Dept. of Irony

Some readers didn't quite get our joke.

Eric Pape's dispatch from Luxembourg ("The Lap of Luxembourgery," September/October 2011) was an experiment in irony -- an attempt to poke fun at the type of parachute journalism that leads Western journalists to make sweeping generalizations about the countries they visit based on brief discussions with cab drivers and hotel clerks. We thought that over-the-top phrases such as the "armpit of the European Union" and descriptions of a "young revolutionary in the making, forced into exile for his creative vision" would tip people off that we weren't quite serious. Judging by the comments the piece generated online, some folks don't seem to have gotten the joke.

"How can you get the essence of a country with such a short visit and by talking to largely unrepresentative persons? I've lived there for more than 13 years, and it's nowhere near what you are picturing," fumed OLIVIER101.

"I am a teacher in Luxembourg, and one of my students brought in this article to know if it was really as uninformed as it appeared to her. I was flabbergasted by the terrible quality of the journalism. The sources Pape cites are poor representations of the country," complains MIKEYMANNON.

SUPERJHEMP called the article, "Typical bullshit ... to fool the American John Doe, who still thinks that the U.S. is the only legal country on Earth and all others are either evil communist leftovers or some lost spots undermined by Islam."

Pape found himself compared to Hitler and called a cancer on American journalism by angry Luxembourgers. His hard work was dismissed as the "ramblings of a jealous Parisian." (Sorry, Eric!)

A few folks got it, though. MARTEILLE sighed, "For a moment, I thought the author was being serious here. Kind of wish I was born in Luxembourg. Oh well."


Waiting for the Revolutions

Don't blame the experts who didn't see the Arab Spring coming.

Blake Hounshell is right ("Dark Crystal," July/August 2011) that "experts," including myself, failed to predict the Arab revolutions. However, there are a few nuances that may make us appear less inept.

First, any revolution, as Charles Kurzman correctly notes, is a low-to-moderate probability event in any given year. We can do a very good job distinguishing more unstable states from very stable ones, but we can't always say which state or states will have a crisis next year. Similarly, a doctor may be able to say that patients who are overweight and have high blood pressure are at a much higher risk of having a heart attack, but can't know which patient is going to have a cardiac episode in the coming year.

More importantly, our forecasting models are capable of being adjusted in response to events. Once the Tunisian revolution occurred (unexpectedly!), we were able to look more closely at conditions in neighboring states and change our forecasts to anticipate a breakdown of order. We were much better able to anticipate the rebellion in Libya, and my May/June Foreign Affairs article, which was originally drafted and circulated at the beginning of March, correctly anticipated the Syrian uprising that began on March 15. It also correctly forecast that the monarchies in Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia would remain far more stable than the personalist dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. So while we may have missed the first onset of events, our analysis was still helpful in other respects.

It would be ideal if everything in the world of politics were nicely predictable. But we are still far from being able to say exactly when and where one will strike.

Professor of Public Policy
George Mason University
Arlington, Va.

Blake Hounshell replies:

Let me first humbly submit that I didn't predict the Arab revolutions either; nor did a number of other quantitative models of instability, including some very expensive systems used by U.S. government agencies. The one prominent individual I've found who claimed to have called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's fall ahead of time was Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a political scientist whose forecasting models are used by … U.S. government agencies. I did not mean to single out Goldstone or his work, for which I have the highest regard.

Indeed, I have no doubt that quantifying political upheaval is a difficult but worthy endeavor, and I wish Goldstone well as he refines his models. In the right hands, they clearly have much to tell us -- and perhaps we'll even be better prepared for the next round of falling dictators, like, say, Belarus's Aleksandr Lukashenko and North Korea's Kim Jong Il.

In the meantime, as Mark Abdollahian, whose Sentia Group does forecasting work for various government agencies, told Wired magazine in February: "Think of this like Las Vegas. In blackjack, if you can do 4 percent better than the average, you're making real money."

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images