Predicting the War; Predicting the Consequences
What can we learn about what might happen next from pre-war predictions?
I’m definitely not the military expert in the family but I do have a longstanding interest in prediction and forecasting. Phillip Tetlock and team have shown that, while most pundits’ predictions are no better than random guesses, some people do make consistently better forecasts than others. These “superforecasters” tend to be open-minded, good at seeing a wide range of perspectives, not closely tied to an ideological worldview, and relatively immune to cognitive biases.
In war predictions are particularly important because being able to correctly assess what your opponent will do offers a significant strategic advantage. It’s also an unusually difficult context to make predictions. First because the protagonists have a strong incentive to mislead and give out false information and misdirection. Secondly because in most wars, certainly the Russo-Ukraine one, it’s impossible to avoid becoming emotionally involved, which makes it much harder to avoid those biases and remain open-minded.
On the other hand, those of us observing from a distance have far more information, whether from geolocated video or open-source satellite footage, than in the past. Anyone on twitter can, if they filter information well, be better informed about the real-time course of the war than Eisenhower was about Korea or LBJ was about Vietnam.
In this piece I’m going to start by looking at predictions made before the war, both about whether it would happen and how it would go if it did. These can help us tease us some general lessons around the art of making predictions, and can also help explain the position the combatants now find themselves in. In the final section I will look at why it’s so hard to predict what might happen next and what that tells us about the potential consequences of the war.
Predicting the war
By the end of last year there was very little doubt that Putin could choose to invade Ukraine relatively quickly. He was very visibly building up forces on the border and making demands to NATO. Moreover US and UK intelligence services were unusually open in stating they believed Putin intended to invade. As early at 4th December US intelligence outlined the invasion plan that was, more or less, enacted just over a fortnight ago. By 11th February they were clear he had decided to invade.
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