Science fiction readers Of A Certain Age will remember Asimov's
Foundation books fondly, which prominently featured Hari Seldon's
"psychohistory", a subversive science that allowed the accurate
prediction of the (dismal) future of the Galactic Empire. The brave
effort to minimize the inevitable barbarism gave rise to many stories
This book says: we ain't there yet. We're unlikely to ever get
there. But it is an excellent overview of the best current efforts to
(at least) make predictions about the near future.
The book's primary author, Philip Tetlock, is a UPenn prof (in
Psychology, Political Science, and the Wharton business school,
impressive). The subject has been the primary focus of his research for
most of his career. The secondary author, Dan Gardner, is a journalist,
and probably punched up the prose and ironed out some of the academese.
The result is excellent, very readable even for the layman. (As long as
the layman doesn't seize up at an informal presentation of Bayes'
Theorem.) It is full
of insights, wittily presented.
Most popular "pundit" forecasting is sloppy: full of weaselly
qualifications and vague time scales. (NYT columnist
Thomas Friedman is used as an example.) Worse, pundits don't usually get
called on their failed predictions. (Example here is from "our" side:
Larry Kudlow, CNBC superstar, who was consistently, disastrously wrong
about the 2007-2008 recession. Yet, he's still in the lucrative business
of TV punditry.)
So it's easy to despair. Yet, Tetlock approached the issue as a rigorous
science: let's ask for predictions precisely, with unambiguous
language, and specific timescales. (Example: will Kim Jong-Un vacate his
office by June 2015?) And ask for probabilities rather than yes/no:
("My forecast for Kim Jong-Un vacating by June 2015: 20%.")
Tetlock assembled a raft of volunteers who threw their brains into
judging the likelihood of such outcomes. (Still ongoing. There's a
website.) Result (although the
book's title is kind of a spoiler): some forecasters did a lot better
than others, even better than a dart-throwing chip would have. (High
praise, as Tetlock shows.)
Then the interesting question becomes: What did the
superforecasters have in common? A lot of things, as it turns out.
Humility. Skill in breaking down problems into more-easily analyzed
parts. Knowing where to get information is relatively easy; knowing what
to get is vital.
Math literacy helps, although few superf'ers applied math rigorously in making
their predictions. A determined non-ideological approach is also a plus;
if you "know" that the right answer is determined by your faith in
capitalism/socialism/bureaucracy/democracy/etc. then you are likely to
be way too confident in your guesses. And more.
So, highly recommended. If you don't believe me, and you shouldn't, the
back cover has High Praise blurbs from some people you may have heard
of: Daniel Kahneman, Steven Pinker, Robert Rubin, Tyler Cowen, and