August 12, 2010 - think for yourself
In 2005 Philip Tetlock wrote a book called, "Expert Political Judgment: How Good is it? How can we know?"
To find out, he did something extraordinary. He went back and studied 50 years of writings by various media pundits and commentators who made predictions about politics and economics. Then he carefully tracked the results.
What did he find?
Experts don't do so good.
They were worse than random. As one reviewer noted: "Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world... are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys." It didn't make any difference if they were conservative or liberal.
The reasons for this appalling performance are many.
Reasonable people with modest opinions aren't that much fun to read. People who say outrageous things command more attention. But that doesn't mean they're right. In fact, the wilder they get, they less likely that is.
It's a twist on the old "hedgehog versus the fox" fable. The simple hedgehog knows One Big Thing (how to roll up into a prickly ball and ignore outside threats). The clever fox knows many things.
Most experts are hedgehogs. They fall in love with their own perspectives and are impervious to all the evidence to the contrary. It becomes a kind of arrogance.
Or as H. L. Mencken once said, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."
Foxes, on the other hand, are wary of big ideas that explain everything. They are less grandiose.
But foxes make better guesses about the future. The future is nuanced.
People get fooled by their own supposed expertise. They get deeper and deeper into arcane knowledge and think it really tells them something. But Tetlock concluded that more general perspectives - taking into account the information from multiple areas of study, and more than one perspective - gives people a better read on the likely future.
And isn't this depressing? It turns out that simple mathematical models are often far better at predicting the future than people who are supposed to be experts. Take the stock market. If you put your money into the standard index funds and leave them there, over 15 years or so you'll make some money. This simple model outperforms nearly every financial advisor.
But people love their illusion of insight. And even in the middle of our hedgehog posturing, we make things more complicated. We think combining two unlikely events ("we will invade Iraq and the people will hail us as heroes!") is somehow more likely than one ("we will invade Iraq").
So what does this tell us about the wise heads who show up on TV, opine on talk radio, or write syndicated columns?
It tells us that the more demogagic the pundit may be, the more certain that there's one great truth that explains everything, and the more confident the prediction about a sweeping change a-coming, the smarter we would be to think for ourselves.
And here's my prediction: knowing that won't change things much.
LaRue's Views are his own.