February 13, 2014
For students of international conflict, 2013 provided plenty to examine. There was civil war in Syria, ethnic violence in China, and riots to the point of revolution in the Ukraine. For those working at Duke University’s Ward Lab, all specialists in predicting conflict, the year looks like a betting sheet, full of predictions that worked and others that didn’t pan out.
When the lab put out their semiannual predictions in July, they gave Paraguay a 97 percent chance of insurgency, largely based on reports of Marxist rebels. The next month, guerrilla campaigns intensified, proving out the prediction. In the case of China’s armed clashes between Uighurs and Hans, the models showed a 33 percent chance of violence, even as the cause of each individual flare-up was concealed by the country’s state-run media. On the other hand, the unrest in the Ukraine didn’t start raising alarms until the action had already started, so the country was left off the report entirely.
According to Ward Lab’s staff, the purpose of the project isn’t to make predictions but to test theories. If a certain theory of geopolitics can predict an uprising in the Ukraine, then maybe that theory is onto something. And even if these specialists could predict every conflict, it would only be half the battle. “It’s a success only if it doesn’t come at the cost of predicting a lot of incidents that don’t occur,” says Michael D. Ward, the lab’s founder and chief investigator, who also runs the blog Predictive Heuristics. “But it suggests that we might be on the right track.”