Predicting Armed Conflict Events

Zee Media is launching a news channel and web cite and, somehow or other, I wound up as featured in their web site launch.

Here is the link.

Although I find it a bit harrowing to watch myself so much on camera I would say that Zee came up with an interesting and original way to present the material.

The basic idea for the piece came from this blog post from a few months back.  This research programme has been more about armed conflict than about terrorism whereas the Zee piece has pretty much the opposite priority.  Still, I think their angle works pretty well.

Like many media outlets Zee was very interested in the possibility of prediction.  Hopefully, viewers will come away from the piece with realistic expectations about the potential for prediction.  I doubt we will every be in a position to mine past patterns and then make a useful prediction saying that there will be an attack at a particular time and place.  But I do think that it is possible to make useful predictions about broad patterns in violent events, such as the relative numbers of attacks of different sizes.

I would add that we should put a lot of effort into making predictions because this is the best way for us to learn when our theories are working and when they need to be modified.  It is very easy to cling endlessly to faulty theories when you never test them with predictions.

PS – There were a couple of minor errors in the piece that I’m trying to get corrected, mainly identifying me as a mathematician rather than as an economist.

PSS – All the work that I describe in the Zee piece is joint with Neil Johnson and Stijn Van Weezel.  I mentioned this on camera but this information didn’t make it into the final version.

Forecasting World War III – An Exchange of Letters

I’m sure that this reminder of my article in Significance  will awaken warm memories in many of you.

In it, I used an article of Pasquale Cirrilo and Nassim Nicholas Taleb to help me make my case.  I think that the Cirillo-Taleb paper is quite interesting.  However, it is not in any way a shoot-down of Steven Pinker’s masterwork, The Better Angels of our Nature, as Cirillo and Taleb like to claim.   In fact, I argued in an earlier article that there isn’t even any great contradiction between Cirrilo-Taleb and Better Angels.

No matter.

I seem to have provoked Cirrilo and Taleb who wrote a protest letter to Significance about my piece.  To me, it feels like my main crime is that I didn’t dismiss Pinker as an incompetent writer of “popular science.”   Or perhaps the issue is that my short piece leaned more heavily on Better Angels than it did on Cirrilo-Taleb.  In any case, I don’t think that Cirrilo and Taleb help themselves very much with their letter.

Steven Pinker and I now have a joint reply to Cirrilo and Taleb in the current issue of Significance.

Please have a look.




Mystics and Statistics Blog

This is a great blog that should definitely interest my readers.  (Full disclosure – I’m hoping to get some funding to work with the people writing the blog.)

This is the blog of the Dupuy Institute, founded by the extraordinarily prolific military historian, Trevor N. Dupuy.

Dupuy was a pioneer in the quantitative analysis of war.  A picture in this post (reproduced below) characterizes him for me as a man with exceptional knowledge, analytical capability and pedagogical ability:

Weapon-Lethality-Dispersion-Over-History-editedGo to Mystics and Statistics so you can blow up the picture to examine it in minute detail (Yes, the Dupuy people also seem to be ahead of me in figuring out how the blogging software works….)   The point of the picture is that as weapons have become more lethal fighters have learned to spread out better to neutralize the weapons’ effectiveness.

For me one of the defining features of the Dupuy Institute is that it makes public predictions about looming conflicts, including on their duration and casualties.  For example,  Dupuy Director Chris Lawrence went on record at the outset of the Iraq war predicting a long engagement with lots of casualties.  Unfortunately, this prediction did not receive the attention it deserved.

Now Mystics and Statistics seems to be gearing up for a long series on their record at prediction.  I can’t stress enough how important it is for researchers to make predictions and hold themselves to account for their predictions.  I’ve touched a bit on this theme before on the blog here and here.  If you don’t make public predictions it is all to easy to pretend that you’re doing much better than is really the case.

I’ll be following Dupuy’s prediction series with great interest.