Bryan Caplan  

Evaluating The Arab Spring: What Would Tetlock Say?

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I was never optimistic about the Arab Spring.  But the spread of the hellish Syrian Civil War into Iraq leaves the net-effect-so-far quite a bit worse than I expected. 

You could say, "You're no expert on this topic, so your faulty foresight is understandable."  As far as I can Google, though, foresight demonstrably better than mine is very scarce.  If you Google "Arab Spring disaster" or "Arab Spring success," almost all of the hits "explain" good or bad things that have already happened.  It's almost as if Tetlock's critique of experts' epistemic vices had never happened.  Which leads me to the following questions.

1. Who actually made testable predictions about the overall effects of the Arab Spring?  E.g. on democratization, economic growth, or body count?

2. What were their predictions?

3. Which predictions were right?  Which were wrong?

4. Did anyone make any bets about the overall effects of the Arab Spring?  At all?!

P.S. If you feels that events have vindicated your superb foresight on the Middle East, it's not too late to start making testable predictions.  And publicly betting on them.



COMMENTS (19 to date)
Steve Sailer writes:

The things people are most interested in are the hardest to predict and likeliest to go either way. Sports events, for example, are set up to maximize interest by making them hard to predict.

It's easy to make accurate predictions about significant things like school test scores, but most people find them boring and depressing and would rather talk about something more interesting.

Greg Heslop writes:

Casey Mulligan made predictions which seem to have been broadly accurate with regard to democratization, at least for Libya and for Egypt. I think his analysis holds up well, but am far from an expert on the countries. I am not sure if he said anything about body counts or growth, however.

Maybe the idea that it does not matter much who wins an elections applies to non-election changes in leadership, too? As long as basic demographic and economic facts do not change radically. Interesting.

Nodnarb writes:

The closest thing I can think of regarding predictions of the Arab Spring is this summary of a brouhaha between an academic sociologist and a lowly undergrad during the Libyan bombing campaign of 2011.

The sociologist got burned (read it for yourself), and the undergrad got his predictions right, but the dust-up between the two had more to do with US intervention than it did with the Arab Spring as a whole.

I vaguely remember James Gelvin's argument on the Arab Spring, and he basically wrote that the Arab Spring would not lead to democracy and a better economy but would lead to a higher body count (Gelvin is a historian at UCLA, by the way).

As far as testing goes, I don't see how such a thing is possible.

Steve Sailer writes:

Well, what does Tetlock say? He's been running the Good Judgment Project for a number of years, so what did his forecasters say?

Hansjörg Walther writes:

"Spread of the hellish Syrian Civil War into Iraq"?

No, there was a civil war in Iraq already before there was one in Syria and also before and independent of the Arab spring, and the two have now merged (which is also not that recent).

Actually, it went the other way: Islamic State of Iraq expanded into Syria:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_State_in_Iraq_and_the_Levant#As_Islamic_State_of_Iraq

So the experts may be smarter than you think.

Todd Kreider writes:

I've made some long term political predictions starting in 1985 with the end of the Soviet system and Russia becoming democratic by 1995 (after I read used Western computers were being bought in the Eastern Bloc and assumed enough Soviets wanted democracy)

2000: Japan will go nuclear by 2010 (not yet...)

2001: The CCP will lose monopoly power by 2015 and national elections will be held in China (18 months to go...)

2001: If the US invades Iraq in 2002, it will look like a mess in five years (2007 -- yes) but will look fine in 10 years (2012 -- yes) Nothing about 2013, 2014 and 2015....

Arab Spring: democracy to participating countries within five years. (pending)


Steve Sailer writes:

One subtle issue with the Good Judgment Project is that its annual nature puts a premium on a special kind of forecasting expertise: estimating how long some development is going to take. A forecaster who is right about the direction of change can be wrong in the contest because he underestimates how long it will take to happen. In contrast, somebody who is wrong about the direction of coming change can be right in the contest because the time limit runs out before what he didn't anticipate gets around to happening.

Now, it's likely that being good at forecasting how long it will take for something to happen correlates well with being good at forecasting what will happen. But that isn't necessarily so.

I suspect one skill superforecasters have is not getting overexcited when they Google "Cyprus crisis" or whatever. If you read articles about Cyprus, you get told that this is a churning cauldron of instability. But experts on Cyprus tend to have an incentive to suggest that the whole world ought to pay more attention to them because, you know, Cyprus could blow at any moment. But 40 years after partition in 1974, Cyprus mostly just keeps on keeping on.

Similarly, the downfall of the Saudi royal family, the revolt of Shi'ites in the oil-producing regions of Saudi Arabia, and a host of other events have been repeatedly predicted by experts, without yet happening. But it's hard to remember all the failed forecasts of the past.

A general rule is that people in power tend to be better at kicking the can down the road for another year than you might expect.

Todd Kreider writes:
A general rule is that people in power tend to be better at kicking the can down the road for another year than you might expect.

I'm not so sure this is a general rule. The Shaw and the Politburo come to mind.

My end of CCP monopoly power by 2015 prediction will likely wrong, but I talked to several future American China experts (a.k.a. grad students) who thought 2050 at the very earliest. (A major component of this prediction was based on Moore's Law, which those students didn't buy.)

Tom West writes:

I think Steve Sailer's initial post is correct. What's important in making a prediction is whether the narrative is interesting and matches the readers priors.

This is especially true when there's no indication that events cannot be predicted with any accuracy better than chance.

There's many a living to be made by making predictions about random events or reassurances about random outcomes. It's not to say the people making them are dishonest. It's a rare person who can be sufficiently persuasive without believing his or her own words. It's that we're unwilling to accept that many events that decide our fate are a matter of chance. We can certainly affect outcomes, but we won't know how until it's too late.

zc writes:

"Did anyone make any bets about the overall effects of the Arab Spring? At all?!"

Yeah, lots of people bet with their lives, and many of them have lost.

Steve Sailer writes:

"This is especially true when there's no indication that events cannot be predicted with any accuracy better than chance."

Many events can be predicted fairly accurately, but they tend to be the boring and depressing events. For example, I've been following social science statistics since 1972, and racial gaps have barely budged. But that's not a terribly interesting or popular pattern to draw attention to for the purposes of improving predictions about the future or even for making wise policy.

Hopaulius writes:

The adventure in Syria and Iraq is just an unfolding of Professor Caplan's wet dream: open borders! There is now no enforced border between Syrian and Iraq, and apparently Jordan's is crumbling as well. President Obama has expressed some concern that ISIS (and other similar groups) may eventually constitute a threat to the USA. Well, of course. Eliminate all national borders (and, of course, all armies), and welcome them in! I'll happily give them directions to the GMU economics department, if I can get the advice in before they lop off my head.

ThomasH writes:

Public protests against Arab dictators and US diplomats rah-rahing them on? What's not to like? Don't Arabs deserve to be able to protest like Chinese and Iranian and Venezuelan people do?

Thomas Sewell writes:

You're going to laugh at first, but Rush Limbaugh publicly predicted the Arab Spring was going to end in Muslim Brotherhood/radical Muslim control and not democracy from very early in the process (at least by March, 2011) and has stuck with that prediction over time.

Google Rush Limbaugh Arab Spring. He didn't bet anyone specifically cash, but as he was betting at least part of his very valuable reputation among his listeners, that's likely an expensive bet, anyway.

Tom Crispin writes:

Spengler has been pretty good. Here

http://pjmedia.com/spengler/2012/08/07/will-the-muslim-brotherhood-ally-with-saudi-arabia-or-iran/

he predicts the Egyptian military supplanting the Muslim Brotherhood.

Arthur_500 writes:

Economics is about opportunity and how those opportunities are exploited.

The Arab Spring sprang from discontent and was fuelled by militants. The success of those militants was greatly the result of the US involvement in supporting the downtrodden. (Go visit Cairo someday and tell me about the education of the downtrodden)

In the power vacuum left by the departure of the US forces, the Sunni population seeks to regain their place at the top of the food chain in Iraq. They have been the subject of retaliation by the Shiites over decades of discrimination.

Those Shiites are supported by Iran. Iran sees an opportunity to have land on both sides of the Gulf. Will they assist the Iraqi Shiites in their country influenced by Iran or simply annex the landmass a la Russia/Ukraine?

Egypt has long had the military to keep things on an even keel, not unlike Pakistan or Turkey. While they have not been perfect they might have been better than the alternatives. We can never say. However, I think in Egypt the educated population quickly realized that the Muslim Brotherhood was no friend of freedom, economics, religion, women, or life after the twelfth century

Many will blame the US but in reality this region remains in play. Residents who have any education realize they live in a backwards society and want more. Those with nothing want something. It remains a region looking for change and half the society wants a nanny blanket and half the society wants progress.

that's my call. Let me know in two to five years where I came out on my predictions.

Lawrence Franko writes:

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Floccina writes:

My is from Honduras and she looks at things from a different perspective and predicted that people would rue the day they got Mubaric out of power.

Patri Friedman writes:

Tetlock's insight is about as likely to be incorporated into popular intellectual discourse as public choice economics is into popular political discourse. Which is to say, about as likely as I am to asphyxiate because all the molecules of air in the room happened to go to the other side at the same time.

Popular intellectuals make their living and get their status from pontificating, so they are just going to ignore these insights outside a few narrow and unusual disciplines such as financial speculation where accurate predictions actually matter. Just as wonks get their status and make their living from wonking, hence they ignore insights about the futility and irrelevance of wonkery.

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