Last week Carl focused on the future. The bit which I really liked was when Carl said:
The best known of these studies is by Philip Tetlock, from the University of California, who ran a twenty year study measuring the accuracy of predictions made by the kinds of people who are paid to make them – think of the people we see on TV, read in newspapers, or headline conferences.
His study recruited 284 of these experts and, over those twenty years, logged more than 80,000 of their predictions. What Tetlock found is as instructive as it was depressing: the ‘experts’ were no better at predicting the future than you or your mates or – to use Tetlock’s now well-known phrase – “a dart throwing chimpanzee”. In most cases you’d do better tossing a coin (or giving a dart to a chimp) than listening to what the experts have to say about what the future holds. What experts are particularly good at, according to Tetlock, is in justifying their errors. In his study the experts rarely admitted to being wrong but instead insisted that they were ‘just off’ on timing, or blindsided by an improbable event, or almost right, or wrong for the right reasons.
To use the language of psychology, even the best and brightest fall into the traps set by confirmation bias and hindsight bias. It’s easy to be surprised by how poor experts are at predicting the future, but should we be? After all, Pliny the Elder back in the first century AD told us ‘the only certainty is that nothing is certain’. It’s tempting to think that all our computers and data science and algorithms must have made us able to see further into the future but, if anything, the opposite is true.
If we really want to make a difference we have, as engaged people in our society, to listen to the critics and the “experts” but not place any of them on a pedestal. We must invite their opinions and then we must think about what they offer and then work on what seems to make sense to us.
It was another wonderful, thought-provoking, session. Over the next period we will build on these ideas and add to them others.