Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Faith in Numbers

Liz sent me a link to an article in GOOD Magazine detailing the exploits of one Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, whose use of a mathematical discipline known as Rational Choice Theory (an offshoot of game theory) has supposedly been shown to be uncannily accurate (I mean, some of his encomiums are coming from the CIA - how reliable are they?). In the article he also very cagily avoids saying if he's picked who'll become President in 2008.

All of this reminds me of Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series, in which a mathematician named Hari Seldon develops a branch of math called psychohistory, which he uses to determine the future of the Galactic Empire he lives in. Since his findings are deemed subversive, he is kept under surveillance and eventually allowed to exile himself and his followers to a planet on the rim of the galaxy - which Seldon's predictions had shown would happen.

All hunky-dory.

Unfortunately, Asimov finds the flaw in psychohistory, and rams a Mack truck through it. That Mack truck is the being known as The Mule. The Mule is a variable that not even Seldon could have predicted, and as a result the great Plan he devised lies in ruins and takes many years of subtle manipulation to get back on track.

This is the flaw in Bueno de Mesquita's modeling - the unknown variable, the lone wild card that can upset all of his confident predictions. The article points out that after the Madrid train bombings he accurately predicted no terrorist acts within the US. But all it takes is one person, acting alone, and there is no way to accurately predict the acts of individuals. He talked about Kim Jong Il and the North Korean nuclear deal, but can he accurately predict Kim's actions? Kim's an erratic little cuss, after all.

I have a quibble about the choice of the term Rational Choice, as well. Rational-choice theory is also used in criminology, stating that a person will always consider the risks and benefits of an act before performing that act, whether it's buying a car or stealing millions of dollars from people in a pyramid scheme.

Trying to distill human activities (foreign affairs, etc.) into cold, hard formulae also offends my sense of dignity. Predestinarianism is a foolish holdover from Augustine and Calvin; I prefer free will. Based on a careful analysis, you can usually predict what I will do; but sometimes I do things that may surprise you and won't fit into the model. What then?


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