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Why The Two Parties Are Horrible At Predicting the Future

by Germaine Descant, published

A good share of politics-related content from the mainstream media (i.e., mass media outlets that convey content shaped by dominant thinking, influences, and activities) deals with predicting the future. Politicians, pundits, commentators, and experts -- both real and self-professed -- are an endless fountain of confident predictions about what political policies will make America and the American people safe, strong, and prosperous.

As usual, the left and right argue for starkly different policies. Those policy choices come packaged with great self-confidence in the expertise and prescience behind the policies and predictions of their future impacts on society.

Since the two sides with their subjective political ideologies are usually about as far apart as it is possible to get, simple logic says that (i) one side or the other can be more wrong than the other, and (ii) it is possible that both sides can be about equally wrong, including situations where both are more wrong than right from an objectively defined public interest point of view.

Of course, the assessment of right and wrong is from an objective point of view that holds that service to the public interest -- along with fidelity to unbiased fact and logic -- is one of the three highest political values for truly effective politics.

Given that context, one can ask if there is any evidence that the experts who shape public opinion and policy are good, bad or indifferent at what they do -- i.e., are they generally competent or not?


Expert Predictions vs. Random Guesses

The short answer is that there is overwhelming scientific evidence that true experts and their predictions are mostly wrong. In fact, predictions by most true experts are not much better than random guesses.

On Sunday, October 25, 2015, CNN aired a story by Fareed Zakaria about research on expert predictions. The research that Dr. Zakaria discussed was conducted by social scientist Philip Tetlock (a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania) and his colleagues.

The research is described in Dr. Tetlock’s book, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (September, 2015). Tetlock’s research, the “Good Judgment Project," was funded by the Department of Defense through the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

According to Zakaria’s CNN story, the data in Tetlock’s 2015 book came from over 1 million predictions that were made over four years by both average people and various experts. Data analysis revealed that the experts were not good at predicting future events (i.e., they are only slightly better than simply guessing about future events).

Tetlock research further found that some average citizens outperformed experts by 30%, despite having no access to classified information.

About 2% of experts making predictions were categorized as “superforecasters” because they were 60% more accurate than average experts.

Zakaria and others point out that, at least in politics, political pundits making predictions are not measured for their track record or accuracy. A Washington Post article accurately puts it this way:

“Without the possibility of being proven wrong, pundits are unlikely to change their minds, and readers can continue to seek out arguments that merely confirm their ideological inclinations. This way lies the close-minded partisanship that afflicts so much of contemporary political discourse.”

The important point coming from Tetlock’s research is finding the traits that superforecasters tended to have in common. The best forecasters:

  • Were open minded and relied on multiple information sources to ground their predictions;
  • Embraced nuance, e.g., there is an X% chance of Y happening in the next 5 years, which allowed quantifying and measuring predictions; and
  • Work well with other people -- i.e., they have collaborative personalities that fostered amicable debate and disagreement.

Superforecasters tended to make predicting the future into an objective endeavor in science, instead of a subjective exercise in fitting the real world with personal ideology, morals, or values. Based on Tetlock’s data, two conclusions are obvious:

  • Most experts are incompetent at predicting the future and there is no reason to believe that politicians, pundits, or commentators are any better.
  • Personal qualities that correlate with competence -- i.e., open mindedness, willing to see nuance in the real world, and collaborative -- are the opposite of the qualities that typify standard hardcore liberal and conservative ideologues -- i.e., closed minded, see black and white but not nuance or gray, and intolerant of dissent.


Cognitive Science and Politics

The fundamental argument that Dissident Politics makes is that politics is first and foremost a matter of human biology, especially the biology of cognition. Considerations such as political, economic, and religious ideology or theory are beside the point.

If one is interested in making politics more objective and rational than it now is and always has been, the dominant importance of human cognitive biology has to be (i) acknowledged, (ii) accepted and (iii) dealt with in a meaningful way. The only apparent way to do that is to posit biological politics, which has to be based on the three fundamental political values described before.

Tetlock’s research and its implications are completely compatible with Dissident Politics’ proposed biology-based intellectual framework for politics.

Absent a shift toward rationality, American politics will continue to give us exactly what we have now -- i.e., two implacably warring sides endlessly fighting over their subjective values in meaningless, subjective liberal and conservative ideological frameworks.

Research data shows that process yields second-rate, massively wasteful policies that serve narrow, wealthy interests. Dissident Politics argues that that two-party “political service” comes at the expense of the public interest.

Human biology being what it is, those subjective left vs. right ideological fights will never resolve. For American politics, those fights or close variants thereof started with the Founding Fathers, or maybe centuries before then.

Those subjective ideological fights are still hotly contested and unresolved today. Tetlock’s research points to a much smarter way to do politics.

Photo Credit: Andrey_Popov /

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