Thursday, February 20, 2014

Are Think Tanks Good at Predicting the Future?

The recent questions raised about the relevancy of university professors brought our attention to a 138-page Stimson Center study from May 2011 titled "Seismic Shift: Understanding Change in the Middle East."

That study, conducted after the start of the so-called Arab Spring, evaluates how different sectors of society (government, universities, think tanks, NGOs, etc...) predicted the prospects for change in the Middle East.

It notes that no academic specialist (i.e., university professor) on the Middle East predicted the timing and extent of the region-wide upheavals of the Arab world that began in December 2010.

The same study, which was cited in Nick Kristof's recent New York Times piece on university professors, notes that "think tank experts generally believed that the long period of authoritarianism in the Arab world was not sustainable, that gradual reforms from the top were not sufficient, and that change would more likely be violent than not.  Few however, knew where, when, and how the change would occur."

Does it even matter that Middle East studies failed to predict the Arab Spring?

Here are the 14 rules for predicting future geopolitical events.

The Stimson Center, founded in 1989, was recently ranked as the 29th best think tank in the United States in the annual University of Pennsylvania think tank rankings.  It was also ranked as the 53rd best think tank in the world for defense and national security affairs.