Math in the Media

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Short Summaries of Articles about Mathematics
in the Popular Press

"The Crystal Ball of Chaos," by Robert Adler. Nature, 29 November 2001.

Catastrophic failures by governments have made many headlines in the past decade---Afghanistan, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia might head a distressingly long list. Because such breakdowns have consequences worldwide, tools for predicting them would be very handy. Although the traditional academic approach of case studies and theoretical examination has yielded many theories, they have proved difficult to test. In 1994, Al Gore appointed the State Failure Task Force to take a starkly different approach: apply brute-force quantitative methods to come up with a statistical correlation. The researchers on the task force used a broad definition of failure, in order to have enough cases for analysis, and came up with a data set consisting of more than 600 variables. Surprisingly, their model contained a set of only three variables---infant mortality, level of democracy, and openness to international trade---that correctly predicted state failure two years in advance, two-thirds of the time.

--- Rafe Jones