The Skeptics

Analysis—What Is It Good For?

Writing at The Duck of Minerva, Brian Rathbun has some harsh words for so-called “foreign policy analysts” who hazarded predictions about how the Libyan intervention would unfold, referring to them, literally, as “dumbasses.”

Rathbun’s beef is less with the pessimism that characterized many of these predictions. It is with the act of prediction itself. In Rathbun’s words:

I wish we could just admit that we generally have no earthly idea how a civil war, humanitarian intervention, tsunami response, military coup, financial crisis, etc. will work out. I am an international relations academic not because I don't want to be on TV, but because I have a sense of shame and dignity. I simply could not get up in front of millions, or even dozens, of people and claim that I had any notion of how any of those things was going to work out. We can only work out explanations well after the fact when we know what was going on the ground, what people were thinking, etc. Every social phenomena of interest is simply too complicated.

Yes, social phenomena—wars, for example—are complicated, which is exactly why we engage in analysis, placing new developments in some theoretical and historical context. It is analysis that allows us to diagnose situations, to evaluate policy options, and, yes, to make predictions. How could it be otherwise? What analytical exercise worth its salt yields no predictions whatsoever? Every decision to undertake—or forego—a policy rests on some sort of expectation about the consequences of action or inaction.

Rathbun is right that such predictions often turn out to be wrong. This should lead us to be appropriately modest about the strength of our analytical tools and keep us open to the possibility that our best guesses will be confounded. But if the best that we in the academic community can offer to policymakers is “explanations well after the fact,” then perhaps they are right to generally disregard us.

Rather than ridicule experts and pundits for making predictions, why not pay them the compliment of taking those predictions seriously and, even better, holding them accountable for errant predictions? In the Libya case, the security studies community was divided as to whether intervention made sense and how it would unfold. Those who predicted the worst should be asked why catastrophe did not ensue; those who were more hopeful should not feel wholly vindicated, as a decent outcome is by no means a foregone conclusion and, regardless, the stakes do not justify much more than the effort that was made.

The problem, in short, is not prediction, but prediction without consequences. Predictions should not only be encouraged, but used to hold analysts accountable. The hope, however naïve, is that better analysis will result.