Risk-analysis models could not predict Arab world upheavals

February 28, 2011

Political instability is influenced by everything from the weather to local economic conditions and infant mortality rates; these factors interact in complex ways, and data quality can be low; together, this makes for a daunting forecasting challenge; says one expert: “All of our models are bad, some are less bad than others”

The apparent suddenness of the eruption of unrest in the Arab world raises a question: Is it possible to forecast unrest? Analysts say that the upheavals in the Arab world are the perfect opportunity to put the best models of human conflict to the test.
New Scientists reports that, unfortunately, only those with access to classified intelligence documents will find out the results.
It is a problem that has troubled the field of conflict modeling for years. Many military funding bodies, notably the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), bankroll attempts to forecast revolutions, terrorist activity, and other conflicts — but results emerge into the public domain only piecemeal, if they come out at all.
Take the Political Instability Task Force, funded by the CIA and based at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Since it was formed in 1994, it has used historical data on conflicts, political structures, and economics to rate the stability of countries around the world. Details of the model are publicly available, but the forecasts that the task force hands to the CIA are not.

they couldn’t predict anything in the Middle East in the past either. all state dept analysis of the Yom Kippur war for example predicted that there was no cost benefit to friction.