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Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better Hardcover – March 17, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
Gardner, a columnist and senior writer for the Ottawa Citizen (The Science of Fear), examines the misguided trust people place in media forecasters and "legions of experts" who make meaningless predictions about the future. He reviews the findings of psychologist Philip Tetlock, who had 284 experts from a range of disciplines make 27,450 predictions on political and economic trends, concluding they produced about the same results as random guesses. Biologist Paul Erhlich is one of his main targets. In 1968's The Population Bomb, Ehrlich predicted mass famines. In fact, Gardner points to America's "epidemic of obesity" and growing calorie intake worldwide. Gardner also probes economic and environmental worries, and warnings of wars, climate change, the Y2K hysteria, and the weather, which he says can be forecast with accuracy only at most two days out. Successful predictions are celebrated, Gardner says, while the wrong ones are forgotten. Yet he might have done well to remember more of those accurate predictions, and to focus more on Tetlock's conclusions about those experts who show greater accuracy and on how the public might recognize them. Instead, he writes off accurate predictions as "likely... a coincidence." (Mar. 17)
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We humans have an apparently insatiable appetite for predictions about the future, but the �experts� to whom we turn for predictions often do an exceedingly poor job of forecasting. Why? Drawing upon the research of psychologist Philip Tetlock, whose 20-year study of expert predictions suggested that experts were about as accurate in predicting the future as dart-throwing monkeys, as well as insights from cognitive science, Ottawa journalist Gardner argues that the problem is not lousy experts so much as our deeply rooted human need for certainty. Wanting definite, unqualified answers about the future, we encourage experts to make bold, unconditional predictions that often turn out to be wrong; but we are quick to forgive and forget. (Recall, for example, the many predictioneers who forecast clear economic sailing through the fall of 2008). Like his earlier work, in which Gardner also explored the challenge of dealing with uncertainty (The Science of Fear, 2009), this selection urges (and demonstrates) a calm, rational perspective; a healthy skepticism; and an effort to make peace with life�s uncertainties. --Brendan Driscoll
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To study this issue I would encourage one to go to the source and study “Expert Political Judgment.” It is a seminal social science study. However, this book does read like a 300 page scientific paper that it is. There are a lot of quantitative methods including tables of regression outputs, statistics, Bayesian trees, and related graphs. Tetlock style is lively but it assumes you are comfortable with the mentioned quantitative methods.
Dan Gardner renders Tetlock’s study much more digestible for the majority who may not stomach the quantitative intensity of Tetlock’s message. And, Gardner does an excellent job of doing that. He uses a journalistic narrative style but he does not dumb down the issue.
Gardner also broadens the criticism of expert judgment by reviewing the actual records of well-known pundits. This is in contrast to Tetlock who was extremely careful not to offend anyone. He had taken great care throughout his entire study of rendering the identity of all forecasters anonymous. In essence, he had constructed thousands of prediction contests that he challenged numerous pundits and experts to participate in over years. And, he understood that the minute he would embarrass any forecasters by rendering their results somewhat public, it would be the end of his study. Gardner not burdened by having to complete a study on the topic feels a lot freer to criticize (rightfully) whoever he wants by scrutinizing their actual prediction records and uncovering how dismal that record is.
Throughout the book, Gardner discloses how poor the record of so many well-known pundits and experts is. He focuses an entire chapter by narrowing his gaze on a few such experts (chapter 7, ‘When Prophets Fail’). These include: James Howard Kunstler, Robert Heilbroner, Lord William Rees-Mogg, Paul Ehrlich, Oswald Spengler, and George Friedman among many others within the book. They essentially all predicted the same thing including an overall desperate world stuck in a Malthusian trap with exploding population growth and a scarcity of resources including food. Oil and other commodities would invariably become scarce and exorbitantly expensive. Living standards and life expectancies would plummet, etc. In other words, our civilization is on the edge of a cliff. Also, in all cases the US would loose its supremacy and various countries or areas would take over the lead. The upcoming world leading hegemon is at times Russia or Japan or Europe, and now it is mainly China (until the next prospective candidate). Some of their earlier predictions suggested this near-end of civilization would hit us in the 1970s. When it did not quite occur predictions were revised to the 1980s, then the 1990s, then again. Yet, the US is still standing. Oil is not scarce. Population growth has stabilized. And, civilization as we know it is still moving forward (Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, robot automation, drones, driverless cars, etc.).
Gardner refers to all the flaws affecting our human brain rendering most of us to be incapable of making accurate predictions. These include overconfidence, hindsight bias, confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, anchoring, recency, and many other cognitive flaws the vast majority of us have. The study of those flaws has been extensively covered not only by Philip Tetlock, but also by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Related studies will contribute to the foundation of a new field: behavioral economics.
In addition to all those common human flaws, forecasters can be divided in two very different thinking tribes: the Hedgehogs and the Foxes (Philip Tetlock’s framework). The Hedgehog is by far the dominant one. The vast majority of well-established experts are Hedgehogs. They are articulate, formidable debaters, very confident and definite. They just about know for sure exactly what is going to happen and why. Their message is typically fairly simple supported by what appears to be irrefutable and comprehensible logic. The Hedgehogs also never change their mind. They have developed a single theory that explains everything everywhere every time. And the Media and the public love them. In turn, the Hedgehogs are very famous, and make a lot of money. The Foxes are just the opposite. They are extremely rare among experts (Gardner mentions Robert Shiller, George Soros; I have also heard that Mark Zandi is considered one… and that’s about it). The Foxes are often shy, not so articulate, and insecure. They believe the world is way to complex and unpredictable to abide by any deterministic theory or law advanced by the Hedgehogs. They accumulate a lot of information including contradicting one. And, they change their mind much more frequently. As a result, they seem hesitant, unconvincing and not persuasive.
The tragedy is that the Hedgehogs we so love and find persuasive are far worse forecasters than the Foxes we more often than not ignore. The Hedgehogs are also far worse at recognizing that they are bad forecasters. They do not recognize their mistakes. And, they are excellent at persuading us that even though their forecast was wrong, they were directionally correct. They just claim to be ahead of their time. And, that eventually they will be proven correct in the near future.
Gardner also expands on why the future is unpredictable by referring to various theories. These include Chaos Theory, including the famous Butterfly Effect. A very small change can cause incremental sequential changes leading to a final very big change. Also, the concept of feedback loop that affects much of social sciences renders the future unpredictable. In essence, we do not forecast in a vacuum. We actually react to forecasts so as to preempt them from occurring. These trigger a new set of forecasts with a subsequent set of feedback loop negating reactions, etc. Also, many events are affected by non-linear effects and confounding variables as well as sheer randomness. The combination of those are not readily modeleable; and, they certainly do not conform to any simple trend extrapolations that usually represent the main tool of many forecasters especially hedgehogs.
Gardner mentions oil prices, economic growth, and stock markets as phenomena that seem forecastable. But, in reality are most challenging to predict. They are all affected by feedback loops and numerous random ad hoc shocks that are just not forecastable.
In the last chapter, Gardner outlines how Foxes think in contrast to Hedgehogs. Fox thinking really boils down to this famous quote from John Maynard Keynes that Gardner mentions at the start of chapter 7: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” More explicitly Fox thinking has three elements: 1) aggregation; 2) metacognition; and 3) humility.
Aggregation entails incorporating information from many different sources, including conflicting sources with opposite biases (political or otherwise). It entails using different data source and structure (quantitative, narrative, social media… in today’s parlance using both structured and unstructured data). This effort may render the aggregator somewhat confused, directionless, and uncertain. And, that is exactly where Foxes like to be. Some of them actually get a bit anxious when they find themselves confident about an outcome (do they cross the line into the overconfidence territory of the Hedgehogs). And, this leads to their third characteristic: humility. They like to doubt themselves, re-check and re-evaluate their assessments. They like to revise the direction or probability of their assessments very frequently (Keynes quote). They are also very introspective about their own thinking. How did they reach that conclusion? What logic? Did they avoid classic biases (confirmation bias, recency, hindsight bias, etc.)? And, that is where the second element comes in: metacognition. The latter describes this introspective way of thinking.
Several years ago, Philip Tetlock founded an institute for Fox thinking: the Good Judgment Project. This is a web based forum open to everyone who wants to measure their forecasting skills. Forecasting challenges are issued all the time, and results and accuracy are readily tracked. Tetlock uncovered that a very small percentage of the people are super forecasters. He tested them in various environments against various elite teams (CIA analytical units, MIT and Stanford teams). And, they routinely trounced everyone else. They even beat prediction markets. And, Tetlock wrote an entire book on the subject “Superforecasting” published in 2015. As can be expected, Tetlock goes way beyond Gardner’s very small introduction on Fox thinking. But, Gardner in a clear and digestible language with some very good example gives a good introduction on the subject.
The book's primary fault is that Gardner is so focused on his two points that he can't stop hitting you over the head with them. By the tenth (or maybe it was the twentieth) example of an expert making a foolish prediction, I thought "OK, I get it." While he is using the examples to illustrate different sources of error, they still feel overly repetitive.
Gardner redeems this somewhat though in his conclusion which is the best part of the book. He talks about how we can function in a society where we need prediction and what we should look for in those making predictions. It's a well argued point and justified by what Gardner has presented throughout the book.
The book replies with specific details to questions like these:
> Why do we want and need predictions on anything?
> Is anything predictable and subject to future predictions?
> Why do we trust some experts and not others?
> What does make an expert an expert and trustworthy for prediction making?
> Why are tides and eclipses predictable when predictions about so much else can be blown away by the flap of a butterfly’s wings?
> Why can we calculate insurance premiums, but not the world markets in 10 years time?
> Why experts whose predictions failed miserably consider them successful even the evidence is undeniable?
> Why experts whose predictions failed are constantly called to make more predictions?
> Why experts who make real successful predictions are rarely believed and those who have no clue are listened to, and unquestionably so?
> Why do experts fail in their predictions?
> Are there patterns in the Economy, Demography, History, Politics or human relationships that can explain the future in those areas?
> If the future is unpredictable, doesn’t that mean all our planning and forecasting is pointless?
> Are experts really so bad?
> What distinguishes the mass of delusional experts from the few impressive ones?
The book is well structured and discussed, without being boring or pretentious. Yet, all the examples are historically and statistically backed, and explanations are given to every single point in which you might find yourself asking, "but why?". The Whys are the most important and interesting part of the book, and they are explained by a psychological approach. Among others, some psychological biases and heuristic implicated in prediction making, in justifying the failed predictions and forgetting about the expert's constant failures are: < Optimism Bias. < Confirmation Bias. < Status Quo Bias. < Negativity Bias. < Hindsight Bias. < Rationalization Bias. < The bias bias. < Anchoring-and-adjustment Heuristic. < Availability Heuristic. < Representativeness Heuristic. < Confidence Heuristic.
The point of departure is a sound approach on to how to figure out the rate of failure among experts and how accurate expert's predictions are, and which characteristics do successful and unsuccessful prediction experts show. If you don't do that, the whole discourse crumbles before even starting. Lucky Gardner had a brilliant support in the scientific and academic research project that Philip Tetlock.
The book has many specific cases of study of experts who predicted and failed miserably, of predictions that sound utterly ridiculous today but sold millions of books and were in the list of most important books of all times a few decades ago, and many small cases that showcase how and why people make predictions, and why they are bound to fail, or not.
I thought, well, it is great that Gardner sees the speck in the neighbour's eye, but not the log in his. So, how does he do (or how do we do) to see our own log? Gardner knows that all the biases he mentions affects us all, so how do we do to avoid them? Voila, the last chapter, The End, does come with the answers. I was clapping out of joy. Gardner does not focus on himself, of course, he shows how that can be done by using Alan Barnes' system on dealing with the documentation and research for the Privy Council Office of the Canadian Government. There are three key elements: metacognition, information aggregation and humility. Brilliant. Now, did Gardner do that with the book to avoid his own biases? Did he do it himself or his editor or perhaps a support team? Did he stop to ask himself, hey gorgeous me I am being biased here by any chance? I would love to know that from the author himself, the specific method he applied to this specific book. Out of academic interest.
This is not only a good book, it is very engaging and intriguing, that gives answer after answer after answer. Moreover the book is well written, researched and referenced and has an impressive bibliography. Barely an typo in sight, as well.
The Kindle Edition is flawless. However, if you read the book on Kindle for PC, the Lateral Index of Contents does not display in it, while display perfectly in android devices.
There are other books on randomness and predictions of the markets, politics, etc. but this is the first I've read on the subject and it is flawless. Easy to understand even by a moron :O.
Number one in my list of best books of 2015 so far.
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