Can Science Predict Political Turmoil?

01/04/2016 11:19 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2017

The big brain pundits are engaged in their annual round of new year-predictions about major world events. But if the past is any measure they will fail miserably. A legion of experts on the Middle East failed to predict the rise of the Islamic State, much less the attacks in Paris and elsewhere over the past few weeks. Neither did a generation of Sovietologists foresee that street protests would lead to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and finally the Soviet empire, nor Arabists the Arab Spring, nor international observers the outbreak of World War I. Does the rise of Trump herald an era of home-grown fascism? Human intelligence and vast quantities of metadata seem ill-equipped to help forecast geopolitical events at this scale. Despite decades of sophisticated political science and game theorizing, the truth is that we are very bad at anticipating great historic turns. Why?

The obvious answer is that human affairs are simply too complex to be predicted at the scale and precision that political leaders and security officials require. But many complex systems and processes have been modeled well enough to provide a modicum of predictive power. As recent hurricane forecasts have shown meteorology is far from perfect, but surely the French government would have preferred to overreact to a warning than to be caught so unprepared for barbaric attacks. In the next weeks and months, extant methods of intelligence gathering will no doubt be intensified and perhaps improved, yet, in reality, the change will be quantitative rather than qualitative.

Some believe that advances in certain fields, like neuroscience and genetics, combined with traditional disciplines like anthropology and criminology, as well as longstanding arts of observation and analysis, can change the way political forecasting is done. The idea is not entirely new. During the Second World War, the Office for Strategic Services commissioned a group of psychologists to predict how Adolf Hitler would react to defeat, and in the 1950s, various intelligence agencies enlisted sophisticated social science in an attempt to better understand group behavior. More recently, experimental psychologists have described phenomena like "learned helplessness" and optimistic personality types, also concepts that intelligence and military officials have found provocative.

Granted, it's hard to demonstrate that these forays into cutting edge science have made a difference. In some cases, the pressure to examine any and all potential advantages over an adversary have proven truly embarrassing, like Cold War experiments with telekinesis and "remote viewing," and even gross violations of human rights like dosing people with LSD.

However, over the past 25 years certain basic biological sciences have acquired new tools that helped provide compelling foundational knowledge about the brain and behavior. New technologies are producing wiring diagrams of the brain and examining how neural systems are produced and regulated by perhaps 8,000 genes. Using scans, computers and sophisticated algorithms there are now many ways to examine brain activity in the laboratory under a variety of stimulus conditions.

These studies of basic biology are being linked to social psychology, such as the ways that different cultures interpret facial expressions and how those interpretations are reflected in brain activity. A team at Northwestern University found that groups of people in Japan and the United States had significant differences in neurological responses to images of faces that showed fear, differences that registered in a brain organ called the amygdala. Related work is being done on empathy for those in one's own racial group as compared to others. Activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which seems to play an important role in complex thought, is associated with self-reports of empathy for pictures of distressed people thought to be members of one's own racial group.

Also being studied is whether these responses are at least partly mediated by the large blocks of inherited genes that help define each ethnicity. However, these kinds of in-group/out-group biases are not simply built into are genes, but result from developmental processes of environmental interaction with genetics that are studied in a field called epigenetics, therefore these attitudes can be studied and modified. MIT researchers have found some evidence that groups with less perceived power can change their attitudes toward those with seen as dominating them (e.g., Palestinians and Israelis) if they are given the opportunity to speak and be listened to, though it's not clear how long that effect lasts.

Of course, the ultimate applications of such knowledge would have to take place outside the lab, so it is important to associate such data with the ways people actually understand the world. To that end, one ingenious Defense Department project aims to learn how stories influence political radicalization and the way groups are moved by narratives. Stories we tell ourselves about our purpose and place in the world follow a certain logic and help explain how people make moral judgments. The same processes take place in the minds of terrorists.

Though it will take a long time to know whether all this science can provide useful information about the antecedents of violent political extremism, that conversation has already begun. In 2010, I was a panelist at a workshop sponsored by several military and civilian agencies where some of the work I have described was presented. Entitled "The Neurobiology of Political Violence," the goal was to facilitate a state-of-the-art discussion among neuroscientists and social scientists. Some speakers were frankly skeptical that the most far-out vision of deterring terrorism could be realized, while others suggested that at least it should be possible to provide cues for intelligence collection. It could be important to know that before an important negotiation Alexander Putin had a massage that increased his production of the "trust hormone" oxytocin.

It's a big step from Putin's massage to anticipating something like a terrorist attack, much less an historic geopolitical event. Even if it were attainable, that kind of knowledge would present hazardous prospects of its own. A frankly repressive regime could anticipate and suppress social developments that could someday lead to a morally justified insurrection. But any futuristic forecasting system that integrates knowledge from basic biology to social psychology would still only produce predictive models with large margins of error. Anyone looking for laws of future history would do best to consult the writings of Isaac Asimov, for that idea will remain the province of science fiction.

What is not fictional is that governments will continue to seek any strategic advantages that science might enable them to achieve, and advances in neurobiology do present fascinating opportunities that can't be ignored. Unfortunately, as has happened before even benign governments could over-interpret forecasts provided by those who are regarded as "experts," especially if they clothe their predictions in fancy science. Less admirable states could use them as excuses for preventive first-strikes on adversaries. The risks and benefits of any emerging technology suffer from what has been called the Collingridge dilemma, that it can't be controlled until it has been developed and used.

In the end, it seems we are at risk of being what my grandmother would have called too clever by half, and it might be that we won't know where that line is until we have crossed it.