Game theory and future forecasting

Political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is bringing mathematics to bear on what Yogi Berra said is the hardest thing to predict: the future. The New York University professor is profiled in this week's Science News and is also on the cover story in the current issue of GOOD Magazine. He's consulted for the CIA, the Department of Defense, and Fortune 500 companies to help generate forecasts using a computerized game theory model. He's recently worked with the US government on the conflict with Iran. However, he says his private consultancy's corporate policy bars him from saying, "on a commercial basis," who will be the next president of the United States. From Science News:
The details of his study of negotiation options with Iran are classified, but Bueno de Mesquita says that the broad outline is that there is nothing the United States can do to prevent Iran from pursuing nuclear energy for civilian power generation. The more aggressively the U.S. responds to Iran, he says, the more likely it is that Iran will develop nuclear weapons. The upshot of the study, Bueno de Mesquita argues, is that the international community needs to find out if there is a way to monitor civilian nuclear energy projects in Iran thoroughly enough to ensure that Iran is not developing weapons.

One of his most famous past predictions also concerned Iran. In 1984, the model predicted that when Ayatollah Khomeini died, an ayatollah named Hojatolislam Khameini and a little-known cleric named Hasheimi Rafsanjani would rise to succeed Khomeini as leaders of Iran. At the time, most experts considered that outcome exceedingly unlikely, since Khomeini had designated a different person as his successor. But in fact, when Khomeini died five years later, Rafsanjani and Khameini succeeded him.

Bueno de Mesquita says he also predicted that Andropov would succeed Brezhnev long before experts considered it likely. He foresaw that China would reclaim Hong Kong 12 years before it happened, and he predicted that France would narrowly pass the European Union's Maastricht Treaty.

Former CIA analyst Stanley Feder says that he has used Bueno de Mesquita's model well over a thousand times since the early 1980s to make predictions about specific policies. Like others, he has found it to be more than 90 percent accurate.
Link to Science News, Link to GOOD Magazine

Previously on BB:
• Failed futuristic predictions Link
• Gladwell on mysteries vs. puzzles Link
• Problems with predictions Link



  1. That’s really quite interesting and funny as when it was reported, “But he does not ask … what the experts think will happen.” Obviously what we have here is a truly brilliant individual.

  2. This is really fascinating, and completely bizarre if it really can predict what happens to individual people.

    I’m not that impressed by its Hong Kong prediction though. That result had already been well known for 99 years.

  3. If Bueno de Mesquita thought “that China would reclaim Hong Kong 12 years before it happened”, surely he was severely mistaken. Surely things happen when they happen, not 12 years before they happen?

    Although come to think of it, someone called ‘George Bush’ did become President 12 years before it happened!

  4. That story really had me going until I got to the part about the 90% accuracy rate. I’d have been seriously impressed if his predictions were accurate one time in three.

  5. One of the unique things about GOOD Magazine BB readers might not know is the subscription of $20 goes to charity.

  6. No, it’s Yogi Berra (not Bera) all right. The quote is actually “Its tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Yogi had a gift for the reflexive principle…

  7. If this is accurate, he must have improved his methods considerably since he wrote The War Trap. I was not at all impressed by that book. Some of it was based on handwaving, and the mathematical model was “confirmed” by data that was… idiosyncratic (the data was in an appendix).

  8. #8: I was going to point out the preponderance of google hits for Bohr +”Prediction is very difficult” compared to Yogi +ditto, but I found this, which suggests that it may in fact have originated in the Danish parliament in the 1930s. Was Yogi Berra Danish?

  9. If Bueno de Mesquita ‘foresaw that China would reclaim Hong Kong 12 years before it happened’, that means that he made the prediction in 1985, after the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration established that Hong Kong would revert to Chinese control in 1997.

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