It’s a People Game

The methods described in connection with the Iraq problem seem like a prescription that you could give to the most logical thinker in your organization. Maybe you could just closet him with SPSS, an expert system, or an A.I. language like PROLOG, watch the mushrooms grow, and, after a while, come up with a solution that gets you the corner office you’ve been lusting after.

This is really the Holy Grail of prediction, to mechanize judgement. But the most successful attempts at this have been in the area of crowd sourcing, not systematizing what an individual should do.

Ali Abdullah Saleh was president of Yemen. In early 2011, he came under international pressure to vacate the position. The intelligence community became curious when this would happen, so a question was posted to “Forecasting World Events.” Saleh had repeatedly promised to leave, and feinted with statements and trips, always returning to his office. So the FWE question was carefully worded as to the conditions defined as equivalent to vacating the presidency. Dead was one of them; permanently incapacitated another. Another condition (subject to my memory) was signing an abdication in another country.

By complete coincidence, five years prior to this, I was testing camera lenses in my basement. I needed a target with some fine detail. I grabbed a copy of the NY Times, and saw a full page spread halftone of Saleh sitting in a palace chair in an immaculately tailored western suit. Inwardly, I smirked, and said to myself, “This is a guy who cares about his skin.” The picture was taped to a door, and remains there to this day. Every time I was in the basement, I stared at Saleh, and marveled at his suave Western demeanor.

But those  who specialized in studying Saleh knew him as a person of minimal education, who ran one of the largest militia in Yemen. To them, perhaps, Saleh’s immaculate suit was the shallow disguise of a Yemeni tribesman. I weighed the suit more heavily, as a kind of aspiration. Upon reflection, I may have integrated it with his statements about terrorism, and his early desire to ally with the U.S. in combating it. That, too, could be taken with a grain of salt, as a means of protecting tribal dominance, rather than  concern with the world at large.

In June 2011, Saleh was injured in a bomb attack on his palace. Although his injuries were initially described as minor, it emerged that he had shrapnel near the heart. In that time frame, Saleh reiterated that he would step down. But was it different from his other promises and feints?

It clicked for me. FWE had a forum, where I exclaimed, “He has seen his own mortality!”  I dialed my FWE pie chart to near 100% that, by the near-term date choice, he would be out and gone for good. Unfortunately for my FWE accuracy score, he eluded the terms of the question. He went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He said he would go to the U.S., but he returned to Yemen. While he formally handed office to his vice-president, rumors of his power, running the country with his militia, continued to swirl. The actual situation was unapparent.

Months later, it became clear that the former vp/now president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, had actually acceded to power, which he holds to this day. The administrators of FWE might now concede I lost on a technicality. But does it advance the science of prediction? Unfortunately, no, because it satisfies neither:

1. The law of large numbers, as with crowd sourcing, or an individual like myself making hundreds of such predictions.

2. A subset of predictors with identifiable characteristics, i.e.,  Myers-Briggs personality profile, or other aspects of a predictor’s background.

A   personal characteristic that might be useful, in aggregate, to satisfy “2” might be the ability to identify a liar, i.e., a disingenuous affect. There are people who are extremely good at this. I may be one of them, but I never trust myself, because it doesn’t seem quite fair.

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