Neighborhoods and tipping points

I don’t know if I really believe this article by Lustick and Miodownick, but it’s interesting. Following the analysis of simulations from a simple mathematical model, they write,

In this paper’s introduction we [Lustick and Miodownick] mentioned the contrast between predictions by American policy-makers that a powerful cascade among Iraqis toward democracy and against the Saddam regime would be triggered by the American-led invasion. That did not occur. What cascades of change did occur included, in the first instance, local tips toward looting and, over subsequent years, convergence of networks of clans, Jihadi fundamentalists, angry patriots, and former Saddam loyalists, on patterns of violent resistance collectively known, now, as “the insurgency.” Our findings lead us to conjecture that the expectation of a rapid and powerful tip toward revolution against Saddam’s regime and toward democracy following the arrival of US troops was in part the result of ignoring the effects of spatiality. Convinced that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis would benefit from the fall of Saddam and that same majority would recognize this, American strategists expected ambitious Iraqis to launch strikes against Saddam’s forces, thereby leading other Iraqis to join quickly in the battle so as to be identified with the new order. But as in our models, so too in Iraq, operative zones of knowledge were smaller–operating saliently at the clan, religious sect, tribal, ethnic, or regional levels. This helped produced differently directed cascades among different networks, a pattern that made the future that did ensue, featuring political and regional fragmentation and contrary beliefs among different segments of the population regarding the likely outcome of current political struggles, if not inevitable, than much more likely than the hoped for future of a universal tip toward a democratic, pro-American Iraq.

A similar application of our line of analysis could help Kuran explain why the dictatorial rule of Aleksander Lukashenko is still intact in Belarus. Although Lukashenko is enormously unpopular, fearful Belarussians prefer living the lie to risking personal loss by joining a “denim revolution” that might not succeed in toppling him. Recent reporting suggests that the smallness of the zones of knowledge of individual Belarussians deprive them of virtually all communication opportunities apart from word of mouth techniques among close friends and acquaintances. Until these zones are expanded by samizdat or other techniques, Lukashenko can sustain his dictatorship by winning phony “election” majorities, despite the activities of brave activists and the true preferences of the mass of citizens.

As I said, I don’t know how much to believe it, but it would be good if these agent-based models could give insights into these sorts of contingent processes. Lustick will be speaking on the paper this Wednesday at noon.

2 thoughts on “Neighborhoods and tipping points

  1. As a regular reader who picks up a lot from your posts and the papers you link to, I'd be interested to know what is it about the paper that do you not believe? The thesis, the method, or what?

    I read the paper and it makes some kind of intuitive sense to me, and seems valuable. As an outsider in that area, I foud their survey very helpful. My only doubt was that it did seem that they were modelling a homogeneous neighbourhood size throughout the population in each run. The mechanical properties of solids (brittleness and toughness) are determined not so much by average or normal characteristics of the lattice, but by lattice imperfections (even though they may be very rare). In the same way, I suspect that inhomogeneities in neighbourhood size may provide faults or breaks that cascades can run along or be stopped at, and that this inhomogeneity may be more important than the average level of neighbourhood size. But that is, of course, based on nothing but Sunday-night idle thinking.

    One thing that did not seem likely is their implicit suggestion that the story of American intervention in Iraq is a story of a well-meaning but misjudged estimate of the likelihood of tipping. But that's another story..

  2. This is gibberish, and wrong from the start. There was a powerful cascade toward democracy. Just look at how many voted. There was an insurgency, but not in support of the Saddam regime. The Saddam regime was defeated in the first couple of months of the war. After that, there was no Saddam regime for anyone to support.

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