Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What's ahead in 2016? Your guess is as good as the experts' -- Dec. 24, 2015 column


We’re on the cusp of a new year, so it must be prediction season, that magical time when we’re all authorities on the future.  

As predictions for 2016 begin to flow, the urge seems irresistible to bloviate about the presidential election even though no one – and I mean no one – knows for sure what will happen.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will be the Republican presidential nominee, and he will tap South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as his running mate, proclaims Fortune, which also predicts Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton will pick Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia as her veep.

Really? It’s not that those are bad guesses. Rubio is the hope of many Republicans who want to dump Trump, and Haley said she’ll consider joining the GOP ticket if asked. Clinton is, well, Clinton, and Kaine represents a swing state that could be crucial.

But such scenarios assume a logical electorate – and when did the 2016 campaign become logical?

Only a year ago, as 2015 dawned and predictions proliferated, no one saw Hurricane Donald coming. Trump didn’t even jump into the race until June, although it seems he’s been in forever.

We don’t know what we don’t know about 2016.

But here’s why predictions are both beauty and beast: They exist in a judgment-free zone. In our talky age, anyone who speaks with confidence can predict with impunity.

A year ago, the writer of a predictions piece in the British newspaper the Telegraph ticked through the list of Democratic and Republican contenders and confided to his readers that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is “my personal favourite to win the nomination and the White House – although I’m probably in a minority of two in that opinion (me and Mr. Huckabee).”

OK, but why?

In its “The World in 2016” issue, The Economist confidently declares, “Hillary Clinton will be the candidate to beat in the race for the White House,” and “someone like” Rubio will win the GOP’s nod. But Clinton will probably eke out a victory in November, unless other factors intervene, the reporter opines. With that much wiggle room, it’s hard to be wrong. 

The art of looking ahead apparently approves of alliteration. The Economist says 2016 “can be summed up in three words: woes, women and wins.” The primary season will be “short and sharp.” The campaign: “cruel, costly and close.”

Most predictions are like those lists of what’s In and Out – clever opinion. Or the vague horoscopes in the morning paper -- fun but hardly definitive. 

Fortunately, some thoughtful people are weighing in. As  2015 ends, political scientist Larry Sabato and his colleagues at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics still rate the general election “a coin flip,” based on statistics and research. That’s good enough for me. I don’t need to declare an election before the voting even starts.

In two decades of studying predictions, professor Philip E. Tetlock found that a dart-throwing chimp has nearly as much accuracy in forecasting the future as so-called experts in politics, economics and journalism.  

Tetlock’s 2005 book -- “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” – deflated a lot of hot air balloons. He evaluated the accuracy of 82,361 forecasts and found that about 15 percent of the things the experts dismissed as having little or no chance of occurring actually did happen. Of the things the experts claimed surely would happen, about 27 percent did not.

Tetlock, who teaches psychology and management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, now says there are ways to improve our forecasting abilities so we can beat the chimp.

His new book, “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction,” written with journalist Dan Gardner, includes such techniques as keeping an open mind and gathering facts.  

We may always wish for experts, super or not. In 1980, Wharton professor J. Scott Armstrong invented the “seersucker theory.” After reviewing a dozen studies about experts and their advice, Armstrong proposed: “No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.”

When you see predictions about 2016, think of the dart-throwing chimp -- and don’t be a seer-sucker.

© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


1 comment:

  1. Marsha, once again you've written a informative piece that is full of humor and thoughtful analysis. I especially like the line, "We don’t know what we don’t know about 2016." I think Donald Rumsfeld said that. Absolutely brilliant! Keep 'em coming! I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in spite of all the political shenanigans ahead of us! Take care.