Last week, my Foreign Policy colleague Marc Lynch made a strong case that the theoretical lesson to be learned from the Ryan Braun steroid saga is to trust the generalists: "Braun's case was unique ... until it wasn't. Everybody thinks that their own case is unique, and of course it's true that every case is unique in a million little different ways. But there are also broad patterns and mechanisms which seem to play out repeatedly across lots of those unique cases."
As a generalist myself, I am deeply sympathetic to Lynch's argument -- and indeed, the latest developments in the Biogenesis scandal do confirm certain truisms (like: A-Rod is a jerk). That said, I would argue that this summer's crop of movie duds offers a cautionary tale to balance my colleague's argument that foreign policy analysis could do with some more "Nate Silver-ing."
Why are so many summer blockbusters doing so badly? In a brilliant meta-essay at FP's sister publication Slate, Peter Suderman explained that one problem was that too many Hollywood films were adhering too closely to a single homogenous formula. Too many screenplays followed the beats that the author of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot spelled out in his guide to writing a successful Hollywood movie. The result is that, consciously or not, the movie-going audience can see every beat ("false victory," "all-is-lost moment," "dark night of the soul") before it happens. It's comforting, but literally formulaic, and eventually the viewer gets bored.
What does this have to do with foreign policy analysis? All too often, world affairs commentators try to fit a new situation into a prefabricated narrative. It's how our monkey-brains work -- we see patterns, we fit patterns, we predict patterns. Lynch argues that these patterns hold some predictive power. Yes, predictability is good -- if the underlying situation is actually predictable. But any reader of The Signal and the Noise will tell you that there are hard limits to predictive models. Echoing Harvard political scientist Gary King, Silver observed that there remains an awful lot of phenomena where the amount of unexplainable variation remains pretty large. If analysts try to over-apply known narratives to unclear situations, they risk looking even more foolish than the prognosticators in Philip Tetlock books. Indeed, as first David Hume and then XKCD has pointed out, just because something hasn't happened before does not mean it won't happen in the future.
To see what I mean, consider the question of whether China is rising or falling. Up until, oh, about two months ago, it was not hard to find author after author explaining in laborious detail how China had finally perfected a growth model that looked very different from the Washington Consensus. The "Beijing Consensus" or "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" or "China model" of development included a prominent role for a bevy of state institutions, including national development banks, sovereign wealth funds, and state-owned enterprises. China's impressive rates of growth fuelled a narrative of a country's inexorable rise -- so much so that U.S. representative Michele Bachmann praised Chinese policies, while Chinese leaders talked about the importance of re-reading Thucydides.