Sunday, November 8, 2009

Political Scientists Go Wild!

Bruce Bueno De Mesquita has written a book for the masses, taking what he has been arguing in Poli Sci journals and using as a consultant and putting it out there.  His book is reviewed in today's NY Times.

Game theory,” Bueno de Mesquita writes, “urges us to take a cold, hard look at what it means to be a calculating, rational decision maker.”And he lives up to his word. Mother Teresa did nice things, sure. But she was awfully public about those good deeds, and she appears to have been seeking fame and reward, either in this life or the next. “Could it be that Mother Teresa’s ambition for herself was tied to her faith in an eternal reward?” Bueno de Mesquita writes. “It makes sense to pay the price of sacrifice for the short, finite time of a life span if the consequence is a reward that goes on for infinity in heaven. In fact, isn’t that exactly the explanation many of us give for the actions of suicide bombers, dying in their own prideful eyes as martyrs who will be rewarded for all eternity in heaven?”  Yes, you read that correctly. On Page 15 of “The Predictioneer’s Game,” Bueno de Mesquita equates Mother Teresa with the likes of Mohamed Atta.
How do his simulations work?
His simulations rely on four factors: who has a stake; what each of these people wants; how much they care; and how much influence they have on others. He surveys experts on the topic, assigns numerical values to the four factors, plugs the data into a computer and waits for his software to spit out the future
So, I am always confused--is this really very impressive? Or is all the real work done by the experts--figuring out who matters, how much they care, how powerful they are?  This is the hard stuff of political science.  So, I guess the big magic is in getting the experts to code these things reliably so that the magic formula of combining the four factors works. 

All of these stories are fascinating. Every chapter in Bueno de Mesquita’s book contains something insightful about human behavior. But a question hovers over the text as he celebrates the brilliance of past predictions: Is this a bunch of baloney? Sure, he’s gotten stuff right. But should we really kick traditional experts outside and rely on the machines?
The reviewer misses the point as I suggested above--the machine relies on experts for the input.  Otherwise, garbage in, garbage out.  Definitely a worthwhile read, but I have a few books in line ahead of this one. Let me know what you think.

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