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In the first of our new series of Superforecaster Profiles, Good Judgment interviews Dan Mayland, geopolitical forecaster extraordinaire and author of the recently published novel The Doctor of Aleppo as well as the Mark Sava series of spy thrillers. Dan provides insights on his research process for both novels and forecasts, discusses his views on the prospects for peace in the Middle East, and shares some news about his latest work-in-progress.
GJ: Your latest novel, The Doctor of Aleppo, takes place mostly in Syria and Turkey during the years 2012 through 2016. What drew you to that time and place?
DM: Remember back in 2016, when Libertarian candidate for president Gary Johnson was asked about Aleppo and he famously answered, “And what is Aleppo?” Although he was roundly mocked, I think he was onto something in that this epic, heartbreaking struggle that I thought was comparable to, say, the siege of Stalingrad in World War II, wasn’t really on most Americans’ radar. There was a sense that, the ISIS and Iraq angle notwithstanding, it had little to do with us. I’d been writing about, and traveling to, the Middle East for years, though, and thought this pivotal moment in history was not only one in which we were clearly deeply involved whether we wanted to be or not, but was also a manifestation of a broader pattern of conflict between democracy and autocracy that was happening around the world, and that—as such—it deserved more attention than it was getting in the West. So my hope was that my background in history and foreign policy, paired with what I’d learned writing spy novels, could help me write a book that would have broad appeal while lending a bit of insight into what was really going on.
Also, I thought the demonization of refugees—particularly Muslim ones—over the course of the 2016 election was appalling, and I hoped to write a novel that would subvert the stereotypes that were being tossed around and that were so at odds with the people I knew from the region. I make that last point here with a hint of reluctance because I try not to use emotive language like “appalled” when forecasting, or even interacting with fellow forecasters. But it would be impossible to answer your question honestly without doing so now.
GJ: If I recall correctly, you began geopolitical forecasting with the Good Judgment Project during the final year of the IARPA ACE tournament in the fall of 2014. I reviewed forecasting questions from that year’s tournament to see how they overlapped with the subject matter of your book and found these examples.
To what extent did forecasting on questions like these inform your writing?
DM: Your memory serves you well! I did participate in the IARPA ACE tournament in 2014, and the questions you list above, along with others I was to forecast in years to come, absolutely helped inform my writing. In fact, I’m not sure that I would have written The Doctor of Aleppo had I not been focusing so intensely on the war in Syria in 2014.
On the flip side, it’s not a coincidence that I wound up forecasting in 2014 at the same time I was writing spy novels set in the Middle East and the Central Asian/Caspian region. Which is to say that writing led me to forecasting, then forecasting helped guide and inform my writing, and now it’s so tangled up that sometimes it’s difficult for me to tell where my research for writing ends and where research for forecasting begins.
GJ: Your ability and that of other Superforecasters to make accurate forecasts about geopolitical events suggests that there is a fair degree of predictability to the outcome of questions like the ones we just discussed. But The Doctor of Aleppo also emphasizes the role of randomness in determining what happens to individual characters. Is that just a difference between telling stories about specific characters versus describing how history unfurls, or do you see a lot of randomness in events when viewed on a broader scale such as the outcome of battles and the fate of nations? (If the latter, how do you judge the degree of predictability vs randomness when you’re forecasting?)
DM: Years ago, as a friend and I were arguing about some long-forgotten point, said friend observed that trying to get me to take a firm position about anything was like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. I’m reminded of that critique (or compliment, depending on one’s perspective) now, as I mull over how to answer this question, because of how hesitant I am to commit to some overarching theory about predictability and randomness, and how they apply differently to the geopolitical and personal. Are geopolitical events on average less susceptible to being influenced by randomness than events that occur within the life of an individual? Ah … maybe? The truth is, I don’t know, and I suspect I could spend a lifetime thinking about it and still not know for sure. What I do know, however, is that predictability and randomness play some role, in some measure, in how most geopolitical and personal events unfold and that my job, as both a forecaster and novelist, is to make case-by-case determinations as to where predictability ends and randomness begins. How do I make those determinations? I wing it.
I suppose the Cliff-Notes answer to your question would be that, when it comes to the fox/hedgehog divide, I’m firmly on the fox side of the line.
A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.Archilochus
GJ: This novel and your previous Mark Sava spy novels are convincing in part because you write from first-hand experience traveling in the Middle East and Caspian Sea regions. Do you find that your travels in those regions also help you as a forecaster?
DM: While I can’t recall gleaning any specific information while traveling that I can point to as having been determinative with regards to any particular question, looking at it from a broader perspective, my travels do help fuel my interest in history and foreign policy, and that in turn fuels my enthusiasm for digging deep on topics related to the same. Travel also helps me better understand people, and perhaps leaders, who have been raised in cultures different from my own, which I also suspect helps me forecast. So I guess that’s a qualified yes? Definitely a solid maybe.
GJ: When you were interviewed by the (Non)Prophets back in March 2019, you said you were not optimistic about the near-term prospects for the Middle East. Has the announcement of the Israel-UAE agreement changed your views at all? Why or why not?
DM: Although I welcome the agreement, I’m afraid it didn’t change my views much when it comes to the Middle East. The Sunni-Shia divide is just as wide as ever. Iraq remains unstable. The Israeli-Palestinian situation continues to fester. Save for Tunisia, the Arab Spring revolutions resulted in failure. So I remain a pessimist. (Which is saying something, because I’m typically a cup-half-full kind of guy.) To my mind, the best that can be hoped for in the near future is a Cold War-esque period of relatively non-violent, autocracy-enforced stasis in which some half-measures towards peace can be taken and individual nations (like the UAE) progress, although given the ongoing wars in Yemen and Syria, and the underlying drivers of instability, even that might be a bit too much to hope for. The next real opportunity and risk for the region will probably come when Khamenei dies, although I wish I could be more optimistic that such an inflection point will result in real, positive change for Iran. For me to be an optimist when it comes to the Middle East, I have to expand my timeline to decades and centuries rather than years.
GJ: Your acknowledgements for The Doctor of Aleppo emphasize that the book was a more collaborative effort than your prior novels. How did you find sources to help you understand the situation on the ground during the Syrian Civil War? What were the most important things you learned?
DM: When it comes to finding sources, I take a kitchen sink approach. The doctors who helped me with the medical sections and who worked in wartime Aleppo I found online. The young Syrian man who became a protestor after his doctor father was murdered in Aleppo by the Assad regime was a student at a university located just thirty miles south of where I live in Pennsylvania, and his story had been reported on by local media. Whenever I travel, I interview people: the guy selling knockoff watches on the street, the high-school-aged kid eager to practice his English, the shopkeepers at the souk…. Often, one source will lead to another, and I keep following that trail until it ends or I run out of time. Sometimes, just by showing up I get lucky, which was the case when I hired a guide to take me to sites I needed to visit along the Syria-Turkey border; turns out that, a few years earlier, he’d worked in logistics for a variety of aid groups trying to funnel supplies to the Syrian resistance, work that was directly relevant to my novel.
As for what I learned from these people and others? Well, I hope I learned a bit about what it was really like to have lived through the war for Aleppo, and how fragile ‘normal’ can be, and about the impossible choices people who lived through it were forced to make, and that people in Syria love their kids just as much as I love mine, and that the loss of the so much of the physical city, and with it so much of Aleppian history, is an additional cause for grief, on top of the human toll. On a happier note, I learned that laurel-leaf, olive-oil soap from Aleppo truly is wonderful stuff—I came back from Turkey with several bars of it and have since replenished my stock—and I’ve learned to be even more grateful for all that I have in my own life.
GJ: Do you take a similar approach to researching geopolitical forecasting questions [as you do when researching your books]?
DM: The online part of my book research definitely dovetails with the research I do for forecasting. In each case, I’ll first attempt to educate myself generally on the subject in question, and then drill down, looking for granular details that, in the case of fiction, can help enliven or lend authenticity to a scene, or in the case of forecasting, can prove determinative to the question. In both instances, I’m looking for that diamond in the rough, refining my search keywords, skimming through translated Twitter feeds, focusing on specific date ranges, and so on.
GJ: You’ve mentioned favorite authors ranging from William Faulkner and James Joyce to Robert Ludlum and James Cain and emphasized that you aspire to a lean, stripped-down style. Putting that aspect of style aside, I found The Doctor of Aleppo – more than your previous spy novels – to evoke John le Carré’s work, especially in the moral complexity and ambiguity of its characters. Very few people come across as purely good or evil; they’re often revealed to be victims of circumstance or misunderstandings. Is that how you see your characters in this novel? Was that something important you wanted to convey about the Syrian Civil War or more broadly?
DM: While I think there’s a danger of slipping into too much moral relativism—I don’t, for example, think that when the Assad regime tortures children it can be described as anything but purely evil—the individual characters in my novel absolutely have morally complex lives because I think that reflects the reality of what it means to be human.
Was I trying to use that moral complexity displayed by my characters on an individual level to convey a broader point? Well, I try not to do too much shoehorning of underlying messages into a novel because I think when authors do a lot of that, it can kill a story. That said, sometimes themes or underlying messages evolve organically, in a way that is integral to, and amplifies, the story, and I’m hoping readers find that to be the case with at least one element of The Doctor of Aleppo. To wit: I view what’s happening in Syria as just a different manifestation of the all-too-human struggles we see occurring throughout the world between people who are drawn to pluralism and tolerance, people who are fearful of the other, and people who would take advantage of that struggle. In writing the novel, I wanted to emphasize the existence of moral complexity on the various sides of that struggle—while still not shying away from depicting acts that are unequivocally good or evil.
GJ: In your (Non)Prophets interview, you mentioned that you had begun work on a new mystery novel that, while not a sequel to The Doctor of Aleppo, picks up on the theme of the refugee crisis and includes settings on the western Balkan route that refugees take from the Greek islands. How are things going with that book? Do you have a publication date yet?
DM: The book is written, but I have another month’s worth of revisions to get through before I’m ready to call it done. So no publication date yet, but I’m hoping that will change by the end of the year. As of now, it’s called The Last Patient.
GJ: Your list of potential locations for the new book included Lesbos, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary for your new book. Were you able to travel to those areas before the pandemic shut down most international travel from the US?
DM: I was. In summer of 2019 I traveled what is known as the Western Balkan Route, a path from the Middle East to Western Europe that was undertaken by thousands of refugees at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, when my new book is set. I started in Turkey, opted for a ferry instead of an overloaded, leaky rubber dinghy to cross the Aegean Sea, visited refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesbos, then wound my way north through the locales you mention above. In Hungary, I had a wonderful dinner with fellow professional Superforecaster Scott Eastman and his son. Scott then put me in touch with a few sources who helped me with my research.
GJ: How has the pandemic affected the way you approach your writing?
DM: A planned trip to Turkey this summer was canceled. But although I’d intended to do some book research on that trip, mostly it was for an orienteering (give it a Google!) sporting event for my daughter, so I’d call that more of a personal/familial disruption. The launch of The Doctor or Aleppo was affected to be sure; I’d hoped to visit bookstores and attend conferences, but that’s all gone virtual—lots of guest visits to book blogs instead. But in terms of actual writing, I was fortunate in that the virus hit at a time when I was finishing up my new novel, which involves working at my desk at home. (Or, when the weather’s amenable, on the back patio.) So no disruption there. I’m nearing the point, however, where I’ll need to begin researching my next book, and that will involve travel—or at least it should. So we’ll see how it goes.
GJ: How do you think the post-COVID environment in the Middle East and Caspian Sea region will be different from pre-COVID life? Does a novelist’s imagination help you in this kind of longer-range forecasting?
DM: My best guess at this point is that while there will certainly be some impact in terms of how and where people work and interact, things in the Middle East and Caspian region will revert to a new normal—which won’t look so different from the old normal—fairly quickly once a vaccine of even marginal efficacy is widely distributed. Certainly I don’t think COVID will move the needle one way or the other when it comes to disrupting the Shia/Sunni dynamic, the tensions over Israel, or even—although I suppose COVID has more potential to impact this angle—the entrenchment of autocracies. The greater impact, I think, will be the continued diminution of US influence and increase of Chinese influence. This angle can be overstated—the US still wields, and will continue to wield for the foreseeable future, enormous influence, particularly in the Middle East. But we didn’t do ourselves any favors, or buy ourselves any more influence, by how we reacted to the virus.
I do think that a novelist’s imagination—particularly the need to put oneself in another’s shoes—can be helpful when forecasting questions that depend less on rigorous statistical analysis than they do on predicting how a certain person, or group of people, will act. Does that help me with long-range forecasting? Maybe, for some questions. For better or worse, I did just now find myself picturing the streets of Baku, and people I’d met in Bahrain and Iran and so on, when contemplating what the long-term effect of COVID will be. Ask me in a few years whether that was a help or a hindrance.
GJ: You’ve been extremely accurate since joining the ranks of professional Superforecasters. What forecast are you most proud of? What do you think led you to be particularly insightful about that question?
DM: It seems as if for as long as I’ve been forecasting there’s been a question about whether the US and Taliban would sign a peace agreement. And always the safe money has been on no. Indeed, forecasting confidently that an agreement wouldn’t be signed in 2014 was one of the reasons I became a Superforecaster. Honestly, I can’t say I truly distinguished myself on that question in 2019 when it finally resolved as a yes—I started off too low, probably anchored by my forecasts in prior years, and stuck with the herd for too long. But eventually something clicked and I realized that, this time, I needed to put aside the priors and pay more attention to the personalities, and that the dismal facts on the ground mattered less than the fact Trump wanted something signed before the election and the Taliban would sign anything they thought would hasten the departure of the Americans. So I belatedly swung hard to yes and scored a decent amount below the median as a result. A cause to be proud? Meh … with any question, this one included, pride usually takes a back seat to kicking myself for not figuring things out sooner. But I will say it’s those types of questions, ones that hinge on making subjective determinations that hinge on the vagaries of human behavior, that are the most fun to forecast.
Thanks—I’ve enjoyed the conversation!
GJ: Thanks, Dan. We’ve enjoyed it as well, and we really appreciate your kicking off our new series of Superforecaster Profiles.
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