Thursday, November 17, 2011
By Audrey Pietrucha
At the beginning of April of this year some of us were wondering if the baseball season was worth playing or if we should just go straight to the World Series. The experts had conducted their deep, thoughtful analysis and concluded, quite adamantly, it would be the Phillies and the Red Sox in the world championship games with the actual title somewhat up for grabs.
It’s a good thing the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t listen to the experts, only two of whom even put them in the post-season. It was the Cards, after all, who knocked the Phillies out in the first playoff round on their way to winning their eleventh World Series championship. As for the Red Sox, baseball fans will not soon forget that September night when they came within one strike of winning the AL wildcard slot only to lose the last game of the regular season – and their chance for post-season play – to the lowly Baltimore Orioles, a team that had nothing to play for except the satisfaction of being spoilers.
Fortunately, the experts at ESPN rebounded in October, offering spot-on predictions for the World Series with 22 out of 26 pundits forecasting a championship for the Texas Rangers. Oops – foiled again by that pesky element called human action.
Expert predictions influence many of our decisions as individuals and as a society. Predictions about who will win the Superbowl or take home an Academy Award are fairly innocuous – whether wrong or right, the outcomes of these predictions have little effect on the majority of Americans. Predictions in areas such as economics, and, however, can have far-reaching and often negative effects. This is especially concerning when we realize how often the so-called “experts” are actually wrong.
About twenty years ago research psychologist Philip Tetlock undertook one of the largest empirical studies ever conducted on the value of predictions. He concentrated on predictions regarding political outcomes and included 300 highly regarded political observers – college professors, media pundits, and policy makers – in his study. After Tetlock analyzed the accuracy of 80,000 predictions, he came to the conclusion that the “experts” thought they knew a whole lot more than they actually did. In fact, he found the accuracy of the professionals was no better than that of the well-read layman.
Two factors influenced the accuracy of predictions in Tetlock’s study. Dogmatism, the inability to adjust conclusions to new evidence, was one. The other was the complicated nature of some of the realms in which predictions are attempted. Linear predictions such as the amount of time it will take someone to drive from point A to point B are fairly easy to make accurately. But predictions about complex structures, whether they be weather systems, NCAA basketball or the economy, are difficult, if not impossible, to make accurately. With human systems it seems the more people involved the more likely the “experts” are to be wrong in their prognostications.
Knowing this is important as we evaluate our societal problem-solving strategy. If we begin to value reasonable study, experience and common sense as much as, if not more, than unproven theories, we may find the solutions to our problems are fairly straightforward.
A case in point is the strange romance politicians have with the idea of stimulus as a way to bring our nation to economic health. Any reasonable American would conclude that curtailing purchases and saving rather than spending money would restore economic soundness to a household but our politicians stand that common sense approach on its head. Instead, both Congress and our president pursue a course of increased borrowing and spending. In this they cite economic “experts” such as John Maynard Keynes, a man who seemed to discount the important influence of individual rather than institutional action on economic systems. It is telling, though, that even Keynes’ advice, as welcome as it is, is only considered to a point. While Keynes advocated government spending as a way to stimulate a sluggish economy, he also advised saving in preparation for economic downturns. Somehow, that part was overlooked.
This is the major drawback to public policy dictated by experts. First experts themselves are chosen according to how well their advice fits with what policy makers want to do in the first place. Then that advice is sorted through like a box of chocolates, with the caramels and raspberry creams being picked out while the mint jellies grow stale in their wrappers.
The founders of our nation expected the citizenry to be actively engaged in the cause of governance. Much of that engagement was supposed to take place within our communities, where we could solve small problems before they grew into statewide or national concerns. Certainly, they never expected us to abandon our birthright as Americans to “experts” whose solutions are not necessarily any wiser or effective than the ones we ourselves can find. Serious, responsible and thoughtful citizens are ultimately the only experts worth consulting.