Essays

Predicting armed conflict: Time to adjust our expectations?

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Science  03 Feb 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6324, pp. 474-476
DOI: 10.1126/science.aal4483

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  • RE: Predicting armed conflict and preventing it
    • Yaneer Bar-Yam, Complex systems scientist, New England Complex Systems Institute and MIT

    A recent article by Cederman and Weidmann (1) points to a need for caution in expectations about predictive models of armed conflict, and a need for better theory that will clarify causal relationships. We note that our predictions of mass violence due to ethnic geography and food prices begin from an identification of the most relevant parameters (2) and despite very few parameters have demonstrated predictive utility in multiple distinct contexts providing strong validation and a guide to effective interventions. The interventions have also been validated (3,4). While surprise is often considered to be the hallmark of a new scientific contribution, it is hard to argue with the statement that riots can be prevented by making sure that people have enough food to feed their families--so that the price of food is important. It is more subtle, but quite reasonable, that conflict between ethnic groups is reduced if borders or barriers provide autonomy for each to pursue behaviors that would antagonize others due to differences that are important to each group. Scientific understanding can help us achieve peaceful coexistence in the real world.

    In citing our paper, the article by Cederman and Weidmann states “Lim et al. (19) purported to predict the location of ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia with a complex agent-based model. Although the model’s predictive accuracy looks impressive at first blush, further scrutiny shows that this performance is very close to a...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.