Should social scientists have been able to predict the chaos in Tunis and Egypt? After someone at AEI decided that someone should’ve, then went on to slam scientists for not doing so, Dan Drezner and Phil Arena had some interesting thoughts in rebuttal. I’ve got nothing to add, strictly speaking, to what they said, because the AEI post demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of science. I’ve got another answer to the question—well, at least another reason to say “no”—that has to do precisely with insights gained from political science about things live social revolutions. In short, things like this can’t happen unless they are unpredictable.
The events in Tunis and Egypt had to be fairly unpredictable if they were to happen…otherwise, the repressive organs of the respective states, or the governments through preemptive concessions, would’ve tried to head them off (which, anticipating some unrest, Jordan and Yemen are trying to do right now). This is probably true of anything like a social revolution, a coup, putsch, etc., because they begin with one side—the people or a batch of upset colonels—at a serious bargaining disadvantage with respect to the state, a disadvantage that can only be overturned, even temporarily, through some sort of surprise.
So in the end, we’ve seen how surprisingly these things can spring up: governments in Tunis and Cairo caught off guard, the first unsuspecting of unrest and the second skeptical that it would spread across the border into a traditionally stable Egypt. Then, sensing that things might get rough in their own countries, Jordan and Yemen’s governments start promising reform, hoping to head off popular pressure once it becomes predictable. I don’t know about you, but that’s some fairly useful insight gained from social science theories—especially rigorous logical models of the kind our friend at AEI disparages—wouldn’t you think?