Prophets of Error

TREVOR BUTTERWORTH

If you look at the predicted history of the world we live in now as divined by experts in the past it turns out to be an unfamiliar place:

Japan owns the early 21st century while the Soviet Union (yes, the Soviet Union, for communism is still in vogue) has surged past the U.S. in productivity. China, meanwhile, is economically irrelevant, and it will be irrelevant until 2050, which probably means that it won't be relevant at all, given that oil production peaked around 1995 and scarcity and inflation are now the dominant facts of our dismal, shortening lives.

In Future Babble, a delicious gathering of such useless conjecture, Dan Gardner samples from the finest experts known to mankind (or at least to the mass media) and excavates a trove of detailed research to show how a seemingly rational activity – calculating the probability of something happening – has turned into a continuous farce.

How bad are expert predictions? Almost predictably bad. In 2005, Philip Tetlock, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, published the results of a magisterial 20-year analysis of 27,450 judgments about the future from 284 experts. He discovered that the experts, in aggregate, did little better, and sometimes considerably worse, than "a dart-throwing chimpanzee."

While Mr. Tetlock guaranteed anonymity to get his experts to reveal how useless they were, Mr. Gardner names names. In the late 1960s, he notes, the political scientist Andrew Hacker predicted that race relations in America would soon get so bad that they would lead to the "dynamiting of bridges and water mains" and the "assassinating of public officials and private luminaries." In the early 1970s, Richard Falk, at Princeton, imagined that by the 1990s we would be living in a world dominated by "the politics of catastrophe." In the mid-1970s, Daniel Bell and other analysts assumed that high levels of inflation were, as Mr. Gardner puts it, "here to stay." (In fact, inflation cooled off in the early 1980s and has stayed low for decades.) In the early 1990s, Lester Thurow, the MIT economist, was one of the experts who predicted that Japan would dominate the 21st century, though he noted that Europe had a chance, too.

The high priest of erroneous prediction is, of course, Paul Ehrlich, who, though a respected entomologist, turned into an end-of-the-worlder with The Population Bomb (1968) and The End of Affluence (1974). In the latter book he wrote: "If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000." Now 77, Mr. Ehrlich is "a gregarious and delightful man, a natural performer," Mr. Gardner reports, thereby tapping into the sources of his success in the face of repeated failure: Never admit mistakes, never sound doubtful. As Mr. Gardner shows in his survey of expert prediction-making, the more you sound like you know what you are talking about, the more people will believe you.


This point is driven home by another expert, the "renowned" Dr. Myron L. Fox, a specialist in "mathematical game theory as applied to physician education" – or, if you prefer, pure drivel. Dr. Fox was, in fact, an actor who, in the early 1970s, was chosen by three psychologists from the University of Southern California to be at the center of an experiment. They set out to test the responses of the audiences who attended Dr. Fox's lectures. The fabulous Dr. Fox was drilled "to present his topic and conduct his question-and-answer period with an excessive use of double talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictory statements . . . interspersed with parenthetical humor and meaningful references to unrelated topics."

. . . thereby tapping into the sources of his success in the face of repeated failure: Never admit mistakes, never sound doubtful. As Mr. Gardner shows in his survey of expert prediction-making, the more you sound like you know what you are talking about, the more people will believe you.

All this he executed with aplomb. "He spoke with clarity, confidence, and authority," writes Mr. Gardner, and "that was all that mattered." Dr. Fox's meaningless lecture was a hit with three separate audiences composed of academics and graduate students; an overwhelming majority felt that he had stimulated their own thinking. One person even described him as "extremely articulate."

By contrast, the Yale economist Robert Shiller, one of the better oracles of our times, is "seldom simple, clear, and certain," says Mr. Gardner. Such vices might do him in as a media expert had he not called both the high-tech bubble of the late 1990s and the more recent real-estate bubble. But look at how the audience reacted to a July 2009 appearance by Mr. Shiller on CNBC, during which he talked about the real-estate market: "By the standards of TV punditry, it was a nuanced and thoughtful overview of a complex situation plagued with uncertainties," writes Mr. Gardner. "And people hated it." One online commenter went so far as to say: "This guy is really hedging his bet. . . . I wouldn't take advice from him."

After reading Future Babble one is inclined to throw up one's hands at such a moronic inferno. We are obviously addicts for certainty – looking, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, for "an angry fix . . . in the machinery of night." Who are the real fools here? The babblers, beating out prognostications all the way to the bank, or the chumps who credulously listen to them? If only we could follow the Rev. Sydney Smith's counsel to Lady Morpeth on how to banish melancholia: "Short views of life, not further than dinner or tea."

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Trevor Butterworth. "Prophets of Error." The Wall Street Journal (April 30, 2011).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

Trevor Butterworth is an Irish journalist and writer who has lived in the United States since 1993 and presently resides in Brooklyn. He writes a weekly column for The Daily, called "The Information Society," which is about how we produce, consume, and abuse information in our so-called knowledge economy. He is a contributor to the Financial Times and is a regular book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal. He is editor-at-large at STATS.org, a non-partisan, non-profit project affiliated with George Mason University in Virginia that examines the way statistics and science are used in public policy and the media.

He received his BA and M.Phil from Trinity College Dublin, attended Georgetown University on a graduate scholarship, and received an MS from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where he also received the school's Sevellon Brown Award for outstanding knowledge of the history of American press. Visit his website here.

Copyright © 2011 Wall Street Journal




Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter

 

 

Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.