How a Political Scientist Knows What Our Enemies Will Do (Often Before They Do)

Political scientists have now added rigorous mathematical techniques to their social-science toolbox, creating methods to explain—and even predict—the actions of adversaries, thus making society safer as well as smarter. Such techniques allowed the U.S. government to predict the fall of President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines in 1986, helping hatch a strategy to ease him out of office and avoid political chaos in that nation. And at Los Angeles International Airport a computer system predicts the tactical calculations of criminals and terrorists, making sure that patrols and checkpoints are placed in ways that adversaries can’t exploit.

The advances in solving the puzzle of human behavior represent a dramatic turnaround for the field of political science, notes Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a professor of politics at New York University. “In the mid-1960s, I took a statistics course,” he recalls, “and my undergraduate advisor was appalled. He told me that I was wasting my time.” It took researchers many years of patient work, putting piece after piece of the puzzle of human behavior together, to arrive at today’s new knowledge. The result has been dramatic progress in the nation’s ability to protect its interests at home and abroad.

Social scientists have not abandoned the proven tools that Bueno de Mesquita and generations of other scholars acquired as they mastered their discipline. Rather, adding the rigor of mathematical analysis has allowed them to solve more of the puzzle. Mathematical models of human behavior let social scientists assemble a picture of the previously unnoticed forces that drive behavior—forces common to all situations, operating below the emotions, drama, and history that make each conflict unique….(More)”