To See The Future, Use The Logic Of Self-Interest

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita knows what will happen in the future on a host of critical questions. Will Iran develop a nuclear bomb? Will North Korea? What major companies or economies will merge, grow or fall apart? De Mesquita has been predicting the future for 30 years — to a reported 90 percent success rate. Host Scott Simon talks to him about the new book that reveals how his secret: The Predictioneer's Game: Using the Logic of Brazen Self-Interest to See and Shape the Future.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita knows what will happen in the future on a host of critical questions. Will Iran develop a nuclear bomb? Will North Korea? What major companies or economies will merge, grow or fall apart? Bruce Bueno de Mesquita has the answers. But who knows if they're right. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita has been predicting the future for 30 years now and he's considered to have a 90 percent success rate. He teaches politics at New York University and is a fellow at Stanford Hoover's Institution. He has a new book, �The Predictioneer's Game: Using the Logic of Brazen Self-Interest to See and Shape the Future.� He joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thank so much for being with us.

Professor BRUCE BUENO De MESQUITA (New York University): It's a great pleasure. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Now, it's called Game Theory, but let's explain. It doesn't use Monopoly money and you're not buying Boardwalk or Park Place. And you do use a lot of scientific scholarly methods. Explain them to us, if you could, please.

Prof. MESQUITA: Well, basically Game Theory is a mathematics for addressing how people make choices when they know that they're competing with other people. Game Theory starts from the supposition that people do what they think is in their best interest. And in the case of my models, the focus is on people generally wanting two things on issues. They want an outcome close to what they desire and they want to get credit for putting an agreement together. And they often have to trade off between those two. Different people trade off at different rates. And because they're self interested, we can predict that.

SIMON: How much can you talk about what you do for the CIA?

Prof. MESQUITA: Well, it depends on what you ask me. I can talk about some studies, and others, of course, I can't.

SIMON: Well, let me try this as question. Tell us the most remarkable thing you've learned.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MESQUITA: All right. I did an analysis on Iran for the National Intelligence Council a couple years ago. And I got an email from the key person responsible for nuclear proliferation issues a couple of days later, saying that he have been awake for two nights thinking about the arguments I had made and the holes that I was able to poke in the logic on the other side. I don't wish to claim any credit. Correlation is not causation, but this is the person who a few months later wrote the new National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that there is was not a lot of evidence that Iran was trying to build a bomb. So that to me is an important way to use a model to prompt that kind of debate.

SIMON: But this does raise another question. If you're the president of the United States, can you take even a 10 percent chance that a regime like that gets a nuclear weapon?

Prof. MESQUITA: Well, I think the right questions is, can you take a 90 percent chance of choosing the wrong course of action which may result in encouraging a regime like that to get nuclear weapons when they otherwise might not do so?

SIMON: Now, you're skeptical about the Copenhagen agreements on global warming working.

Prof. MESQUITA: That's right. If we look at what universal treaties do, they either get very high compliance, because they don't ask people to change their behavior, or they ask people to change their behavior in a dramatic way and then they lack the teeth to enforce punishment on violators. So if we reflect back on Kyoto, 175 countries signed Kyoto, 137 of the 175 were in complete compliance just by reporting on their emissions. That is, they didn't have to do anything. The remaining 38, pretty much in lock step, got online and announced they couldn't meet the standard and there was no punishment. Universal treaties have that exact characteristic, and so will Copenhagen. They are feel good arrangements.

SIMON: Do people, good and virtuous people, kind of cherry pick among what they considered to be important in life?

Prof. MESQUITA: I think that they do. You know, I ask my students, for example, would they give up their cell phones to have that money go to help poor people in the Third World to have better lives? And while in the abstract they're very concerned about the poor, they're not willing to give up their cell phones. They want somebody else to pay the price, not them.

SIMON: Professor, who is going to win the Super Bowl?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MESQUITA: Well, I don't know. I haven't thought about the Super Bowl yet. But I'm working on it.

SIMON: Professor De Mesquita, thanks very much.

Prof. MESQUITA: Thank you.

SIMON: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, professor at New York University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. His new book, �The Predictioneer's Game: Using the Logic of Brazen Self-Interest to See and Shape the Future.�

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: