Estimating Odds

From a comment by “Eggplant” at Belmont Club:

Supposedly the US has war gamed this thing and the prospects look poor. A war game is only as good as the assumptions programmed into it. Can the war game be programmed to consider the possibility that a single Iranian leader has access to an ex-Soviet nuke and is crazed enough to use it?
Of course the answer is “No Way”.
A valid war game would be a Monte Carlo simulation that considered a range of possible scenarios. However the tails of that Gaussian distribution would offer extremely frightening scenarios. The Israelis are in the situation where truly catastrophic scenarios have tiny probability but the expectation value [consequence times probability] is still horrific. However “fortune favors the brave”. Also being the driver of events is almost always better than passively waiting and hoping for a miracle. That last argument means the Israelis will launch an attack and probably before the American election.

These are important points. The outcomes of simulations, including the results of focus groups used in business and political marketing, may be path-dependent. If they are the results of any one simulation may be misleading and it may be tempting to game the starting assumptions in order to nudge the output in the direction you want. It is much better if you can run many simulations using a wide range of inputs. Then you can say something like: We ran 100 simulations using the parameter ranges specified below and found that the results converged on X in 83 percent of the cases. Or: We ran 100 simulations and found no clear pattern in the results as long as Parameter Y was in the range 20-80. And by the way, here are the data. We don’t know the structure of the leaked US simulation of an Israeli attack on Iran and its aftermath.

It’s also true, as Eggplant points out, that the Israelis have to consider outlier possibilities that may be highly unlikely but would be catastrophic if they came to pass. These are possibilities that might show up only a few times or not at all in the output of a hypothetical 100-run Monte Carlo simulation. But such possibilities must still be taken into account because 1) they are theoretically possible and sufficiently bad that they cannot be allowed to happen under any circumstances and 2) the simulation-based probabilities may be inaccurate due to errors in assumptions.

16 thoughts on “Estimating Odds”

  1. A not unlikely scenario would involve Iran pounding Dimona with missiles and some getting through. Then if the wind is unkind it’s 50 miles to Jerusalem. A dirty bomb if you will.

  2. Monte Carlo

    Say you are interested in a “simulation”, a collection of interdependent equations, relationships, or possibly a black box with inputs and outputs. A “data point” is one setting of the inputs and the resulting output.

    You may want to fully investigate the behavior of your system by gradually varying the inputs over their entire range and recording the outputs. But, your simulation may have 30 inputs with 100 values each, which is 100^30 data points, 1 with 60 zeroes after it.

    You may try to investigate the simulation with less resolution, using just 5 values for each input. This would generate 5^30 data points, 1 with 21 zeroes, about 1000 billion billion data points.

    A monte carlo method is to choose data points at random, as many as your study can manage, hoping to see an overall pattern with much reduced resolution, a grainy, blotchy picture rather than high definition.

    The value of this procedure depends entirely on your confidence that your simulation represents some part of our world in a determinative way. Garbage in, garbage out.

    War Games

    War game simulations have some value finding “choke points”. You specify groups and supplies, have humans manage their resources and battles, and see if you have enough fuel located at the right places.

    There is no simulation possible for deciding if Ahmadinijad has enough power and inclination to drop a nuclear weapon on Israel.


    The US and Russia relied on the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction to believe that each would not use nuclear weapons on the other. All the while, each declared a “no first use” policy, and that each only wanted weapons to deter the other, seing no gain in first use.

    But, Ahmadinijad has said that Iran is willing to lose most of its population if it could make Israel lose all of its population. Ahmadinijad has said that Iranian war deaths represent a holy ascent to the kingdom of Allah. Iran actually waged a Children’s War agains Iraq, sending young teens into battle en masse to eliminate mines and lead assaults. That is directly opposed to stability and peace. He has spoken consistently about nuclear weapons providing a way to cleanse the Mideast, accepting high Iranian losses as needed.

    How do you simulate that? What do you do when religious fanatics have the bomb?

  3. “He has spoken consistently about nuclear weapons providing a way to cleanse the Mideast, accepting high Iranian losses as needed.”

    You have evidence of this? Please share, I have seen nothing like this.

  4. Tony Cordesmann worked out the scenario a couple of years ago. He considered an Israel-Iran nuclear war It’s a big pdf file but its conclusions are 600,000 Israeli dead and 28 million Iranian dead. Iran would cease to exist as a nation state. It would also be the end of the era of middle east oil as Israel would also hit it’s other enemies in the area to avoid jackal like attacks on a weakened Israel after the war. We had better get busy on the XL Pipeline if we can get the bozo out of the way.

  5. 10/31/11 Video :56 – Ahmadinijad: Israel Will Disappear From the Map

    June 2007 – Commentary by Norman Podhoretz – The Case for Bombing Iran [edited]
    === ===
    Bernard Lewis:
      MAD, mutual assured destruction, [was effective] right through the cold war. Both sides had nuclear weapons. Neither side used them, because both sides knew the other would retaliate in kind. This will not work with a religious fanatic [like Ahmadinejad]. For him, mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent, it is an inducement. We know already that [Iran’s leaders] do not give a damn about killing their own people in great numbers. We have seen it again and again. In the final scenario, and this applies all the more strongly if they kill large numbers of their own people, they are doing them a favor. They are giving them a quick free pass to heaven and all its delights.

    Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s ruler from 1979 to 1989:
      We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let Iran burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.

    Ayatollah Rafsanjani:
      If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with nuclear weapons, application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.

    In other words, Israel would be destroyed in a nuclear exchange, but Iran would survive.
    === ===

  6. Andrew,

    All simulations, like all theories, are imperfect models of reality. And of course there are practical limitations on running simulations. My points are that we should be cautious not to read too much into the results of any one simulation, and that in some cases it’s prudent to consider the possibility of outlier outcomes.

  7. I think Netanyahu has taken the measure of Obama and the decision is out of our hands. We need to be drilling and refining and building pipelines as fast as we can. I do not trust the Kenyan with anyone’s future I care about.

  8. I should add that “the Kenyan” is metaphorical because I think Obama is as concerned about the future of this country as if he really were a Kenyan. The only comparable situation I can think of is Buchanan’s presidency when he was helping to arm the Confederacy.

  9. Michael – to add to the fun the Iranians think that by starting a cataclysmic event that will help foster in the hidden Mahdi .

  10. According to Chicago madman Farrakhan, “the mahdi is already here” Not really sure how much of what this clown spouts is based in any way close to reality, but recent events here and abroad are very troubling.

  11. MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) may have worked with the Russians because they were materialistic atheists who did not believe in an afterlife. When you’re dead, you’re dead–it’s all over.

    Contrast this with the true-believers in Iran. They believe in an afterlife whose quality is based on deeds (however foul in our eyes) that are done in this world. Death for these folks is a promotion.

  12. “It’s also true, as Eggplant points out, that the Israelis have to consider outlier possibilities that may be highly unlikely but would be catastrophic if they came to pass.”

    The problem with this argument is that you can make it about any (infinite?) number of outlier possibilities. This very argument could have been by the US about the USSR for 40 years. It can also be made about asteroids and comets. Or virulent strains of bacteria.

    A nation cannot make radical policy choices based on remote possibilities of some catastrophic event occurring. That in itself can become the path to national self destruction.

  13. Interesting result.

    Much like the Japanese war game during WWII which showed them having a complete victory over American forces at Midway.

    For some odd reasons what occurred in the real world had little correspondence to that IJN war game.

    Fast forward to February 2002. A Pentagon war game was breathlessly reported on by the media. It showed that a
    Allied invasion of Iraq would be a result in a US defeat
    worse than Pearl Harbor! And I’m sure we all recall the scenes of victorious Iraqi troops pulling down the statue of President Bush in Washington D.C.


    (Of course if the Iraqi high command had the US Marine who
    played their side during that war game the result might well have been very different)

    You people have little idea about the TRUE purpose of Military war gaming. The vast majority are ‘map exercises’ to work out logistics. Or incredibly boring mind numbingly detailed simulations to work out how best to deploy a weapon system in a single tactical event during a battle.

    Military ‘war games’ are not the kind of “games” kids – and adults too – play on PC’s or hex maps.

    And ‘academic’ simulations are generally (sic) not done by folks with years of combat experience under their belts. They tend to be superb statistical exercises with results far different than reality.

    It sure is easy to move forces around in nice, quiet, temperature controlled carpeted room after having eaten a nice well catered 90 minute lunch. And you don’t have to write letters to grieving parents if you make a mistake or two.

  14. Anon –
    Something I had considered posting to this was the idea of the “fog of war” and once “the balloon goes up” the enemy usually doesn’t play to your assumptions.

    it is the ability to adapt that determines the outcome.

    Or the side that makes the fewest mistakes.

    You are probably right in one of the main benefits of “war games” is planning logistical support – which also determines the outcome.

    Ask Rommel (if you could) ;-)

  15. Michael Hiteshew Says @ March 23rd, 2012 at 10:20 am

    A nation cannot make radical policy choices based on remote possibilities of some catastrophic event occurring. That in itself can become the path to national self destruction.

    Neither can it ignore them, especially when the opponent is declaring an intent of creating that catastrophic event AND is visibly working to achieve the specific ability to bring about that event.

    Part of it involves “skin in the game”. To the collection of anti-Semite/anti-Zionist/anti-Israel [choose according to the meme of the day] individuals who are pleased to consider themselves the administration’s foreign policy brain trust [and who probably ordered the wargame, directed its result, and arranged its leakage]; a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran destroying Israel and all but destroying Iran would have two sequalae. The first would be the biggest and most expensive party in White House history. The second would be that they would put the US taxpayer on the hook for reconstructing Iran.

    The prospect looks quite different from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

    And the Israeli government is committed to defending the State of Israel and its people rather than doing the will of the US government. They will weigh the possible consequences of inaction differently than those to whom those consequences are a desirable end.

    Israel will do what it feels it has to do in order to survive; regardless of world opinion. By biasing its diplomacy towards endless Israeli concessions ending with the destruction of Israel; the US has over the last several decades [and through both Democrat and Republican administrations] discredited anything short of military means. If you back a nation into a corner, do not be surprised if they strike out instead of surrender.

    Subotai Bahadur

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