When Forecasts Fail: Unpredictability in Israeli-Palestinian Interaction

Charles Kurzman, Aseem Hasnain

Sociological Science, June 23, 2014
DOI 10.15195/v1.a16



This article explores the paradox that forecasts may be most likely to fail during dramatic moments of historic change that social scientists are most eager to predict. It distinguishes among four types of shocks that can undermine the predictive power of time series analyses: effect shocks that change the size of the causal effect; input shocks that change the causal variables; duration shocks that change how long a causal effect lasts; and actor shocks that change the number of agents in the system. The significance of these shocks is illustrated in Israeli–Palestinian interactions, one of the contemporary world’s most intensely scrutinized episodes, using vector autogression analyses of more than 15,000 Reuters news stories over the past three decades. The intervention of these shocks raises the prospect that some historic episodes may be unpredictable, even retrospectively.

Charles Kurzman: Department of Sociology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. E-mail: [email protected]

Aseem Hasnain: Department of Sociology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. E-mail: [email protected]

  • Citation:Kurzman, Charles and Aseem Hasnain. 2014. “When Forecasts Fail: Unpredictability in Israeli-Palestinian Interaction.” Sociological Science 1: 239-259.
  • Received: March 7, 2014
  • Accepted: April 23, 2014
  • Editors: Jesper Sørensen, Delia Baldassarri
  • DOI: 10.15195/v1.a16

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One Reaction to When Forecasts Fail: Unpredictability in Israeli-Palestinian Interaction

  1. Colin J. Beck October 20, 2014 at 6:05 pm #

    This is a nice study that documents some of Kurzman’s previous assertions about contingency in political conflict well. While the data and methods of the study are sound, I think the authors unnecessarily conflate prediction and forecasting as well as forecasting and retrocasting.

    First as footnote 1 describes, prediction and forecasting mean two separate things. While Kurzman and Hasnain are correct that some scholars use them interchangeably, this does not mean that they are, in fact, the same. Prediction involves specifics – what will happen, where, and when? Forecasting, on the other hand, is about probabilities – what is likely to happen?. Kurzman and Hasnain show well that prediction does not work in Israeli-Palestinian interaction. However, forecasting certainly does. Interactions here are structured by the long term Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So we may not be able to predict the degree of interaction, but we certainly know that there is some and that, in all probability, it will continue.

    Second, forecasting (even when used as Kurzman and Hasnain do) and retrocasting are different beasts, and failure in one does not need imply failure in the other. One is about the future, while the other is about the explanation of the past. Even if forecasting is not possible, retroactive explanation still is. While we may not be able to retrocast shocks with quantitative time series analyses, we can certainly build theories and conduct other forms of analysis that take them into account.

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