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Predicting Uprisings Is Like Predicting the Weather–You Get It Right, Until You Don’t

March 11, 2011

A story on NPR today makes the same point I made a month ago in my blog post Feb 11, to whit:

Analysts inside and outside government sometimes get caught flat-footed by changing circumstances.It might have been impossible for intelligence agencies to predict that the current season of protests and regime changes in North Africa and the Middle East was about to occur.

Some things are easy to predict because the data is clear. Many of us made predictions about the Iraq War that dumbfounded our students not because they weren’t obvious–they were, and even people in the Bush administration were making them (but not being heard)–but because they were completely at odds with what they were hearing on the media.

(To be completely honest, although I knew there could not be anything substantial by way of “weapons of mass destruction”, I was suckered by the absolute certainty of the administration and thought there must be something that their intelligence was misinterpreting as wmds. To my knowledge, William Beeman was the only person who came right out, from the very beginning, and said publicly that we would not find any wmds. For which he was branded as unpatriotic in many quarters).

But as social scientists/analysts, we have to work from actual data, which means historical precedent and awareness of factors that might change the pattern. Some people had made predictions that “nothing will be the same after 2005” only to watch things return to “the same”. Even as events got underway Jan. 25th, there was little evidence that the protests would break the precedents of 2008, 2005, etc.

Fortunately, I love surprises.And the people of Egypt continue to surprise me in the most interesting ways.

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