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The Sin of Certainty

April 13, 2010

In the Atlantic Lane Wallace addresses why experts seem to be wrong so much of the time –

In his new book, How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer cites a research study done by U.C. Berkeley professor Philip Tetlock. Tetlock questioned 284 people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends,” asking them to make predictions about future events. Over the course of the study, Tetlock collected quantitative data on over 82,000 predictions, as well as information from follow-up interviews with the subjects about the thought processes they’d used to come to those predictions.

His findings were surprising. Most of Tetlock’s questions about the future events were put in the form of specific, multiple choice questions, with three possible answers. But for all their expertise, the pundits’ predictions turned out to be correct less than 33% of the time. Which meant, as Lehrer puts it, that a “dart-throwing chimp” would have had a higher rate of success. Tetlock also found that the least accurate predictions were made by the most famous experts in the group.

Why was that? According to Lehrer,

“The central error diagnosed by Tetlock was the sin of certainty, which led the ‘experts’ to impose a top-down solution on their decision-making processes … When pundits were convinced that they were right, they ignored any brain areas that implied they might be wrong.”

I see something similar developing on the political right currently. Since late last year people have been predicting with growing certainty that the GOP is going to make big gains in the November elections, and it certainly seems that way at the moment. Numbers are trending towards the GOP. Republicans have won a number of 3 out of 4 closely watched elections recently. Obama’s popularity is dropping almost daily. All that ignores a few facts. First – it is still almost 7 months to the election. Second – Like it or not the economy is recovering. Not quickly and not as strongly as we would like but it is. Third – The worst of the predictions have not come true. The Stimulus package was passed a year ago and we don’t have hyperinflation and China hasn’t stopped buying US bonds. Fourth – Immigration reform is going to be on the table again pre-election and it is going to hurt the GOP gain badly. And Fifth – The GOP remains wildly unpopular and appears very ineffective based on it’s handling of Michael Steele and other such problems. Those issues can be mitigated but they have to be addressed. So far that doesn’t really seem to be happening – everyone appears content to try and ride Health Care Reform to victory. I don’t think that is going to happen. 7 months is a long time to stay mad. especially when so far the impact from HCR has been minimal.

Of course I am not an expert so my prediction probably has a much less than 33.333% chance of being correct.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. majorscarlet permalink
    April 13, 2010 3:31 pm

    all good points. here is another fine list of reasons..

    i’m leaning towards a combination of things but mostly wishful thinking. that isn’t to say the republicans won’t win big… however, for the reasons you pointed out about the republicans we may be witnessing the death of the republicans and the real birth of a new party.

  2. April 13, 2010 4:47 pm

    Re: coasting on the anger over the health care reform bill – it’s also a bad idea because many of the worst parts of the bill won’t take effect until after the elections. Meaning that not only will the initial anger have had time to fade, but that the parts that will raise new anger won’t hit voters until it’s too late.

  3. April 13, 2010 5:26 pm

    I’m with you. I hope the people predicting huge GOP gains are right, but I’m not that confident.

  4. Portlandic permalink
    April 14, 2010 6:34 pm

    Folks who have $$ to spend on such want, more than to know the future, to have official sounding validation of the future they want. Those willing to be objective keep a low profile by comparison to the shouters and media whores, either because of inherent dignity or because they’d become the center of attention.

  5. April 20, 2010 6:09 pm

    America speaks opposed to outlawed immigrants. That if you enter America without appropriate documents you are an illegal immigrant. Take a look back at history when Christopher Columbus popped to America and found it colonized already by Indians. You should be deported to!

    • jenn1964 permalink*
      April 20, 2010 8:17 pm

      Ok, wel that’s certainly one opinion. It isn’t a very good one but that’s ok.


  1. Flash Forward | !
  2. » Prediction is hard, especially about the future

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