Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Self-Introspection: Prediction and Foreign Policy Analysis

Sometimes it is a good thing, I think, to sit back and re-read some of our previous analyses and predictions and reflect on how actual, real world events either diverged from or loosely fit with our expectations.

In the past couple of days, I managed to finish two really good books that I recommend people read. The first one is Phil Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment and the other is Nate Silver's Signal and the Noise. I heartily recommend these two books to anyone who is interested in doing policy analysis.

The take home point of both books is that it is difficult to do good analysis. Experts make mistakes and often their predictions are wrong. Nate Silver adds that analysts to some degree get distracted by the "noise," information that does nothing but skew analyses.

I concur with both Tetlock and Silver. I would also add that it is very easy to get swept in the euphoria of the moment, especially in regard to big changes and major events. For instance, regular readers of this blog might find that this blog's largest intellectual outputs happened in 2011, during the Arab Spring, when we got swept in the excitement of trying to figure out where events would take North Africa and the Middle East.

We tried to be very objective -- based on the available information to us. My feeling now, as I reread that post, is that even though Brad might tease me as the pessimist of this blog, to some extent, I actually think that I was still overly optimistic back then.

Take the example of these two articles: "A Conversation: The Impact of the 2011 Uprisings on World Politics, The Final Word" and "Thoughts on Egypt, Libya, and the U.S."

According to the first article, I underestimated the role of Al-Qaeda, especially in the light of what is currently unfolding in Mali, where al-Qaeda militants from Libya have managed to cause much havoc. Granted, I wrote the first article in the beginning of the Libyan Civil War, and at that time, the rebels rejected the presence of al-Qaeda among them, hoping to attract much needed Western support.

In light of what we really know and understand now about al-Qaeda's presence in the Magreb region, though, I should not have easily dismissed their influence. As fighting intensified, they were at first cautiously welcomed and probably grudgingly accepted as part of the opposition -- a pattern that has been replicated in Syria.

Regarding the second article, I freely admit that I underestimated the role of Ikhwanul Muslimin during the street protest, though I did make a prediction that they would hijack the revolution, and so far I am vindicated on that point. Still, I am not sure whether that was an easy cop-out, as if I tried to paper over an originally failed analysis.

Overall, does a lack of foresight mar our analyses? Probably, yes, in term of our predictive capabilities. At the same time, given my intellectual predispositions, I probably could easily make very dire and gloomy analyses on virtually everything, seeing worst-case scenarios, which means my work is at risk of bias.

Still, I don't know, I might be too harsh on myself. I do think that we have to continue to be honest in our work, otherwise we won't actually add anything to the discourse or even help better our predictive analyses.

What do you think?

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