Scenario modelling

One of the more regular questions we get from students of Politics/IR is ‘what’s going to happen on X?’

We study political events, they see political events and not unreasonably assume we know how it will all play out.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. As my own track record on assorted elections, referendums and scandals has demonstrated.

But the question still remains a good one, because it’s an opportunity to apply theory to practice, and to appreciate where the uncertainties lie.

Of course, right now the invasion of Ukraine is the big example on many peoples’ minds in Europe, but you could add in the looming SCOTUS decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, or the renewed tensions in North Korea, or Taiwan’s situation, or pretty much anything else really.

Each of this political situations has a wide range of possible outcomes, so working through what those might be and the factors that might weigh in deciding between is a useful exercise, for students and colleagues.

This reminds me of the excellent work done by Jon Worth during the hot phase of Brexit, where lots of uncertainty existed and everybody had a hot take to share.

His approach was to work through necessary decision points and allocate weightings to the likelihood of various outcomes, ultimately producing a summary set of overall results of varying probabilities. You can find his last set of diagrams here.

Crucially, Jon did this in a very transparent way, gathering input from social media contacts on both the steps involved and the probabilities to attribute. As you’ll see, this made each diagram an iterative process.

Jon used open-source software for this and put in a lot of time. He’ll freely discuss how getting feedback proved harder and harder over time, so this isn’t something to be done more than once by students, but certainly you can see how a small group could produce a diagram within a session and then work to refine it among themselves: for many topics you could return to those diagrams the next time you ran the class, a year later, to see how they stood up.

The value here is in the unpacking of assumptions and the explicit consideration of how things fit together. Whether students make the right call on what happens or not, they learn – through debriefing – why things turned out the way they did.

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