Jonah Lehrer\’s Head Case Column on Punditry – WSJ.com
The dismal performance of the experts inspired Mr. Tetlock to turn his case study into an epic experimental project. He picked 284 people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends,” including journalists, foreign policy specialists, economists and intelligence analysts, and began asking them to make predictions. Over the next two decades, he peppered them with questions: Would George Bush be re-elected? Would apartheid in South Africa end peacefully? Would Quebec secede from Canada? Would the dot-com bubble burst? In each case, the pundits rated the probability of several possible outcomes. By the end of the study, Mr. Tetlock had quantified 82,361 predictions.
How did the experts do? When it came to predicting the likelihood of an outcome, the vast majority performed worse than random chance. In other words, they would have done better picking their answers blindly out of a hat. Liberals, moderates and conservatives were all equally ineffective. Although 96% of the subjects had post-graduate training, Mr. Tetlock found, the fancy degrees were mostly useless when it came to forecasting.
The main reason for the inaccuracy has to do with overconfidence…
What’s most disturbing about Mr. Tetlock’s study is that the failures of the pundit class don’t seem to matter. We rely on talking heads more than ever, even though the vast majority of them aren’t worth their paychecks. Our political discourse is driven in large part by people whose opinions are less accurate than a coin toss.
Mr. Tetlock proposes forming a nonpartisan center to track the performance of experts, just as we track the batting averages of baseball players. In the meantime, he suggests that we learn to ignore those famous pundits who are full of bombastic convictions. “I’m always drawn to the experts on television who stumble a little on their words,” he adds. “For me, that’s a sign that they’re actually thinking about the question, and not just giving a canned answer. If an expert sounds too smooth, then you should probably change the channel.”