The Sunday Fail
March 2nd, 2014
Your Daily Quote: “Predictions are hard, especially about the future” ~ Niels Bohr
I’ve made some good predictions in my time. I noticed the housing bubble in 2002. In December 2012, almost a year before the federal exchange launched, I said that given how late they were making decisions, I thought there was “approximately a 0% chance” that it would be ready on time. I was a Groupon skeptic from the first moment the business model was explained to me.
But every time I’m tempted to break my arm patting myself on the back, I remember that I, like our intelligence experts, have botched more than a few important predictions. How about Google stock, which I thought was overvalued at the IPO? Or my confidence that we would find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? How about my risibly low estimates of what that war would cost? Or my belief that Democrats would never pass Obamacare because doing so was so clearly political suicide?
(And it was political suicide; a lot of Democrats lost their seats because of that vote. But the legislators who made the vote for some reason couldn’t see the danger.)
Luckily, one of the comforting things I discovered as I wrote my book is that I’m not alone. Phillip Tetlock’s ground-breaking work on expert prediction shows that even bona fide experts with sterling credentials get it wrong an astonishing percentage of the time. They generally do better than random chance. But even the best predictors don’t do that much better.
Yet if you think about it, this is not surprising. A realistic model of the universe is . . . the universe. Since we can’t build that in a box and watch it run, we need some simplifying assumptions. Which means we are at risk of simplifying important details right out of the picture.
It’s tempting when experts make mistakes like this to point and laugh. Especially since we tend to remember our own good predictions and forget our bad ones, making it seem as if we must be much smarter than the people around us, and those distant idiots in the US government. But that is false vanity–dangerous false vanity, because it makes us think our own judgment better than it is. This inability to correctly predict the future is not a problem of special idiots who couldn’t see the obvious; it’s a problem of the human condition.
Your Daily Smile: These animals will make you love your imperfections.
In case you missed it: here’s the video of me talking about my book at Cato with Arnold Kling as respondent.
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