Predicting Revolution – After the Fact

Factors predicted four others ahead of Egypt, so are eliminated

Contempt runs deep in many parts of the so-called Western cultures for the people of Africa, Asia Minor, and South Asia (“…but for the miracle of Israel!”, you might hear said or, “…I just loved dynamic and wonderful New Delhi!”). That contempt, rarely much hidden, is often expressed in proud contrast to everything clean, modern or sophisticated, in the fantasy life of the speaker, associated with Europe, America, or Canada. Nowhere is that contempt so readily invoked as on the news, in drama, and in political talk to invoke in the audience a sense of the pitiful and induce an opinion about their own superiority in contrast.

The readership of The Economist includes a few actual economists, some industry leaders or those who aspire to such leadership, some politicians and, most of all, those who want to appear serious, conservative and respectably knowledgeable about the financial condition of the world. To most of these — I think I am safe in making the blunt characterization here — the “Arab world” consists of little more than a fifteen second report with predictably violent graphics presented each evening after dinner and just before the late night variety show on their favorite television station.

Earlier today, I read with my own two eyes, the frivolous sounding phrase “shoe thrower’s index” and knew instantly that this could only be either the brainchild of a comic genius or the most pretentious if subtle attempt at veiling racist condescension. Happily, it was the latter: An unnamed author at The Economist wrote a perky essay 1 having only the thinest, slippery stink of scholarship. It read like the opening (or closing) chapter on how to make a struggle for life appear perfectly frivolous while appearing to answer the question, “Which Arab nation is next?”

Let me save you the trouble of reading: They didn’t answer the question.

Unable to quite hail the efforts of those in a desperate fight for freedom or acknowledge real and enraged demands for keeping the last shreds of dignity, the author chose instead to write lightly of the spread of the “scent of jasmine”. Perhaps no one noticed “it” had already been “spreading” long before anyone at The Economist ever noticed or bothered to investigate. I will be the first to admit that “Shoe Thrower’s Index” is certainly a more entertaining phrase than the stuffy “stability index”, but a question about stability and revolution really is the question the author purports to answer. You might be a little surprised to discover, shortly, what is actually being predicted.

Along the way, we read in the fine print that some fairly important groups of people (entire countries, actually) are simply eliminated from the count: Excluded are Djibouti, Comoros, the “Palestinian territories”, Somalia, and Sudan. Cutting away at all actually useful data, we find that the author only counts statistical scores from just the last year. Never mind that, by way of example, publicized labor strikes, demonstrations and revolts began in Tunisia well over two years ago!

To a few odd metrics are added a few more; others are taken, differing weights are ascribed without any meaning or justification; other metrics merely dismissed. “Dissent” and “unemployment” did not figure large in their calculations. But, continuing along pluckily after glossing over all of the most important factors, we are presented with “youth population”. This made up a full 35% of the so-called “index! Another 5% for the absolute number of people younger than 25 , “years the government in power”, 15%; corruption and democracy, only 15%, measured by existing indices (not cited!!); Gross Domestic Product per person, 10%; censorship, just 5%.

Maybe you saw it already as it rushed by?

“Shoe-Thrower’s index” seems to have sprung forth in an effort, perhaps, to make the uncomfortable mention of revolution read like a comic opera. Inadvertently, The Economist simply came up with a humorous way to call “How Many Young People are in a Country” an “index”! They could have saved a lot of research (and reading time) by simply quoting those numbers from the beginning!

Fully 40% of the index consists of a count of young people!

This little light romp through the statistical prediction circus which is the Middle East according to The Economist seems to me to be little more than a reduction of all of the hope and weariness, frustration and anger to a single comic figure, an impotent projectile, a shoe; and to sloppy paragraphs of prattling and random equivocating full of gray, half-assertions about nothing.

Too bad, isn’t it, that the numbers don’t quite fit with reality: The after-the-fact, so-called “prediction” would have us think that:
“Jordan comes out surprisingly low on the chart, which suggests the weighting might need to be tweaked.”

That bit, followed with a request for “suggestions in the comments below”, so they can refine the prediction, I suppose. Wake me when they are done feeding the trolls.

What do you, dear reader, expect of a prediction? What importance would you place in an index which has eliminated the most important data and reduced the sample set to include only those factors which appear to match the outcome? The predictive power of this index comes from the fact that the data sample was effectively taken while the revolution was already in progress!

I predict that Shoe Thrower’s Index will enter lightly into common usage and will be blurted out, every time with a fatuous chuckle, whenever mention is made of struggle or revolution in any African or Asian Muslim country.

[Update: Since I wrote this in 2011, I have yet to hear anyone use this fatuous phrase. I am not chagrined in the least. Let’s raise a toast for humanity!]

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