Is a depression coming? Will Obama's stimulus and budget plans get the country back on track?
Does God exist? Is heaven the after-death destination for believers, and hell for doubters?
These sets of questions seem very different -- economics is worldly; religion is other-worldly. But after reading a recent Newsweek article, "Why Pundits Get Things Wrong," I suspect there is a commonality between those who offer up answers in both areas.
Ongoing research by Philip Tetlock, a psychologist, looked at 82,361 predictions by 284 pundits. Searching for an explanation of why some people were better predictors than others, he found that:
In other words, those who were most certain they were right were more likely to be wrong. It's better to be a fox, someone who knows many things, than a hedgehog, who knows one big thing.
The article's author, Sharon Begley, lists the characteristics of foxes (better predictors) and hedgehogs (worse predictors).
Foxes... cognitively flexible, modest, open to self-criticism, consider competing views, doubt power of Big Ideas, recognize uncertainty, pepper their speech and writing with "however" and "but."
Hedgehogs... supremely confident, dismiss opposing views, drawn to top-down arguments based on a Big Idea, seek certainty, dismiss information that undercuts preconceptions.
In punditry though, and this applies to supposed secular and spiritual experts alike, most people like to hear decisive answers rather than tentative opinions.
Even though in my graduate school days I was taught that it's better to be roughly right instead of precisely wrong, brazen black and white statements generally appear more attractive than those in shades of gray.
However (yes, I'm a fox), reality is grayish.
So usually those who predict extremes of doom and gloom, or sunshine and roses, will be off the mark. Likely the world economy isn't heading into a free fall, and probably the Second Coming isn't near at hand (or far at hand, for that matter).
Here are some excerpts from an interesting New Yorker story about Tetlock's book that support my churchless inclinations.
I don't trust experts who make over-confident economic predictions, nor religious leaders who claim to know what is going to happen to us after we die.
People who make prediction their business—people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses, and participate in punditry roundtables—are no better than the rest of us. When they’re wrong, they’re rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it, either. They insist that they were just off on timing, or blindsided by an improbable event, or almost right, or wrong for the right reasons. They have the same repertoire of self-justifications that everyone has, and are no more inclined than anyone else to revise their beliefs about the way the world works, or ought to work, just because they made a mistake.
...The accuracy of an expert’s predictions actually has an inverse relationship to his or her self-confidence, renown, and, beyond a certain point, depth of knowledge. People who follow current events by reading the papers and newsmagazines regularly can guess what is likely to happen about as accurately as the specialists whom the papers quote.
...The experts’ trouble in Tetlock’s study is exactly the trouble that all human beings have: we fall in love with our hunches, and we really, really hate to be wrong.
...Most people tend to dismiss new information that doesn’t fit with what they already believe. Tetlock found that his experts used a double standard: they were much tougher in assessing the validity of information that undercut their theory than they were in crediting information that supported it.
...But the best lesson of Tetlock’s book may be the one that he seems most reluctant to draw: Think for yourself.
Like a fox. (If you're not sure whether you're more of a fox or a hedgehog, here's some questions that will give you an indication.)