The 'Complex Systems Theorist' Who Predicted the Arab Spring

Using big data and new number-crunching strategies, math can be used to predict global crises.

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Jun 17 2017, 1:00pm

In early 2011, a few days before Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the middle of a busy street, Yaneer Bar-Yam sent his research to the US government.

Bar-Yam's message was simple: If drastic measures weren't immediately taken to lower skyrocketing global food prices, widespread violence would occur. Bouazizi's act set off food riots and are widely seen as the beginning of the Arab Spring.

Bar-Yam is a theoretical physicist turned "complex systems theorist." He's the president of the New England Complex Systems Institute, a group that tries to explain why the world works the way it does. He says that using a mix of big data, machine learning, and mathematics derived from the science of phase transitions, his team is able to identify the tipping points of a wide variety of global crises.

Violence and riots occur at the peaks of the food price index. Image: VICE

His team pulls from census and survey data, official government numbers from around the world, social media posts, and a host of other data sets in an attempt to explain the world around us. Our new video series, The Math That Explains the World, will feature Bar-Yam's work on the Arab Spring, governance, ethnic violence around the world, and inequality.

The key, he says, is determining what isn't important.

As the world grows increasingly complex, society becomes more interdependent and thus harder to explain the specific inputs that are causing a certain output. But with more data and more number-crunching capabilities, Bar-Yam's institute has been able to narrow down the causes of crises in many cases. Surprisingly, the flashpoints of major crises can usually be traced to a few specific policies.

"There are many different things that people might think would cause food prices to increase, but it turns out by looking at them we can eliminate most of them," Bar-Yam said. "For example, we can eliminate the possibility that changing diet in China caused rising food prices. Or that currency exchange rates caused rising food prices. Instead, it turns out that there are only two things that are important."

According to Bar-Yam's research, American policies on ethanol—which means a huge amount of US corn is used to power cars rather than food—and commodity market deregulation in the late 1990s were the major cause of skyrocketing food prices.

"Our ethanol policy by itself has lead to, by now, a doubling of global food prices. The deregulation of the markets leads to peaks that lie on top of a gradual increase that's due to the ethanol policy," he said. "The peaks are the triggers of the food riots and the Arab Spring, but the underlying increase plays an important part as well."