Everyone’s an Expert

A colleague has put me onto this fascinating piece from the New Yorker, a review of Philip Tetlock’s book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?. It is a salutary read for those of us who are paid to be political experts; Tetlock found that experts’ predictions of whether things would improve, deteriortae or stay the same was actually worse than a random selection between the three alternatives would have been. (At least, that’s what the review says; I’d like to check out the maths.)

I try and avoid predictions in my punditry, myself. Predictions are an easy way to get a headline, but really not about serious analysis. I find it much more satisfying, and I think the users of what I write fins it more staisfying, to explain the past than to expect the future. However, I definitely get taken by surprise sometimes. Listing for myself the developments that took me by surprise in the last year, I’m struck that I tend to expect worse things than actually happen. Pessimists, of course, get more pleasant surprises than optimists. But the real answer is display your understanding of the situation at present and how we got here rather than to look silly by predicting the future.

In the partisan environment of US politics (and I do think US politics is particularly bad in this respect at the moment), prediction becomes widely separated from analysis. In the New Yorker article, Louis Menand notes:

most of [these public intellectuals] are dealing in “solidarity” goods, not “credence” goods. Their analyses and predictions are tailored to make their ideological brethren feel good—more white swans for the white-swan camp. A prediction, in this context, is just an exclamation point added to an analysis. Liberals want to hear that whatever conservatives are up to is bound to go badly; when the argument gets more nuanced, they change the channel. On radio and television and the editorial page, the line between expertise and advocacy is very blurry, and pundits behave exactly the way Tetlock says they will. Bush Administration loyalists say that their predictions about postwar Iraq were correct, just a little off on timing; pro-invasion liberals who are now trying to dissociate themselves from an adventure gone bad insist that though they may have sounded a false alarm, they erred “in the right direction”—not really a mistake at all.

Foreign policy in European countries is much more consensus-driven, which has its own dangers (see the contributions to the massive new Europe’s World magazine, which I will plough through over the next few days). Myself I always want to test the conventional wisdom. Usually it is correct, but one should be careful about dismissing dissenting voices too rapidly; sure they will almost always be motivated by particular axes that the author wants to grind; but even a stopped clock is right twice a day…

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