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  MPIfG Scholar in Residence Lectures


MPIfG Scholar in Residence Lectures 2018 by Akos Rona-Tas


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Predicting the Future: From Augurs to Algorithms

In recent years, the Western world has experienced a series of unexpected and highly consequential events, such as the 9/11 terror attacks, the 2008 financial collapse, the European refugee crisis, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump, to name a few. These events were unanticipated by the general public, but also by most social scientists whose job would have been to foresee such events. One response has been to offer plausible ex post explanations for each instance and discover with hindsight what factors we should have looked at to make the right predictions. A second approach takes a much wider perspective and asks how we, and especially experts, make predictions and what broader consequences various predictive technologies carry. This line of research accepts that the future is fundamentally uncertain, and understands predictions as strategic devices.
In three lectures, Akos Rona-Tas will follow this second path. Each lecture will represent a different world of prediction and will be built around comparing three expert domains.



Tuesday, June 5, 2018 | 5 p.m.

The Problem of Seeing the Future: Some Lessons from Predicting the Natural World

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future, as physicist Niels Bohr is said to have remarked. The first lecture introduces the problem of prediction and the role of time in social action. We look at predictions of natural phenomena in three domains: earthquakes, the weather, and biomedicine. We discuss how the natural sciences have informed our understanding of society and human behavior and influenced the ways we make predictions in the social sciences.




Tuesday, June 12, 2018 | 5 p.m.

Predicting the Social World in the Aggregate

This lecture describes ways predictions are made about the totality of the social behavior of a very large number of autonomous actors. We distinguish prophecies of large-scale societal trends and predictions of specific outcomes. We discuss aggregate predictions in three contexts: demography, markets, and elections. We revisit arguments over the merits and flaws of human judgment and statistical algorithms in forecasting and the debate about various ways to combine different forecasts.




Tuesday, June 19, 2018 | 5 p.m.

Predicting Individual Behavior

The final lecture surveys some areas where social actors are judged on the basis of predictions about their individual future behavior and then suffer consequences according to that forecast. Assessing creditworthiness requires predicting the likelihood of a person’s (or a corporation’s or a government’s) future payment behavior. Competitive university admission is based on a separate prognosis of the future promise of every student applicant. Fighting and even punishing crime is increasingly preventative, relying on predictions of lawbreaking yet to happen: the police use profiling to maintain order, and parole boards decide when to release each convict by considering the likelihood of future recidivism. We compare these three areas and conclude by considering some of the larger social consequences of the use of various predictive technologies.



Selected publications
  • Rona-Tas, A.: “Path-Dependence and Capital Theory: Sociology of the Post-Communist Economic Transformation.” East European Politics and Societies, 12, 1 (1998).
  • Guseva, A. and A. Rona-Tas: “Uncertainty, Risk and Trust: Russian and American Credit Card Markets Compared.” American Sociological Review 66, 5 (2001).
  • Rona-Tas, A. and S. Hiss: “The Role of Ratings in the Subprime Mortgage Crisis: The Art of Corporate and the Science of Consumer Credit Rating.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations 30A, 115-155 (2010).
  • Rona-Tas, A. and S. Hiss: “Forecasting as Valuation: The Role of Ratings and Predictions in the Subprime Mortgage Crisis in the US.” In: J. Beckert and P. Aspers, eds., The Worth of Goods: Valuation and Pricing in the Economy. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2011.
  • Rona-Tas, A. and A. Guseva: Plastic Money: Constructing Markets for Credit Cards in Eight Postcommunist Societies. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA 2014.






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