on December 4, 2007


Is it just me, or do all of the predictions boil down to "Well, what would an absolute son of a bitch do?"
posted by shmegegge at 11:45 AM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, I really like Bueno de Mesquita's work, although I think he's a bit of a charlatan if he really sells answers for $25,000 apiece. (I guess if people are willing to pay for it...) He brings a much-needed change of perspective to political science, a field which has long been dominated by somewhat rational but generally unuseful categorizations like 'realist' and 'structuralist.' I believe his work is altogether valid, if not in any way new; the mathematization is just a formalization of something which is coeval with human society. For example, rational choice theory is on bold display in Xenophon's Cyropaedia, which, hundreds of years BC, had Cyrus considering deeply the ramifications of what might be in any given person's best interest. Mearsheimer and Walt, two leading lights of Political Science who are the more vocal critics listed in the last linked article, show their true colors in this statement of Mearsheimer:

I’m in favor of filling the zoo with all kinds of animals. But I’m concerned about them running us out of the business or making us marginal.

I don't doubt that both of them, as 'diametrically opposed' as their views are supposed to be by the poli sci establishment, worry more about keeping their jobs than about accepting a pretty considerable theory. But that's academia for you.

On the other hand, there are limitations to rational choice theory, and it's surprising to me that they aren't highlighted more. (Maybe they are; I've been out of the loop for a while.) Most of them have to do with the definition of "rational choice." It's true that people act more rationally in their own interest than any of us tend to suppose; we're more likely to write people off as irrational than we ought to be, and even people like Kim Jong Il and Ayatollah Khomeini make choices based on their rational consideration of the options and of their interests. But rational choice theory stops short of considering what interests they should have, and it stops short of helping us to decide what our interests are. It can go far if it can determine what an actor might think is in that actor's best interest, but it doesn't even attempt an investigation into what political good means. That's the highest purpose that political philosophy has, in my estimation, and it's still sadly neglected.
posted by koeselitz at 11:45 AM on December 4, 2007


Since almost all political outcomes have an effect on global markets, he should start investing based on his outcomes. Once he's made a billion dollars doing this, people WILL pay attention.

My own modeler however, which I received at birth, predicts that the above is not likely to occur.
posted by vacapinta at 11:45 AM on December 4, 2007


do the math. lol.
posted by ZachsMind at 11:53 AM on December 4, 2007


Ultimately, I can't help but see this take over the "science" part of political science

No real danger of that, if you view it as bad.

Rational-choice theory is good for situations that are relatively high-stakes for all actors. Then you can appeal to pseudoevolutionary forces that drive out players who behave too irrationally -- the world punishes you if you screw up.

But it's usually a terrible tool for analyzing mass politics, because almost everything in mass politics is very low-stakes for any individual citizen -- the impact of your vote on your welfare is negligible compared to your decisions over what to pick at the Chinese food buffet. It's even worse when you look at raw opinion statements, where there's no conceivable consequence for getting it wrong. Social-psychological accounts that treat political choices as largely expressive instead of fully instrumental do a lot better job.

Or other things. There was a paper posted to polmeth (an extra-dorky political science mailing list) the other day that found genetic markers for a higher propensity to vote. Something to do with serotonin, IIRC.

but I'd think that there're still powerful Continental theory critiques available, mostly because the nature of large political questions is fairly intractable

The best they could do is talk past each other.

I predict that X will happen.
*But X would be bad for these reasons.
Okay. I predict that it will happen.
*But would it be just?
Beats me. I'm just predicting its occurrence, not advocating it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:54 AM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


anotherpanacea: All the objections about incomplete information, lack of normative scope, and observer/participant problems pale before my anxiety that something essential about my freedom is lost when it can be reduced to a statistical abstraction that is nonetheless accurate.

I think that's the absolute wrong way to think about this. There's only one reason this model uses statistics and mathematics: because those things make it easier to order the information and look at it. That doesn't mean it's any kind of innovation. I don't doubt that, when Muhammad looked into abu Bakr's eyes and wondered whether he could be convinced to recite the second half of the Shahadah, he did all of these calculations instantaneously: What is the likelihood that his family will follow him? What is the likelihood that his friend will follow him? What is the likelihood that he will base his decision on these things? What is the likelihood that he admires the truth of my prophecy? What is the likelihood, based on past action, that he will be benefitted materially? What is the likelihood that he views such benefit as net benefit? and in the space of an instant, Muhammad knew that abu Bakr would intone the holy words. Muhammad was a man great practical wisdom, and this probably came very naturally to him.

This is nothing new. What is new is useless leaders and committees being able to use what was previously an art practiced by those who were generally wiser than they, though it by no means requires a prophet. The practically wise have always been able to make such calculations; far from removing our freedom, they rather enrich it by allowing us to understand more clearly what it looks like when we act rationally.
posted by koeselitz at 11:57 AM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


shothotbot, check your MeFi mail.
posted by topynate at 12:12 PM on December 4, 2007


"On the other hand, there are limitations to rational choice theory, and it's surprising to me that they aren't highlighted more. (Maybe they are; I've been out of the loop for a while.) Most of them have to do with the definition of "rational choice." It's true that people act more rationally in their own interest than any of us tend to suppose; we're more likely to write people off as irrational than we ought to be, and even people like Kim Jong Il and Ayatollah Khomeini make choices based on their rational consideration of the options and of their interests. But rational choice theory stops short of considering what interests they should have, and it stops short of helping us to decide what our interests are. It can go far if it can determine what an actor might think is in that actor's best interest, but it doesn't even attempt an investigation into what political good means. That's the highest purpose that political philosophy has, in my estimation, and it's still sadly neglected."

I think there are two good observations in here, one of which I tried to make upthread. The first, which you hit and I didn't, is the limitations of rational action—economics has been up against this for years, in that people (while responding broadly to incentives) don't necessarily make rational decisions, even when they have nearly "perfect" information.

And my sidelong mention of "Continental" was meant to evoke the critiques of Rawls's rational liberals.

The second is what ROU replied to me about, the prescriptive value. I think that Mesquita has incredible descriptive value, but I've always been much more interested in the politics of what makes something right than quantifying what exists (which is likely tied to my lack of math skillz), and that's something that these predictive models can't give us—a vision for what we want as a people, though they're tremendously valuable in terms of practical strategies.
posted by klangklangston at 12:35 PM on December 4, 2007


“What is new is useless leaders and committees being able to use what was previously an art practiced by those who were generally wiser than they...”

I agree with the sentiment (and your other comments) but I dunno if that’s exactly new.
Perhaps not taken to the absurd and refined heights as it is today though. But yeah, simple philosophical analysis which seeks clarification of the questions seems foreign lately.
Maybe we need another Thales to clarify the use of observation and analysis. Maybe do the modern equivalent of predicting an ecliplse to shut down a war, corner the market on olive oil, something like that. Modern political discourse (in the U.S.) is almost entirely dogmatic.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:50 PM on December 4, 2007


(Btw - the raging dirtbag - hell of a vaccum cleaner. Damn fine performance by DiNiro as well)
posted by Smedleyman at 12:52 PM on December 4, 2007


What is new is useless leaders and committees being able to use what was previously an art practiced by those who were generally wiser than they, though it by no means requires a prophet.

It's not clear to me how the increased effectiveness of bureaucracies doesn't translate into reduced freedom for me. If political engagement is an important public good (and I believe it is) then bureaucratic predictiveness will lead to a maldistribution in that good: statisticians will get more of it, and regular folks less. If a formula always comes up with better decisions than I and my fellow citizens do, I think we'd all rather that the formula and its statistician-caretakers do the governing. That kind of proceduralism takes the average citizen out of the picture, or rather reduces her to a datapoint alongside others.

Rational choice theory promises us a world in which decisions are easily calculable, their results precisely calibrated. The right choice would then be the one given by a calculation, not a decision taken by a free agent. We might wrangle over values and normative claims, but even these disputes can often be solved by making utility maximizing decisions that remove either-or decisions and make them both-and decisions: if we need not choose between our values, our pluralism can go unchallenged.

The practically wise have always been able to make such calculations; far from removing our freedom, they rather enrich it by allowing us to understand more clearly what it looks like when we act rationally.

I see the problem: I disagree with your claims about phronesis. Practical wisdom doesn't give one predictive powers, it allows one to surf that wave between the good and the possible that is characterized by intense risk and unforeseeability. I don't want to act 'rationally,' according to a ratio or pre-ordained measure: I want to act wisely, i.e. with a view towards a Good that we can all only see in part. Those endowed with great practical wisdom ask: how can I act in a way that every model would call contrary to 'self-interest,' that can rocket us out of the one realm of calculation and into another? This will involve a great deal of reasoning, measuring, and calculating, but it should also entail a risk, a chance, fortuna out of which virtu can appear.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:10 PM on December 4, 2007 [2 favorites]


"Predicted China’s reclaiming of Hong Kong and the exact manner the handover would take place, 12 years before it happened."

er... wasn't Hong Kong always due to be handed back after the 99 year treaty???
posted by leibniz at 1:14 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


rational choice theory is based upon preferences, but i've not seen a lot of academic work based on how preferences change and develop, and how one rational choice taken affects how future preferences change. In other words, how do "we become what we do." or how "Our actions flow from our character and our character is formed by our actions."

And what are the moral implications of such knowledge?

There is a large body of non-academic work on how to change preferences, despite economists' washing their hands of the problem. PR is big money, and increasingly used by the two US political parties to manipulate candidates to office. Therein lies the fear of this beautifully predictive tool as a threat to democracy; it only seems to give more of an edge to those who have it already.
posted by eustatic at 1:20 PM on December 4, 2007



Full disclosure: I'm really, really uncomfortable with predictive rational choice theory. All the objections about incomplete information, lack of normative scope, and observer/participant problems pale before my anxiety that something essential about my freedom is lost when it can be reduced to a statistical abstraction that is nonetheless accurate. That's why I love black swans, emergent events, and secret revolutions so very much.
Lived reality is spectacularly fragmented and labeled in biological, sociological or other categories which, while being related to the communicable, never communicate anything but facts emptied of their authentically lived content. It is in this sense that hierarchical power, imprisoning everyone in the objective mechanism of privative appropriation, is also a dictatorship over subjectivity. It is as a dictator over subjectivity that it strives, with limited chances of success, to force each individual subjectivity to become objectivized, that is, to become an object it can manipulate ...

Facts are deprived of content in the name of the communicable, in the name of an abstract universality, in the name of a perverted harmony in which everyone realizes himself in an inverted perspective. ...

Within a fragment set up as a totality, each further fragment is itself totalitarian. Sensitivity, desire, will, intelligence, good taste, the subconscious and all the categories of the ego were treated as absolutes by individualism. Today sociology is enriching the categories of psychology, but the introduction of variety into the roles merely accentuates the monotony of the identification reflex. The freedom of the "survivor" will be to assume the abstract constituent to which he has "chosen" to reduce himself. Once any real realization has been put out of the picture, all that remains is a psychosociological dramaturgy in which interiority functions as a safety-valve, as an overflow to drain off the effects one has worn for the daily exhibition. Survival becomes the ultimate stage of life organized as the mechanical reproduction of memory.

- Raoul Vaneigem, "Basic Banalities" [sorry for the obscurity]
The tendency toward psychological collectivization does not have man's welfare as its end. It is designed just as well for his exploitation. In today's world, psychological collectivization is the sine qua non of technical action. Munson says: "By building the morale of the troops, we are trying to increase their yield, to substitute enthusiastic self-discipline for forced obedience, to stimulate their will and their attention - in short, we are pursuing success." There he gives us the key to the kind of psychological action: the yield is greater when man acts from consent, rather than constraint. The problem then is to get the individual's consent artificially through depth psychology, since he will not give it of his own free will. But the decision to give consent must appear to be spontaneous. Anyone who prates about furnishing man an ideal or a faith to live by is helping to bring about technique's ascendancy, however much he talks about "good will." The "ideal" becomes so through the agency of purely technical means whose purpose is to enable men to support an insupportable situation created within the framework of technical culture. This attitude is not the antithesis of the humanistic attitude; the two are interwoven and it is completely artificial to try to separate them.

Human activity in the technical milieu must correspond to this milieu and also must be collective. It must belong to the order of the conditioned reflex. Complete human discipline must respond to technical necessity. And as the technical milieu concerns all men, no mere handful of them but the totality of society is to be conditioned in this way. The reflex must be a collective one. As Munson says "In peacetime, morale building aims at creating among the troops the state of mental receptivity which makes them susceptible to every psychological excitation of wartime." And this "receptivity" must also be installed in every other human group in the technical culture, and especially in the masses of the workers.

Psychological conditioning presupposes collectivity, for masses of men are more receptive to suggestion than individuals, and, as we have seen, suggestion is one of the most important weapons in the psychological arsenal. At the same time, the masses are intolerant and think everything must be black or white. This results from the moral categories imposed by technique and is possible only if the masses are of a single mind and if countercurrents are not permitted to form.

- Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society
posted by nasreddin at 1:46 PM on December 4, 2007


Ah, "BDM" (as my professor called him). His international relations textbook was the first one I read in my undergrad poli sci major. I liked it a lot. Made good sense. Never got too far into his line of thinking though, because I preferred Plato to preference orders.
posted by PhatLobley at 2:19 PM on December 4, 2007


That's why I love black swans, emergent events, and secret revolutions so very much.

When Taleb refers to a black swan he is talking about no one knowing the entire range of statistical possibilities which makes it impossible to calculate variance and probability. I'm not sure how this intersects with rational choice theory. The model assumes a limited array of possibilities. No doubt someone could imagine a range of possible actions that defy prediction but as ROU_Xenophobe mentioned, game theory works best with high stakes. This presupposes that each actor has a highly favored outcome and that outcome can be known. I suspect that massively reduces the variables that need to be considered.

---

It can go far if it can determine what an actor might think is in that actor's best interest, but it doesn't even attempt an investigation into what political good means. That's the highest purpose that political philosophy has, in my estimation, and it's still sadly neglected.

I don't think the fact-value distinction is absolute but this is one field where it doesn't make sense to look for insight into what we ought to value. These people are not the ones to attempt that investigation.

---

Rational choice theory promises us a world in which decisions are easily calculable, their results precisely calibrated. The right choice would then be the one given by a calculation, not a decision taken by a free agent. We might wrangle over values and normative claims, but even these disputes can often be solved by making utility maximizing decisions that remove either-or decisions and make them both-and decisions: if we need not choose between our values, our pluralism can go unchallenged.

Yes, but as others have stated only if you give their personal predispositions appropriate weight. And the lower stakes the decision is, the more likely the weight given to each value can shift with the person's mood. Kahneman and Tversky's claims could be reconciled with rational choice if the values were ranked appropriately. But since those values are unknown it would have no predictive value.

Taking rational choice to the level of bureaucratic control means ignoring the individual and adopting utilitarian ethics for every decision. I don't think rational choice would correlate very well with our behavior at higher levels of resolution.

The comments about practical wisdom are valid but it seems they are incompatible. So what good is this, eh?
posted by BigSky at 2:34 PM on December 4, 2007


OH WOW IT'S LIKE FOUNDATION EXCEPT that this guy isn't really taking very much into account and the time scale is retardedly short and it's all really just a crock of shit and awwwwwwww...
posted by tehloki at 3:12 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


Rational choice theory promises us a world in which decisions are easily calculable, their results precisely calibrated.

No, it doesn't. It promises a world in which I can sometimes predict your behavior when your behavior is particularly instrumental.

The right choice would then be the one given by a calculation, not a decision taken by a free agent.

No, the predicted choice is then the one that seems most consistent, from here and to us, with the goals that we posit you have as a free agent. We could easily be wrong about what your goals are. We could easily have a different understanding than you do about how your choices map to outcomes.

There is no right choice, only a predicted choice. If we're wrong about those things above, you won't have made the wrong choice; we will have made the wrong prediction.

There is no assumption that people actually make these calculations, only that their behavior is broadly consistent with those calculations.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:35 PM on December 4, 2007


It promises a world in which I can sometimes predict your behavior when your behavior is particularly instrumental.

Insofar as rational choice is just a really complicated preference ordering, I'm not at all troubled by them. It's only when people start making predictive claims that border on the prophetic that I worry about them, like claiming that some Illinois State Senator was going to be the first black president in 1999. It seems Bueno de Mesquita is making predictions with uncanny accuracy and in conflict with the consensus, like predicting that, based on all the white swans we've seen, there must be black swans in the southern hemisphere. That's... I want to say uncanny, but what I mean is unheimlich.

If we're wrong about those things above, you won't have made the wrong choice; we will have made the wrong prediction.

Yes, of course. But the intersection of polling data and predictive technologies already contribute to a drastic narrowing of political outcomes in US elections. The capacity to know becomes the requirement to know. This is the very reason that Bueno de Mesquita refuses to handicap elections.

BTW, I'm not an expert on rational choice theory, either from the political science side or from philosophy, so I'd be curious to understand how Bueno de Mesquita is viewed among his colleagues. Puff pieces in puff magazines aside, he must have a good deal of respect to chair NYU, no?
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:14 PM on December 4, 2007


It seems Bueno de Mesquita is making predictions with uncanny accuracy and in conflict with the consensus

If I had to guess, I'd say that has more to do with the consensus sometimes being very wrong, especially when you're talking about area-studies people who are strongly invested in their object of study. This means more that Iran experts screwed up, just like all of those soviet experts who were didn't mention anything about the Warsaw Pact's impending breakup.

But the intersection of polling data and predictive technologies already contribute to a drastic narrowing of political outcomes in US elections.

That has essentially nothing to do with rational choice theory, since individual-level rational choice models do a terrible job. Voting seems to be far more expressive than instrumental. This is part of why you see people voting for Nader and Perot.

he must have a good deal of respect to chair NYU, no?

To be hired by NYU, you'd need to be very good at what you do.

To be chair, maybe, maybe not. I don't know much about the internal politics at NYU, but being chair is not usually a sought-after prize for being the most respected person. More commonly, it's a crappy paperwork-filled job where you constantly have to make your colleagues unhappy because there are never enough resources to do everything everyone wants to do. That is, some places, being chair is good, other places it's just your turn in the barrel.

As far as rational-choice theory and theorists getting respect goes, it works sort of like this:

Among people who study American politics, using it or not isn't any big deal. Some do, some don't, and it's more a matter of what you were trained in than anything else, since doing good work that you were never trained to do is a long, hard slog of self-education. But, nearly all work in American politics takes a quantitative approach, except when there's not enough data or to use case studies as illustrations. There might have been a contest a long time ago, and quant methods won, and rational-choice theory won acceptance but not dominance.

Among people studying international relations, it's not a big deal, and you see a mix of people using a mix of methods. Some rational-choice, some not. Some quantitative, some not, or at least some less so. They seem to be less focused on methodological disputes -- more that they never bothered to have the methodological war that quant methods won in American -- but I don't do that, so I wouldn't swear to it.

Among people studying comparative politics, methods are a hot-button issue. If you were looking for a job, using quantitative methods or rational-choice theory would get your application thrown out at some departments, and would be a de facto requirement at others. Other departments have comparativists from both camps holding long-running, nasty grudges against each other.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:14 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


What I meant to ask was this: is BDM hot shit in political science? This was a puff piece, but it makes it sound like he's head-and-shoulders better than his nearest competition, especially with all the CIA consultations saying he's 90% accurate. Some of my best friends are all in political theory, meaning that they basically push back on all quantitative work about equally, but you've sort of outed yourself as formal theorist of some sort, so I'm hoping you (or someone) can clue us in. Is BDM the next big thing or just fodder for another breathless piece of amateur science journalism?
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:31 PM on December 4, 2007


He's not "hot shit." Maybe he's "the young contender" or "the stirrer of the pot." Very much in vogue with some departments. However, the "hot shit" people are more the people that the last article quotes as criticising him for being too narrow: people like Mearsheimer and Walt.

But his work is certainly respected. The leaders in the field tend to criticize departmental dominance, not the rigor of the method.
posted by koeselitz at 5:37 PM on December 4, 2007


I want access to his model. Think of it this way: take someone who's motives are unclear. You've got a set of potential motives for that person. Plug a motive into your model in order to predict something that's already happened. The most likely motive is the one that best predicted observed outcomes. Now you've got a bullshit peeler!
posted by agent at 5:51 PM on December 4, 2007


ach...whose...
posted by agent at 6:04 PM on December 4, 2007


I do American, not IR, but I am an actual political scientist in the wild.

BDM is emphatically hot shit, and isn't a young anything in IR.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:07 PM on December 4, 2007


Can someone give a short description of how he makes these calculations? I'm having a really hard time believing he isn't anything but a bullshit artist, espiecially with those 90% correct numbers coming from "the CIA."
posted by afu at 7:35 PM on December 4, 2007


I read through the old Iran paper (thanks topyNate!) and it boiled down to

1) ask (the derided) experts to come up with a numerical power estimation of each interest group in Iran, and there were 20 or so.
2) same experts need to gauge each groups a) position on an an issue, again numerically and b) the importance of the issue to that group.
3) if you have all that information and its right, you can multiply through and figure out who is going to win.

This was 25 years ago, but I have a job so I am not going to go through his whole oeuvre, but it sounds like an organizing framework for traditional experts not a sure-fire prediction tool.
posted by shothotbot at 12:24 PM on December 5, 2007


« Older The Boy in the Moon: Ian Brown writes about the li...  |  Poker legend Chip Reese dead a... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments