Don't blame the experts who didn't see the Arab Spring coming.
- By Kedar PavgiKedar Pavgi is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.
Blake Hounshell is right ("Dark Crystal," July/August 2011) that "experts," including myself, failed to predict the Arab revolutions. However, there are a few nuances that may make us appear less inept.
First, any revolution, as Charles Kurzman correctly notes, is a low-to-moderate probability event in any given year. We can do a very good job distinguishing more unstable states from very stable ones, but we can’t always say which state or states will have a crisis next year. Similarly, a doctor may be able to say that patients who are overweight and have high blood pressure are at a much higher risk of having a heart attack, but can’t know which patient is going to have a cardiac episode in the coming year.
More importantly, our forecasting models are capable of being adjusted in response to events. Once the Tunisian revolution occurred (unexpectedly!), we were able to look more closely at conditions in neighboring states and change our forecasts to anticipate a breakdown of order. We were much better able to anticipate the rebellion in Libya, and my May/June Foreign Affairs article, which was originally drafted and circulated at the beginning of March, correctly anticipated the Syrian uprising that began on March 15. It also correctly forecast that the monarchies in Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia would remain far more stable than the personalist dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. So while we may have missed the first onset of events, our analysis was still helpful in other respects.
It would be ideal if everything in the world of politics were nicely predictable. But we are still far from being able to say exactly when and where one will strike.
JACK A. GOLDSTONE
Professor of Public Policy
George Mason University
Blake Hounshell replies:
Let me first humbly submit that I didn’t predict the Arab revolutions either; nor did a number of other quantitative models of instability, including some very expensive systems used by U.S. government agencies. The one prominent individual I’ve found who claimed to have called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s fall ahead of time was Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a political scientist whose forecasting models are used by … U.S. government agencies. I did not mean to single out Goldstone or his work, for which I have the highest regard.
Indeed, I have no doubt that quantifying political upheaval is a difficult but worthy endeavor, and I wish Goldstone well as he refines his models. In the right hands, they clearly have much to tell us — and perhaps we’ll even be better prepared for the next round of falling dictators, like, say, Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il.
In the meantime, as Mark Abdollahian, whose Sentia Group does forecasting work for various government agencies, told Wired magazine in February: "Think of this like Las Vegas. In blackjack, if you can do 4 percent better than the average, you’re making real money."
Blake Hounshell is managing editor at Foreign Policy, having formerly been Web editor. Hounshell oversees ForeignPolicy.com and has commissioned and edited numerous cover stories for the print magazine, including National Magazine Award finalist "Why Do They Hate Us?" by Mona Eltahawy. He also edits The Cable, FP's first foray into daily original reporting, and was editor of Colum Lynch's Turtle Bay, which in 2011 won a National Magazine award for best reporting in a digital format.
Blake joined Foreign Policy in 2006 after living in Cairo, where he studied Arabic, missed his Steelers finally win one for the thumb, and worked for the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. Blake was a 2011 finalist for the Livingston Awards prize for young journalists for his reporting on the Arab uprisings, and his Twitter feed was named one of Time magazine's "140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011." Under his leadership, in 2008, Passport, FP's flagship blog, won Media Industry Newsletter's "Best of the Web" award in the blog category. Along with Elizabeth Dickinson, he edited Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future, the memoirs of former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.
A graduate of Yale University, Blake speaks mangled Arabic and French, is an avid runner, and lives in Washington with his wife, musician Sandy Choi, and their toddler, David. Follow him on Twitter @blakehounshell.| Failed States |