(It's quite difficult to decide which of the three is most attention-grabbing, isn't it?)
It's very rare occasion indeed when a political scientist is profiled in the news these days. The vast majority of academics making front-page news are generally economists, with political scientists of the caliber of a Samuel Huntington or Joseph Nye (to name but two of the more well-known names in the business) assuming somewhat of an ambivalent position on the global, intellectual stage.
There is, moreover, ongoing debate within the field of political science over the disjuncture or applicability (depending on your point of view) of the theory of political science to its practice, with many asserting the irrelevance of the discipline to everyday political reality. It is precisely for this reason that I was quite thrilled to see the NYTimes' piece profiling the work of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita this weekend (the piece was actually published last week, but I only noticed it on Sunday!). Bueno de Mesquita is a game theorist who employs rational choice theory to predict political and foreign policy events, and is quite generally well-known for authoring the selectorate theory. While I do have several methodological bones to pick with him (I am not a subscriber to the 'rational choice trumps all' school of thought), I nevertheless find his work most interesting and indeed worthy of note.
Bueno de Mesquita's recent project is that of forecasting when and whether Iran will build a nuclear bomb:
With the help of his undergraduate class at N.Y.U., he researched the primary power brokers inside and outside the country — anyone with a stake in Iran’s nuclear future. Once he had the information he needed, he fed it into his computer model and had an answer in a few minutes.
[...] The spreadsheet included almost 90 players. Some were people, like the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; others were groups, like the U.N. Security Council and Iran’s “religious radicals.” Next to each player, a number represented one variable in Bueno de Mesquita’s model: the extent to which a player wanted Iran to have the ability to make nuclear weapons. The scale went from 0 to 200, with 0 being “no nuclear capacity at all” and 200 representing a test of a nuclear missile.
At the beginning of the simulation, the positions were what you would expect. The United States and Israel and most of Europe wanted Iran to have virtually no nuclear capacity, so their preferred outcomes were close to zero. In contrast, the Iranian hard-liners were aggressive. “This is not only ‘Build a bomb,’ ” Bueno de Mesquita said, characterizing their position. “It’s probably: ‘We should test a bomb.’ ”
But as the computer model ran forward in time, through 2009 and into 2010, positions shifted. American and Israeli national-security players grudgingly accepted that they could tolerate Iran having some civilian nuclear-energy capacity. Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and the religious radicals wavered; then, as the model reached our present day, their power — another variable in Bueno de Mesquita’s model — sagged significantly.
Amid the thousands of rows on the spreadsheet, there’s one called Forecast. It consists of a single number that represents the most likely consensus of all the players. It begins at 160 — bomb-making territory — but by next year settles at 118, where it doesn’t move much. “That’s the outcome,” Bueno de Mesquita said confidently, tapping the screen.
What does 118 mean? It means that Iran won’t make a nuclear bomb. By early 2010, according to the forecast, Iran will be at the brink of developing one, but then it will stop and go no further. If this computer model is right, all the dire portents we’ve seen in recent months — the brutal crackdown on protesters, the dubious confessions, Khamenei’s accusations of American subterfuge — are masking a tectonic shift. The moderates are winning, even if we cannot see that yet.
Whether you agree or disagree with his methodological approach - and indeed its outcome - it's difficult not to agree that his is a fascinating analysis. One seemingly capable of bringing political science back into the spotlight - or at the very least the NYTimes.