Tatyana Deryugina (Twitter: @TDeryugina)

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Middle East Revolutions

Posted 23 Feb 11 by Tatyana

It seems like everyone is giving their opinion on what’s happening in the Middle East. Instead of offering my opinion on the unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Lybia, and Bahrain, I will offer my opinion on everyone else’s opinion: the variance in what could happen is pretty large and most people making specific predictions will be wrong. Imagine you’re drawing a ball from an urn with 55 red balls and 45 white ones. If you had to guess the color of the ball that will come up, you will guess red. But there’s a 45 percent chance you will be wrong.

Now imagine you have many outcomes, ranging from transition to democracy and rapid economic growth to civil war and chaos. If you had to guess, you will pick the most likely one. But if there are dozens of potential outcomes (broadly classified), chances are that you will be wrong anyway. Many people thought the fall of the Soviet Union would be be bloody and it wasn’t. Expert economists though the US welfare reforms in the 1990′s would be devastating for potential recipients and they didn’t seem to be. The government claimed (perhaps dishonestly) that the military campaign in Afghanistan would take a few months. Some of these mistakes may have happened not because people are bad at guessing, but simply because the variance of the outcomes is extremely high.

So next time you want to make a prediction that has a high chance of being correct, just pick the prevailing opinion and go against it. Obviously, this will only work if the prevailing opinion represents less than 50% of possible outcomes, which it often does.

My only confident guess is that the outcomes in the Middle Eastern countries will be correlated with each other. It’s hard to hold on to power when other dictators are overthrown. But it’s also easier to attack your own citizens if your neighbor is doing it.

What I know for sure is there are over 30 ways to spell "Gadhafi” using the Latin alphabet. And, in all seriousness, the events of the Middle East make me appreciate living in the US that much more. I hope more blood isn’t spilled, although at this point that seems inevitable.

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