Saturday, November 10, 2007

The New Nostradamus

Can a fringe branch of mathematics forecast the future? A special adviser to the CIA, Fortune 500 companies, and the U.S. Department of Defense certainly thinks so.

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. Naturally, there is also no shortage of people less fond of his work. “Some people think Bruce is the most brilliant foreign policy analyst there is,” says one colleague. “Others think he’s a quack.”

Today, on a rare sunny summer day in San Francisco, Bueno de Mesquita appears to be neither. He’s relaxing in his stately home, answering my questions with exceeding politesse. Sunlight streams through the tall windows, the melodic sound of a French horn echoing from somewhere upstairs; his daughter, a musician in a symphony orchestra, is practicing for an upcoming recital. It’s all so complacent and genteel, which is exactly what Bueno de Mesquita isn’t. As if on cue, a question sets him off. “I found it to be offensive,” he says about a colleague’s critique of his work. “This is absolutely, totally, and utterly false,” he says about the attack of another.

The criticism rankles him, because, to his mind, the proof is right there on the page. “I’ve published a lot of forecasting papers over the years,” he says. “Papers that are about things that had not yet happened when the paper was published but would happen within some reasonable amount of time. There’s a track record that I can point to.” And indeed there is. Bueno de Mesquita has made a slew of uncannily accurate predictions—more than 2,000, on subjects ranging from the terrorist threat to America to the peace process in Northern Ireland—that would seem to prove him right.

“The days of the digital watch are numbered,” quipped Tom Stoppard. After spending a few hours with Bueno de Mesquita, you might come to believe that so is everything else. Numbered as in “mathematics”—more precisely, game theory, an esoteric branch of mathematics used to analyze interaction. “Game theory is math for how people behave strategically,” Bueno de Mesquita says.

Bueno de Mesquita has big ideas, and he’s more than happy to put his career on the line for them. Back in March 2004, when al-Qaeda bombed a Madrid train station, influencing the course of Spain’s general election three days later, a lot of U.S. security folks were nervous. Worried that al-Qaeda might try something similar here in the run-up to the November, 2004, presidential elections, the Pentagon hired Bueno de Mesquita to run some data through his forecasting model to tell them what to expect. The results were unequivocal. “I said there would be no homeland attack. I also indicated that bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, would resurface around Thanksgiving, 2004,” he says. Just after the elections in November that year, Zawahiri released a new videotape. Bueno de Mesquita was right on both counts. “One of the things government needs most is advice that’s not wishy-washy. I try to be as precise as I can.”

For the record, this man is not some lunatic soothsayer sequestered in a musty, forgotten basement office. He is the chairman of New York University’s Department of Politics, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, and the author of many weighty academic tomes. He regularly consults with the CIA and the Department of Defense—most recently on such hot-button topics as Iran and North Korea—and has a new book coming out in the fall that he cowrote with his pal Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. His curriculum vitae, which details his various Ph.Ds, academic appointments, editorial-board memberships, writings, honors, awards, and grants, runs 17 small-font pages long.

He is wildly controversial, though. As one of the foremost scholars of game theory—or “rational choice,” as its political-science practitioners prefer to call it—Bueno de Mesquita is at the center of a raging hullabaloo that has taken over some of the most prestigious halls of learning in this country. Exclusive, highly complex mathematically, and messianic in its certainty of universal truths, rational-choice theory is not only changing the way political science is taught, but the way it’s defined.

To verify the accuracy of his model, the CIA set up a kind of forecasting face-off that pit predictions from his model against those of Langley’s more traditional in-house intelligence analysts and area specialists. “We tested Bueno de Mesquita’s model on scores of issues that were conducted in real time—that is, the forecasts were made before the events actually happened,” says Stanley Feder, a former high-level CIA analyst. “We found the model to be accurate 90 percent of the time,” he wrote. Another study evaluating Bueno de Mesquita’s real-time forecasts of 21 policy decisions in the European community concluded that “the probability that the predicted outcome was what indeed occurred was an astounding 97 percent.” What’s more, Bueno de Mesquita’s forecasts were much more detailed than those of the more traditional analysts. “The real issue is the specificity of the accuracy,” says Feder. “We found that DI (Directorate of National Intelligence) analyses, even when they were right, were vague compared to the model’s forecasts. To use an archery metaphor, if you hit the target, that’s great. But if you hit the bull’s eye—that’s amazing.”
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