Daniel W. Drezner

Catching up on my weekend reading

Two interesting articles of note over the weekend.  The first is Clive Thompson’s essay on Bruce Bueno de Mesquita (otherwise known as BDM) and his Fabulous Foreign Policy Game Theory Contraption forecasting model-for-hire.  Bruce is the leading proselytizer of using game theory as a predictive tool in political science — and he has quite the ...

Two interesting articles of note over the weekend.  The first is Clive Thompson’s essay on Bruce Bueno de Mesquita (otherwise known as BDM) and his Fabulous Foreign Policy Game Theory Contraption forecasting model-for-hire.  Bruce is the leading proselytizer of using game theory as a predictive tool in political science — and he has quite the forecasting business to back him up. 

Bruce seems to merit one of these every two years or so, and Thompson hits most of the same sources and critics of BDM’s approach.  He does add this nugget of information, however: 

Those who have watched Bueno de Mesquita in action call him an extremely astute observer of people. He needs to be: when conducting his fact-gathering interviews, he must detect when the experts know what they’re talking about and when they don’t. The computer’s advantage over humans is its ability to spy unseen coalitions, but this works only when the relative positions of each player are described accurately in the first place. “Garbage in, garbage out,” Bueno de Mesquita notes. Bueno de Mesquita begins each interview by sitting quietly — “in a slightly closed-up manner,” as [U.K. telecommunications company Cable and Wireless Richard] Lapthorne told me — but as soon as an interviewee expresses doubt or contradicts himself, Bueno de Mesquita instantly asks for clarification.

“His ability to pick up on body language, to pick up on vocal intonation, to remember what people said and challenge them in nonthreatening ways — he’s a master at it,” says Rose McDermott, a political-science professor at Brown who has watched Bueno de Mesquita conduct interviews. She says she thinks his emotional intelligence, along with his ability to listen, is his true gift, not his mathematical smarts. “The thing is, he doesn’t think that’s his gift,” McDermott says. “He thinks it’s the model. I think the model is, I’m sure, brilliant. But lots of other people are good at math. His gift is in interviewing. I’ve said that flat out to him, and he’s said, ‘Well, anyone can do interviews.’ But they can’t.”

Patrick Appel links to this essay because of BDM’s Iran predictions (according to him, the student protestors will be more powerful than Khamenei by the fall).  He notes, "Let’s hope his model is right, but I’m skeptical that these questions can be predicted by equations alone."  Except as the above quote suggests, it’s not just equations alone — it’s knowing what values to plug into those equations.  This requires a different set of skills — and rare is the person who excels at both. 

Speaking of brain skills, I found Emily Yoffe’s Slate essay on brain chemistry to be kind of interesting.  The argument in a nutshell:

Our internal sense of time is believed to be controlled by the dopamine system. People with hyperactivity disorder have a shortage of dopamine in their brains, which a recent study suggests may be at the root of the problem. For them even small stretches of time seem to drag. An article by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic last year, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" speculates that our constant Internet scrolling is remodeling our brains to make it nearly impossible for us to give sustained attention to a long piece of writing. Like the lab rats, we keep hitting "enter" to get our next fix….

[O]ur brains are designed to more easily be stimulated than satisfied. "The brain seems to be more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire," [University of Michigan professor of psychology Kent] Berridge has said. This makes evolutionary sense. Creatures that lack motivation, that find it easy to slip into oblivious rapture, are likely to lead short (if happy) lives. So nature imbued us with an unquenchable drive to discover, to explore. Stanford University neuroscientist Brian Knutson has been putting people in MRI scanners and looking inside their brains as they play an investing game. He has consistently found that the pictures inside our skulls show that the possibility of a payoff is much more stimulating than actually getting one….

Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we’re restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. [Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak] Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a "CrackBerry."

I fully recognize the biochemical reward system discussed in the essay, and I’ve certainly heard this argument applied to bloggers who allegedly lose the ability to engage in long-form writing.  But based on my own experience, I don’t buy it. 

True, blogging, updating, etc. brings excitement.  But I get the same thrill from perfecting a longer stretch of prose.  When I’m polishing up a case study or trying to refine a theoretical argument, I usually feel the desires for new information that I get when I’m blogging.  Indeed, the biggest mental rush I get from writing is tackling a completely new subject and then, 10,000 words later, retackling the first draft with renewed vigor and the promise of molding it into something better.  Once I think I have something of merit, oooh, does the dopamine kick in.

But that’s just me.  Tell me, dear readers — are your electronic gadgets hampering you ability to do long-form work?     

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