- - Monday, October 10, 2016

We’ve seen debates, we’ve been fed spin, and most of us have a case of campaign indigestion. We’re all counting down to Election Day, and not just for the chance to choose the next president. After Election Day professional prognosticators – those pundits and pollsters, social scientists and former politicians who opine and explain on 24/7 TV, in newspapers and online – will quiet down for a moment.

On Election Day itself the experts will take a breath while the actual votes are counted, and then they’ll be back in their seats, regardless of outcome, and begin explaining to us why the election didn’t turn out the way they predicted.

Do these folks know what they’re talking about?

Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, tried to find out. He took on the prediction industry by selecting 284 people who made their living giving advice or commenting on political and economic issues. They included journalists, economists, foreign policy experts and intelligence analysts. Over the next 20 years he asked them to make predictions (e.g., would Quebec secede from Canada? Would the dot-com bubble burst?), rating the probability of several possible outcomes.

What was the result of the experts’ performance? They might have done better reading tea leaves! The experts performed at worse than chance levels. Neither political affiliation nor years of education made a difference. Conservatives, moderates and liberals, Master’s and Ph.D.s were all lousy when it came to forecasting.

Experts often predict diametrically opposite outcomes. They perform especially poorly when there are more than two possible outcomes. When he tracked expert predictions regardng Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy toward the Soviet Union back in 1984, Tetlock found that all the pundits and experts had been wrong! Neither hawks nor doves anticipated the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost.

Palm readers, fortune-tellers and horoscope writers have nothing to worry about. “Experts” are no threat to their business. Experts are no better at predicting the future.

In most of our occupations, failure tends to have an adverse effect on our professional credibility. Not so in the gabby world of punditry. Talking heads continue to talk for pay, and their words and opinions continue to drive our public discourse with wrongheaded notions and inaccurate reasoning.

“Prediction is difficult, especially about the future,” observed the great statesman, Abba Eban.

It is a humble truth that media experts would do well to keep in mind.

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