The trouble with predicting the future

Superforecasting offers a vigorous argument for common sense


Superforecasting. (no credit)


Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Any title with the prefix “super” fits right into our world of hyperbole and hot takes, but, under a whooshingly dynamic cover, Superforecasting offers a vigorous argument for common sense.

Tetlock, a Toronto native who studied at the University of British Columbia and now teaches psychology and political science at the University of Pennsylvania, is best known for conducting a 20-year study of “expert” academics’ and pundits’ current-issues forecasts (from 1984 to 2004), which concluded that, on average, they were no more accurate than a dart-throwing chimpanzee. From 2011, the U.S. government, embarrassed by its intelligence failure regarding WMDs in Iraq, funded him and his wife, Barbara Mellers, to run the Good Judgment Project, a four-year study of volunteer forecasters to see who gets the future right, and why. This group of “regular” folks responded to such time-specific questions as, “Will Italy restructure or default on its debt by Dec. 31, 2011?” and, “Will either the French or Swiss inquiries find elevated levels of polonium in the remains of Yasser Arafat’s body?”

The armchair pundits—including a filmmaker in Brooklyn and a housewife in Alaska—ended up outperforming university researchers and professional analysts. (The amateurs are paid with an annual $250 gift certificate at Amazon, rather than receive a volunteers’ honorarium.) Tetlock offers a number of conclusions: First and foremost, there are no certainties; one doesn’t outright predict the future with “slam dunks” (as the CIA did with Iraq), but with more and more educated guesses, using continually calibrated odds. Also important are context and perspective: Tetlock encourages us to try to look at events from a multitude of angles, as if we had dragonflies’ eyes. Adding animal metaphors (and borrowing from Isaiah Berlin), Tetlock extols the supremacy of “foxes” (thinkers who take into account many ideas) over “hedgehogs” (pundits who have one Big Idea they believe solves everything, e.g., “lower taxes!”). The latter are more likely to be given their own TV shows—and also to be flat-out wrong.

Mistakes are inevitable and acceptable, Tetlock argues, as long as we learn from them. The key is to adapt. Admittedly, none of this is very sexy, but Tetlock and Ottawa-based co-author Dan Gardner keep the book fizzing along with curious anecdotes, mental puzzles and debunkings of famous people’s fatuous predictions. Only in the conclusion do they indulge in pie-in-the-sky thinking, expressing hope that the wisdom of crowds can make people start abandoning partisan bias, and work together with their diverse points of view, across political party lines, to solve the world’s problems. It’s an idea so rational, it sounds like a dream.


The trouble with predicting the future

  1. I’m guessing you are confusing Americans from the Cold War era with someone intelligent. They told me to read sci-fi short stories from 1950 (previous isn’t realistic engineering/physics) to 1957. For better or worse, the USA media fought the Cold War in 1958 after Sputnik (I thought it was 1960s neo-economists). I can’t find the book that had Impostor, and a short-story about tiny aliens who go into an ant hill, a spider hole, and get Raided outside an outhouse rectangular light by an unknowing human who gets stung by their teeny taser. And a book about the 1st man on the Moon, when the Sun explodes (flares), and returns to release microbes….I got the best 5 short-stories from 1955 and was instructed she expected to meet me, but didn’t expect to be repeatedly assaulted: Exile. the 2nd book is a very hard ethical conundrum. No one got it without a hint (2% would). I got it 30% of the time not paying attention, 70% with a hint, and 90% treating it as a national security question. Called Balanced Equation or something. A stowaway on a ship with medical supplies to a colony; she is a teen who wants to meet her brother on the other side of the world (another colony). They are delivering plague outbreak medical as cargo. The pilot knows they have no weight to give up, and the procedure is to eject her. He finds her, can’t immediately do it; she is a good person. His General superior is annoyed at first, but when finding is a girl, lets him give her an extra hour. The infected colony is 6 people. What should he do? Hint: consider if is a tyranny.
    Your experts want Revelations or a high Gini. Find Europeans, Democrats and Canadians and redo your survey.

    • It is in the order of technologies. If there are space colonies and still epidemics, it is a tyranny because no one gives a **** about stopping epidemics. You let the girl live to demonstrate compassion. You keep yourself alive to fight the tyranny (finding like minded people willing to fight/die to suggest and attempt to enact a humane world.). You dump the payload.
      They suggested I read Victorian England. Apparently the USA cared about Q-of-L a century after England. We were one year delayed. I’m realizing how good MacDonald was. He tariffed the USA and let England goods through. This helped the world create a middle class. Shoplifting from a store that is 1/2 boutique 1/2 foods isn’t usually good because that is the incentive middle class people have to locate to an inner city and the reward for work. It is something my city’s role models understood, and something I can’t seem to teach.
      In the USA 30% of my present peers would be arrested. One would be a millionaire. I’d be 3 years behind on my studies and primary contact would be a cdn. That is why I wonder why this magazine cheerleads the CPC. They don’t care about this world as much as they care about a delusional fairy tale with books chosen by people depressed the Roman Empire was falling.

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