Predictions & Prescriptions

Good Magazine ran an interview recently with a man they call The New Nostradamus. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita uses a mathematical model that is based entirely on game theory to predict the outcomes of political conflicts. He takes a very literal interpretation of the phrase “political science” and focuses his analysis strictly on issues of strategic interest, ignoring any cultural or historical aspects of the parties involved. He believes that the theory of rational choice can accurately predict the actions of any political actors as long as the data underpinning the determination of interests are correct. An analysis of his model’s predictive abilities done by the CIA found it to be accurate 90 percent of the time.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita


In the article a few of his predictions are discussed, but what is interesting is that he also makes a number of prescriptions. In fact, while there is a list at the end of the interview describing some of his accurate predictions, the discussion with him fails to clearly separate predictions from prescriptions. In the interview, he proposes a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and criticizes the outcome of negotiations with Kim Jong-Il of North Korea for not conforming to his model.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the recent agreement that the United States reached with the government of Pyongyang closely resembles the one that Bueno de Mesquita’s model suggested: Kim agrees to dismantle his existing nuclear weapons but not his existing nuclear capability. “He puts it in mothballs with IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors on site 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And in exchange, we provide him with $1.2 billion a year, which we label ‘foreign aid,’ of course.” The “foreign-aid” figure published in the newspapers was $400 million, which concerns Bueno de Mesquita. “I read that and I said, I hope that’s not the deal because it’s not enough money. He needs $1.2 billion, approximately, to sustain the loyalty of his cronies in the military and so forth. It’s unpleasant, this is a nasty man, but we’re stuck with it. The nice part of the deal is that it’s self-enforcing. Each side has a reason to credibly commit to their part of the deal.”

It would appear that what he has actually developed is a highly sophisticated system of conflict mediation. His model assumes that people are selfishly rational and always gravitate toward very predictable terms in an agreement. It would be very interesting to show these predicted outcomes to two negotiating parties at the outset of their talks. Would they get to the same results faster?

Bueno de Mesquita acknowledges the power of what he is able to do with his work, which seems to play a big role in his approach. He will not call elections that he claims to know the outcome for because he does not want to influence them and he will not help organizations affect or manipulate government policy. Clearly, predicting the future is a complicated and controversial venture. It toys with our sense of continuity and our theories of causality, let alone the concept of free-will. It also seems that as people get better at it, we may be raising questions faster than we can answer them.

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

More from Futures

What is the long now?

The Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking. Our work encourages imagination at the timescale of civilization — the next and last 10,000 years — a timespan we call the long now.

Learn more

Join our newsletter for the latest in long-term thinking

Long Now's website is changing...