Reflecting on the lameness of my profession
For the past few weeks there has been the appearance of a flood of news about the Copenhagen climate talks and the clean energy bill in the U.S. Senate. Standing in that flood it’s easy to get caught up in the atmospherics of frantic action and constant crisis. But step out for a while and it becomes clear just how much of the “news” consists of people who don’t really know anything guessing: what things mean, who’s thinking what, what the future holds.
Copenhagen failed and sprang back to life a half-dozen times and it hasn’t even started yet. The clean energy bill was declared doomed over and over in the House, until it passed. The Senate bill was declared dead, totally impossible … then, no, it would be done by Copenhagen … then it was hopeless … then there was a bipartisan road to passage … then they were abandoning the carbon cap entirely … then it was a bill in Spring …
What all this “news” has in common is that it’s based on Some Person Guessing. The closer one gets to the circus, the more one realizes that everyone is guessing, right up to negotiators and senators themselves. Everyone’s trying to shape the future, not forecast it. Check out these results from National Journal‘s poll of political insiders:
Q: How likely is this Congress to enact cap-and-trade legislation to curb global warming?
Democrats (38 votes)
Very likely: 16 percent
Somewhat likely: 37 percent
Somewhat unlikely: 37 percent
Very unlikely: 11 percent
Republicans (40 votes)
Very likely: 3 percent
Somewhat likely: 10 percent
Somewhat unlikely: 35 percent
Very unlikely: 48 percent
Other responses (volunteered) 5 percent
These are insiders, close to the process itself, and their predictions line up rather eerily with their ideological predispositions. Kerry says the bill will pass in the Spring; Murkowski mutters that it won’t happen this session. Which really knows? Neither. There is nobody who really knows. In an age of text, Twitter, and 24 hour media, there just aren’t many secrets left, even for insiders. What secrets there are stay that way not by being concealed but by being difficult to pick out from the torrent of junk speculation that surrounds them. (The same is true of predictions about what effect such a massive piece of legislation would have. The accurate answer is that no one really knows.)
Anyway, these days everyone’s a pundit, and pundits are always wrong:
[Philip Tetlock at Berkeley] studied pundits and discovered they were, to a rough approximation, always wrong when making predictions. He took 284 pundits and asked them questions about the future. Their performance was worse than chance. With three possible answers, they were right less than 33 per cent of the time. A monkey chucking darts would have done better. This is consoling. More consoling still is Tetlock’s further finding that the more certain a pundit was, the more likely he was to be wrong. Their problem being that they couldn’t self-correct, presumably because they’d invested so much of their personality and self-esteem in a specific view. (That makes me think of so many people, almost everybody, in fact.)
There’s a whole political media ecosystem that feeds on everyone being a pundit. Those inside it have every incentive to exaggerate the importance of every day’s comments and developments. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the country ignores almost all of it. It’s hard not to think sometimes that the world would be a better place if there were fewer people involved in the closed-loop meta-gossip circuit and more involved just putting their heads down and doing real work.
(Yes, yes, I know. Guilty as charged.)