December 09, 2012
HOW TO WIN AT FORECASTING: A Conversation with Philip Tetlock
There's a question that I've been asking myself for nearly three decades now and trying to get a research handle on, and that is why is the quality of public debate so low and why is it that the quality often seems to deteriorate the more important the stakes get? About 30 years ago I started my work on expert political judgment. It was the height of the Cold War. There was a ferocious debate about how to deal with the Soviet Union. There was a liberal view; there was a conservative view. Each position led to certain predictions about how the Soviets would be likely to react to various policy initiatives. One thing that became very clear, especially after Gorbachev came to power and confounded the predictions of both liberals and conservatives, was that even though nobody predicted the direction that Gorbachev was taking the Soviet Union, virtually everybody after the fact had a compelling explanation for it. We seemed to be working in what one psychologist called an "outcome irrelevant learning situation." People drew whatever lessons they wanted from history. There is quite a bit of skepticism about political punditry, but there's also a huge appetite for it. I was struck 30 years ago and I'm struck now by how little interest there is in holding political pundits who wield great influence accountable for predictions they make on important matters of public policy. The presidential election of 2012, of course, brought about the Nate Silver controversy and a lot of people, mostly Democrats, took great satisfaction out of Silver being more accurate than leading Republican pundits. It's undeniably true that he was more accurate. He was using more rigorous techniques in analyzing and aggregating data than his competitors and debunkers were.
But it’s not something uniquely closed-minded about conservatives that caused them to dislike Silver.
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