Review of ‘Predictioneer’ by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

This is one of the most interesting books I have read for a long time. The impetus to read it came from a recent ‘Start the Week’ broadcast on Radio 4, chaired by Andrew Marr. As I tuned in Marr was interviewing the author.

The basic premise of the book is that we humans are all more or less alike in that our behaviours are governed by what we perceive to be our self-interest. So much, so obvious, but he has taken this mundane observation to a rarefied level of rationality and analysis. Using game theory he has developed a highly sophisticated modelling tool that narrows the probabilities in any given scenario to a verifiable (and therefore usable) prediction.

The book can be divided into three fairly equal sections. The Introduction and the first three chapters deal with human behaviour and its rationale, followed by an exposition of game theory. The two game theory chapters depict various scenarios, some of which are real case studies with which the author has been engaged, to demonstrate that our behaviours are largely predictable. A well known example he uses is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where two prisoners are placed in separate rooms for interview. If they co-operate and say nothing they will both get a light sentence; if one defects and the other co-operates, the defector will get out immediately and the other will get life. If both defect they will each get a medium sentence. The winning strategy in a one-off situation is, ‘Always defect,’ and this is what the police rely on to break down criminals’ stories.

He draws some interesting parallels in this part of the book between, for instance, Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler to demonstrate that we will all pursue our own interests in a logical and predictable fashion. The key is to understand what those interests comprise. More conflict could be avoided, he asserts, if only we took the time  and effort to better understand what our adversaries’ real interests are instead of focusing our attention so much on our own  objectives.

The second part of the book describes his methodology using real examples, either from the historical records or from case studies that he has worked on. With most of the latter, of course, his predictions are more or less right, including the scary geo-political issue of North Korean aggression. Kim Jong Il (and his father before him) he says, is not an irrational lunatic who cannot be reasoned with; it is just that we have not fully understood his motivations. He is driven, according to de Mesquita, by his desire to retain power, so understanding the power relationships both inside and outside the country is critical to successful diplomacy.

He does, in the interests of modesty, quote one example where he was spectacularly wrong but most of his illustrations are offered as proofs for the success of his method, as one would expect. The secrets of his success are accurate and comprehensive data-gathering coupled with the precision of his model, which he has developed over many years (the current version is the third in the series).

The final few chapters are in many ways the most interesting. He begins by taking some scenarios from the past and running them through his model to ascertain what actions would have been required, and by whom, to have averted the actual historical events. The four he selects are: Sparta’s fall; why Columbus worked for Spain; how we could have avoided WW1; and ditto for WW2. This is a terrific history lesson using an approach rarely employed by historians, who are, by and large, more interested in what actually happened than what might have been.

Finally, he sets a challenge by predicting the outcomes of current situations pre-occupying the world and, although his view of human nature is somewhat cynical, he is rather more optimistic about the endgame. The unfolding events and the conclusions predicted by his methods are: Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Iran/Iraq and a possible partnership; the rise and fall of the Roman Catholic Church; and global agreements on climate change. All but the third present current serious challenges for the world. The fortunes of the Catholic Church do not quite fit the pattern but it is offered, I imagine, as a sort of long-term example demonstrating a thousand year time frame of events governed by decisions taken in the High Middle Ages.

He goes into fairly painstaking detail with each so that his methods, analysis and reasoning become crystal clear. This is far from being a dry academic treatise, however. On the contrary, it is a surprisingly easy read and I find his prose style both lucid and refreshingly free from the prolix that often spoils American popular science writing.

It is a page-turner and curiously uplifting, despite the author’s rather jaundiced view of our motives – base and singularly lacking in altruism, in his opinion. The good news, according to de Mesquita, is that we are neither doomed to destroy ourselves in a nuclear conflagration nor will we wipe ourselves from the planet by turning the earth into an uninhabitable greenhouse.

3 thoughts on “Review of ‘Predictioneer’ by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

  1. Gordy and Choochoo would be very interested in the bits about the Catholic Church but the whole book is a damned good read.

  2. I look forward to reading this – it sounds very interesting. At the moment I am lost in a sea of mock examination marking but hope to get some me time over the coming few weeks!

  3. Gordy:

    Good luck with your marking. Let me know if you would like me to lend you the book.

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