This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

August 12, 2010 - expert thinking

In 2005 Philip Tetlock wrote a book called, "Expert Political Judgment: How Good is it? How can we know?"

To find out, he did something extraordinary. He went back and studied 50 years of writings by various media pundits and commentators who made predictions about politics and economics. Then he carefully tracked the results.

What did he find?

Experts don't do so good.

They were worse than random. As one reviewer noted: "Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world... are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys." It didn't make any difference if they were conservative or liberal.

The reasons for this appalling performance are many.

Reasonable people with modest opinions aren't that much fun to read. People who say outrageous things command more attention. But that doesn't mean they're right. In fact, the wilder they get, they less likely that is.

It's a twist on the old "hedgehog versus the fox" fable. The simple hedgehog knows One Big Thing (how to roll up into a prickly ball and ignore outside threats). The clever fox knows many things.

Most experts are hedgehogs. They fall in love with their own perspectives and are impervious to all the evidence to the contrary. It becomes a kind of arrogance.

Or as H. L. Mencken once said, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."

Foxes, on the other hand, are wary of big ideas that explain everything. They are less grandiose.

But foxes make better guesses about the future. The future is nuanced.

People get fooled by their own supposed expertise. They get deeper and deeper into arcane knowledge and think it really tells them something. But Tetlock concluded that more general perspectives - taking into account the information from multiple areas of study, and more than one perspective - gives people a better read on the likely future.

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