TSG IntelBrief: The Lure of Predictions
August 16, 2013

TSG IntelBrief: The Lure of Predictions


Predictions vs Understanding

Nate Silver is in the business of predictions. He spent a number years honing his skills as an analyst in professional baseball, an activity where statistics are king. Not satisfied with that formidable challenge, he boldly moved on to national politics, where statistics are everything. Through his New York Times blog, Five ThirtyEight (taken from the total number of electors in the US Electoral College), Silver pulled a feat unmatched by even the most prestigious polling firms: in the US elections of 2012, he not only accurately predicted President Obama’s re-election, but he also precisely forecast the exact number of electoral votes the President would win. As if to ensure no one could dismiss his approach as the product of luck or chance, he also accurately called every single Senate race that year (save one).

At The Soufan Group, we find predictions of little value, largely because they rarely pan out, but fundamentally because they simply do not enhance understanding. And in the end, policies and strategies gain far more from understanding than prediction…even in cases where they prove accurate.


As of mid-August 2013, complexity continues to define geopolitics. A single glance at newspaper headlines or a brief listen to the leading stories broadcast in an evening news program will offer incontrovertible evidence that geopolitics relentlessly manifests complexity at every turn. But what exactly is complexity? For our purposes, we find that researcher Duncan Watts offers one of the best and certainly one of the most comprehensible explanations of complexity in his fascinating book, Everything is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us. In this work, he describes complexity as arising “out of many interdependent components interacting in nonlinear ways.”

Applying this definition within the context of geopolitics, complexity is reflected in the fact that 1) there are always many components (personalities, policies, interests, and geography to name but a few), 2) these components are interdependent (they do not exist in a vacuum, nor do they ever act alone), and 3) they interact in a nonlinear fashion (the nature of the relationship between components is rarely straightforward, cumulative, or predictable).

Given this reality, it should come as no surprise that geopolitical policymaking is such an exceptionally daunting challenge. We might even describe it as the cognitive equivalent of juggling knives of different sizes while riding a unicycle on an uneven surface. Few can do this at all, and fewer still are able to do it well.

To effectively craft policy, we must understand and embrace complexity. We must be able to appreciate the values of a given component within the broader value set of multiple components. We must visualize and, where possible, anticipate the array of potential interactions. And we must accept the fact that, as a result of the inescapable presence of complexity, long-term policy is fundamentally an oxymoron. The grandest of schemes hatched in cabinet rooms or boardrooms are too often overtaken by too many events with too much influence that happen too quickly for us to make policy that has any probability of effectively operating beyond the immediate horizon.

Immersed in such complexity, how are we then to make meaningful predictions? Watts comes to our aid once again. “The real problem of prediction,” he writes, “is not that we are universally good or bad at it, but rather that we are bad at distinguishing predictions that we can make reliably from those that we can’t.”

Informed by this understanding of complexity—and predictions—let’s revisit the issues we reported in this week’s IntelBriefs..



We began the week with Monday’s IntelBriefThe African Growth and Opportunity Act Revisited, where we described US policy—one launched under President Clinton, expanded under President Bush, and renewed under President Obama—designed to foster increasing trade with the nations of the expansive continent of Africa. By sheer numbers, this policy has been successful. As we reported, exports under the provisions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) have quadrupled since 2001 (from US$8 billion to US$35 billion). We noted, however, that energy exports still account for nearly 90 percent of this trade volume, and unfortunately the development and distribution of energy is not an activity that can be dispersed among small towns and villages that are struggling under the weight of economic difficulties. Those villages require a nationwide economic infrastructure and continent-wide trading networks to create a viable system for exporting goods…and importing hope.

Despite the tendency of some American politicians to view Africa as a single, integrated political, economic, or cultural entity (even a country), it is a region no less diverse or disconnected than other parts of the world that are striving to realize the potential of its people, resources, and vision. Furthermore, we have reported previously that the US is by no means the only global power that has deep connections to Africa. Europe has long pursued its interests on the continent, followed more recently by China and India.

As a result, there are many components, each interdependent on the others with interactions that grow ever more complicated on a trajectory that is difficult to anticipate. Imagine the complexity that shapes the relationship between a US Congressman from the Midwest, who votes for or against the programs that are central to the continuation of AGOA, and a woman in a small African village who is part of a local group that creates textile products in the hopes of exporting their goods to the American market. It is highly unlikely that these two individuals will ever meet. Even an awareness of the other’s very existence is unlikely to linger. And this is but one of literally thousands of interdependent connections at play within the complexity of US trade policy toward Africa.

The move to renew this trade legislation well ahead of its termination in 2015 is likely to be considered proactive, even visionary. But what do we know of Africa or America circa 2015? Answer: Far less than the current knowledge base—the understanding—that underpins the problematic trading policies of today. The point here is that policies are in many ways predictions, and the less we know about future events, the less reliable predictions or policies are likely to be.

On the surface, Tuesday’s IntelBriefIran’s Rouhani Generates Optimism, seemed to offer the rare opportunity to turn away from the seemingly endless parade of negativity that begets pessimism. Eight years of perpetual obstinance from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been replaced by the hopeful accessibility of Hassan Rouhani. President Rouhani began his term in office with a pledge to reduce tensions with the West that would be achieved, in part, through compromise on the country’s nuclear program. He even took the bold step of addressing the taboo topic of direct talks with the United States. Although this story clearly begins on an optimistic note, the chapters that have followed already suggest caution is in order.

Previously, President Rouhani served as his country’s chief negotiator at a time when very constructive agreements were reached with the United Kingdom Germany, and France that involved the suspension of uranium enrichment. Adding to the sense that a new beginning was at hand, he named as Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, an experienced diplomat who attended graduate school in the US and served as Tehran’s representative to the United Nations in New York. There was a positive connectivity developing, with an interdependence that creates the probability for a constructive (albeit nonlinear) path ahead.

But any president of Iran, regardless of political orientation, is still substantially constrained by the policies—and power—of the Supreme Leader. And Sayyid Ali Khamenei remains wary of Washington’s intentions. Also complicating this unfolding geopolitical saga was the early move by President Rouhani to name several conservatives to influential posts (such as Hossein Dehghan as the defense minister and Ali Jannati as Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance). Moreover, he has already stated that Tehran’s stance on many regional issues—most notably its steadfast support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria—remain unchanged.

The Iranian policy dynamic has long proven difficult to either fully comprehend or anticipate. The set of components is vast, as are the interdependent relationships (that are themselves shrouded in mystery). And while we stand by the title of this IntelBrief—Rouhani has most definitely generated optimism—any prediction of substantial breakthroughs in Iran’s relationship with the West would be precarious at best. Thus, rather than trying to be good at making a prediction about Iran under its new president, we will opt for being accurate at distinguishing this a prediction that cannot be reliably made.

On Wednesday and Thursday, we published a two-part IntelBrief series, Profiling al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Part 1 and Part 2). From its inception through its operational zenith and its retrenchment through its diversification, al Qaeda is both a story of complexity and one of predictions.

The morphing of Yemeni and Saudi branches of al Qaeda into al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has created what many view as one of the most dangerous of the organization’s affiliates. And many of its leaders continue to be shaped by their past experience with Osama bin Laden. These elements form only a small part of the inherent complexity.

While AQAP has been responsible for a number of lethal attacks, a substantial portion of its widespread recognition stems from its unsuccessful attempts (from the attempted assassination of a Saudi prince to the development of so-called “underwear bombs” used in thwarted attacks against US targets). In just the last week, AQAP was central to the recent closing of US and other Western embassies in the Middle East, a decision driven by information reportedly obtained from intercepted communications between Ayman al-Zawahiri and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leaders of al Qaeda and AQAP, respectively. These facts also add complexity.

However, the one aspect of AQAP—and many other terrorist groups—that undercuts the reliability of predictions about the organization actually stems from an attribute that could be considered a weakness rather than a strength.

While the components of al Qaeda have been tracked with relative ease as they emerge, transform, or disappear, it is the status of the organization’s leadership that has remained far more unresolved for counterterrorism analysts. This is especially true with respect to operational planning and shaping the organization’s ongoing narrative. Although there was a greater sense of clarity on this point during bin Laden’s tenure, even then the lines of authority were growing increasingly uncertain. Currently, Zawahiri is widely recognized as having assumed the leadership role for al Qaeda on a global scale, but there is evidence to suggest that this might be an overstatement of affairs. Predicting the decisions made by leaders is always a vexing task, but predicting the decisions of leaders with uncharted lines of authority borders on the impossible.

In contrast, what we can know with confidence is that the nature of the many interdependent components that comprise al Qaeda and its affiliates—including AQAP—in 2013 is not only uncertain, it has shown a propensity for rapid change. It is therefore not the lethal capabilities AQAP possesses (such as the bomb-making skills of Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri) that makes the organization an insidious threat; rather, it is the amorphous, transformational, and unpredictable nature of its decision-making process—the many unknowns that surround its version of leadership—that can be most worrisome.




Duncan Watts offers an intriguing observation about behavior: humans love to make predictions. To that, we would add a corollary: humans hate things that make predictions so maddeningly hard. Without question, extremist groups are to be included within the larger problem set of things that are difficult to predict. Perhaps that is a reason—and certainly not the only one—they are so widely hated.

It is a terrorist’s group uncompromising unpredictability that leads the West to spend extraordinary sums on anti- and counterterrorism programs. It is why embassies are closed based on the suggestion that an attack is imminent. And it is why terrorism captures the attention of the general population and, therefore, the political leaders they elect even though peanut allergies and car accidents involving deer regularly take more innocent lives than terrorist attacks.

Nonetheless, the reality facing those political leaders every day is that, when lives are at stake, it is not enough to simply recognize that most predictions are likely to be unreliable. 



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