On Expert Political Judgment

by F.

From time to time, I get ideology envy, primarily because I don’t have one. I see folks who have a simple, useful ideology (left or right it doesn’t matter) and it seems to give them a ready answer so so many question that I can only gape, like a slack-jawed yokel. Ideologues are so… certain. No rumination. No researching. No balancing. They just give you “the answer.” It’s really cool.


But are they right? Probably not. At least, they’re probably no more right than a guessing chimp or an algorithm when it comes to predicting the future. Guessing the future is a mug’s game. But there are mugs and there are megamugs, and one of the wonderful things about Tetlock’s gripping book Expert Political Judgment (Princeton 2005) is that he describes some cognitive habits that can keep you from being a megamug. Click on the picture to read the first chapter.

Personally, I love this idea that cognitive habits can affect your predictive accuracy—your righteousness. It’s seems pretty obvious. Intelligence (as measured by tests) and education (as measured by degrees) are not really enough. The game is not to be clever; it’s to be right. The Unibomber was smarter that most of us can ever hope to be, and more educated than many. But were his views about the industrial revolution even close to right? Doesn’t seem like it. Tetlock’s book makes a case that the reasonably intelligent reader of the Economist is no worse at predicting the future than a Ph.D. subject-matter expert.

So what are the habits of slightly-better-than-chimp prognosticators? They tend to be:

a. skeptical of deductive approaches to explanation and prediction

b. disposed to qualify tempting analogies by noting disconfirming evidence

c. reluctant to make extreme predictions of the sort that start to flow when positive feedback loops go unchecked by dampening mechanisms

d. worried about hindsight bias causing us to judge those in the past too harshly

e. prone to a detached, ironic view of life

f. motivated to weave together conflicting arguments on foundational issues in the study of politics, such as the role of human agency or the rationality of decision making.

Buy or check out this book. It will change your life like few books can. Don’t expect it to have any impact on the quality of debate in the press or academia, though: we are biased to want experts, even if they are wrong. The shaman, the priest, the expert—we’ll continue to find someone to fill these roles, even though they are useless. But at least now you can not listen without pangs of ideology envy.