Welcome to the tenth (!!) volume of Metaculus Mondays. In this week’s volume we are going back to recast (update with a >5% change) three forecasts from past volumes and when applicable posting them to Good Judgement Open:
- Whether a majority of the Five Eyes and / or Quad will boycott the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, China
- Whether North Korea will test an ICBM in 2021
- Determine the origins of COVID-19
At the end of this volume, we’ll also discuss two questions we plan to forecast in the near future in order to solicit feedback for the former and point out a prediction mismatch with regards to latter:
- Whether intense fighting will take place in Donbass (on the border of Ukraine and Russia where the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian War took place along with Crimea)
- Whether any conclusive evidence for extraterrestrial life, past or present, will be discovered within our Solar System by 2050
2022 Olympic Boycott
In last week’s volume, we forecasted the likelihood that a majority of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, and Canada will boycott the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.
Our initial forecast was planned to be a 23% likelihood of boycott. However, before the question opened on Metaculus and we submitted our forecast, a State Department spokesperson announced that the US was discussing a boycott with her allies. In response to that news, we raised our forecast to a 30% likelihood and submitted it to Metaculus.
Since we posted our forecast, we re-examined some of our initial assumptions which lead to a significant change from our 30% likelihood.
The first factor we reconsidered is the base-rate which we were inspired to rethink due to Peter Hurford’s forecast on this question. Peter Hurford, an elite forecaster and inaugural guest on our new podcast The Right Side of Maybe, posted his forecast on Metaculus after ours and reached a 12% likelihood.
Peter only counted Olympic games that took place in distinct years; we think this is too extreme, since that would make that 1980 Winter Olympics in the US and the 1980 Summer Olympics in the Soviet Union (which the US boycotted), the same event. Still, it probably doesn’t make sense to count the same-year Summer and Winter Olympics as distinct events if they happen in the same country.
- This reduces the total number of Olympic games considered from 58 to 48.
The next point we took from Peter is to not count all boycotts the same. Although Peter is only counting the 1980 US Boycott for his base-rate calculation (which we disagree with), we will take the following approach: We will count the 1956 and 1980 boycotts as full boycotts given the number of countries and great power states involved. At the same time, we'll treat the 1964 and 1976 boycotts as half value, while ingoring the 1984 and 1988 ones since they were done in response to the original 1980 boycott.
- This reduces the number of reference cases from 6 to 3.
As a result, we reach a new base-rate of 6.25% rather than our original 10%.
Geopolitics and Human Rights
The next factor we reconsidered were some of the geopolitical factors behind our forecast. Upon re-examination, we believe the territorial annexation and war are far less likely to happen in the build-up to the Olympics and therefore reduce the geopolitical likelihood for a boycott by 1.38%. We also decreased the likelihood of a boycott due to a lab-leak confirmation from a 14.5% likelihood to a 8.4% chance to account for our updated forecast (see bloew) and the political discount factor (which we forgot to do in our initial forecast!).
On the other hand, we also increased the likelihood of a human-rights related boycott by slightly favoring the aggressive (5x base-rate) case due to the current geopolitical climate and recent focus on human rights and social justice in comparison to past years, leading to a +3% increase to human-rights related boycott.
Before we update our forecast we should note, however, that we are not changing the impact of the news that the US is discussing a boycott despite Secretary Blinken and the White House walking back that statement. Why?
An opinion piece in the South China Morning Post makes the point inadvertently, “Suga knows that joining any boycott would guarantee a retaliatory boycott of the Tokyo Games as well as other potential economic punishment by Beijing” (emphasis added).
The US would be foolish to discuss any boycott of the 2022 Olympics publicly until after the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. History backs this up too: Jimmy Carter announced the 1980 Soviet Olympic Boycott after the 1980 US Winter Olympic Games finished.
The above analysis therefore leads us to a 🥁 22.9% likelihood the US and her allies boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
Right back where we started!
This question is also up on Good Judgement Open: Before 1 January 2022, will the United States Olympic Committee announce that it is boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics?
We find it highly unlikely the US would boycott the 2022 Olympics without her allies, yet still give a slight change for only 3 other of the required Metaculus countries participating and therefore forecast a 25% probability of a US boycott of the 2022 Olympics on Good Judgement.
North Korea ICBM
All the way back in Volume 4 of Metaculus Mondays we forecasted the likelihood that North Korea would launch an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) before 2022. At the time, in early March, we were updating our initial podcast prediction on this question (which was 60%), and we ultimately decided on 33%.
We then updated this prediction in late March, in our mass update post, raising our odds to a 38% likelihood due to news around that time that a test seemed more probable in the new administration.
Some of the factors that we considered in our analysis included Trump’s departure from office, the limitations of North Korea’s SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), and North Korea’s economic health in this Covid era. We also generally felt that the community median on Metaculus at the time (70%!) was much too high given the constraints on North Korea to not fire a test of that size.
Now, however, there are three factors that we are leaning on to drop our odds for this question back down.
First, in recent weeks North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has gone so far as to equate North Korea’s current economic plight with that of the country’s 1990s famine which killed hundreds of thousands.
- A country in this dire economic straits would likely not risk further spending on a missile test which would ultimately be only a show of force with few practical implications.
- Additionally, while Kim Jong Un has hardly any political constraints, the loyalty of his people is still key, and firing a missile while people in his country are struggling may come off as tone deaf by the populous. This may be especially true if a struggling North Korean populous views a missile test as Kim risking further sanction from the global community on the country.
Second, simply put, more time has elapsed since our first three predictions. We feel that there would need to be some political runway leading up to a move as significant as a ICBM test, and that runway would take time.
- As more time passes, the opportunity for this runway to play itself out lessens, and in turn lessens our overall likelihood for this precision.
- Given the fact that we are only one third through 2021, and there is ample time left in the year for a test, this factor influenced our overall point deduction the least, but it is still a relevant factor, especially given that a month has elapsed since prediction number one.
Finally, we used Wayback Machine to look at the volume of news leading up to the eventual ICBM test in 2017 and compared it to today.
- The volume of news is much different than at the equivalent time in 2017, and due to Covid-19 the circumstances surrounding North Korea are also very different than they were at that time.
There seems to be less brinkmanship-eqsue coverage of the North Korea-ICBM issue than there was in 2017, likely due to North Korea’s ailing state.
They also recently announced their withdrawal from the Tokyo Olympics this summer which hasn’t sat well with all of North Korea’s citizens, making the need for social capital more important.
Given all of these factors and their directional influence on our most recent prediction for this question of 38%, we have opted to drop this number back down to 30%.
- We feel that there are enough factors applying downward pressure to the likelihood of this event coming to pass that it has fallen below a one-in-three chance.
- We also believe that China’s relatively impressive Covid-19 recovery and their aim to gain greater influence in the region will keep in check their upstart neighbors who also happen to be reliant on China as well.
This question is also available on Good Judgement Open: Before 1 January 2022, will North Korea detonate a nuclear device and/or launch an ICBM with an estimated range of at least 10,000km? We transposed our Metaculus forecast to GJOpen as the following:
- 1% likelihood North Korea only detonates a nuclear device
- 29% likelihood North Korea only launches an ICBM
- 1% likelihood North Korea tests both
- 69% likelihood North Korea tests neither
We’ve made two forecasts to the origins of COVID-19 and made substantial updates to both in the past week.
The first forecast we changed was for this question: Credible claim by 2024 that COVID-19 likely originated in a lab?
We made two key changes to this forecast this week. The first change was in response to the WHO-led team’s report which was questioned by many countries and other significant actors (such as the WHO chief) and asking for a further investigation which would also cover the lab-leak hypothesis.
We reacted to this signal in two steps. The first was to remove the 51-49 weighting effect towards Zoonotic Origins we established due to the WHO report in the previous update in volume 7. The second was to give a 52-48 weighting towards the Lab-Leak hypothesis due to the larger-than-expected negative response to the WHO-report which called for investigations into the hypothesis. This leads to an absolute forecast of a 51% probability of a lab-leak origin for COVID-19.
The second change in our forecast was to reduce the political suppression factor we established in our initial forecast of 50%. As we noted in the original forecast, one thing that would cause us to change our mind was the geopolitical relations with China. Although little has materially changed since we made that forecast, we believe we were far too generous with the 50% discount given the current geopolitical climate. As a result, we believe slashing the 50% reduction to 25% makes more sense.
This leads us to a 38.25% likelihood that there is a credible claim by two major public health agencies that COVID-19 likely originated in a Chinese virology lab.
- There is still some debate between us whether a 25% reduction is still too large, so if you have any thoughts please let us know!
The second forecast we changed was the stupid-resolution COVID-origins question, which we lowered from a 25% likelihood down to a 1% chance because we want to maximize our points and it appears highly unlikely that the median forecast will rise to 97% within the next month.
Donbass Forecast Preview
One question that opened last week which we will likely tackle in greater detail in next week's volume is whether there will be war in the Donbass in 2021. For this question, war will qualify as any amount greater than 250 deaths of Ukrainian military in Donetsk and Lugansk in any month until October 1st, 2021 (inclusive).
This question arose in response to recent Russian military buildup in the Donbass and Crimea, a move which Moscow has denied. The move has also implicated other nearby geopolitical players such as Turkey, who have called the Ukranian situation "worrying". The country has already shared they are willing to provide whatever support necessary to have the regional tensions come to an end. The United States has also been vocal towards Russia on this issue, warning of consequences should their aggressive pattern of behavior persist.
The effects of Russia's potential intervention in Ukraine, including but not limited to the future of the United States' sanction regime, are of utmost importance to public policy makers and international investors alike, making the outcome to this question exceedingly important.
First, we will likely take a different approach to information gathering than we have in the past for this question. After speaking with Peter Hurford on the inaugural episode of The Right Side of Maybe we have realized the utility of more tailored information sources. As such, there are some individuals in our network that we will tap to get a better idea of the on-the-ground situation in the Donbass which will inform our final forecast.
On Metaculus the current community median is 43% on 77 predictions made thus far. While there has been heavy conflict in the region since 2014, it is not clear that there has been a month which totaled 250 deaths, which makes it difficult to pinpoint a base rate for this forecast. Given that, we will likely use this 43% (fairly even, leaning towards a no resolution) as our starting point.
From there we will be considering a number of factors. First, we want to look at some of the knock-on effects of potential war in the Donbass, similar to Peter Hurford's suggestion of noticing oil price movement during the Suez Canal Crisis. One example of this would be the Moscow Exchange, Russia's largest exchange group, which dropped from 65.96 rubles on February 28th, 2014, to 41.52 rubles on March 14th, 2014 -- the start date of the conflict is commonly viewed as February 20th, 2014. While there hasn't been a similar movement in Russian equities so far, the Moscow Exchange is a good proxy for local sentiments regarding Russia's economic future. If the Russians feel conflict is imminent it will likely show up in the stock indexes early.
Another factor that we might consider is the prices of oil and LNG (liquified natural gas). Ukraine acts as a throughway for Russia to transport its oil and natural gas excess to supply to the rest of Europe. If conflict explodes in the region, it will definitely appear in each respective price index -- we will definitely look at those charts and their movement to determine whether or not conflict is likely to occur this year.
We will also want to have a clearer understanding of the on-the-ground situation i.e. what exactly constitutes a Russia military buildup and how long/quickly has this build up been progressing. If it seems like build-up is slowing down, or was even a misnomer to begin with, that will likely have an impact on our analysis.
Finally, we will take stock of other countries' responses to this reporting. In political science a common concept is the idea of proportional response, so by observing how other countries respond (ostensibly in a proportional manner) we can better understand what they believe to be happening on the ground in Ukraine today.
Through these and other factors we hope to build a compelling case for a forecast on the question of war in the Donbass. If you have thoughts on our approach or key factors we aren't currently considering, please feel free to comment on this article or reach out on social media, as we will likely unveil the full forecast in next week's volume!
Alien Life by 2050 Preview
Before we finish today’s volume, we want to take a look at a potential future question: Will any conclusive evidence for extraterrestrial life, past or present, be discovered within our Solar System by 2050?
What makes this question interesting is not so much the question subject (although we’ve asked a similar version of this question to all GGWP podcast guests!). What makes this question interesting is how after 211 predictions the median of 15% doesn’t match up to what Metaculus is forecasting elsewhere.
On this question with 226 predictions, there is a 2% likelihood that life will be confirmed on Venus before 2035.
On this question with 75 predictions, there is a 17% likelihood that life will be found on Mars by 2050.
And on this question with 280 predictions, there is a 6% likelihood we detect alien technosignatures (not necessarily from our solar system) before 2050.
If you were to scrape a 1% likelihood from the technosignatures question and extrapolate the Venus question’s likelihood through to 2050, we would reach a 22% likelihood of discovering life in our Solar System by 2050.
Given acceleration of technology, a 22% likelihood seems a better fit than 15% based on this question on Metaculus with 236 predictions that gives the median date of discovering evidence of extraterrestrial life of September 5, 2074.
Although we are not making a forecast just yet (we want to go back through all our podcast episodes and aggregate the predictions our guests have given), we think the 15% likelihood is too low. Or, the other questions are too high. No matter what, a group of forecasters is off somewhere. Which do you think? Let us know in the comment section below or on Twitter!