What’s a prediction worth?
A few days ago, Kevin Drum pointed to a Louis Menand review of a book called Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? by psychologist Philip Tetlock.
I haven’t read the book, but the review is fascinating, and I highly recommend you read it before (or instead of) the rambling thoughts that follow.
Tetlock’s basic thesis, based on a multi-decade study, is that expert predictions are no better — and often worse — than random chance or the predictions of casual news consumers. Just like everyone else, experts display confirmation bias, underestimate their past mistakes, and fall for basic probability errors.
Ah, fuel for anti-elitists everywhere …
This is not a new psychological finding — laymen often express surprise at it, but psychologists have known for years that experts are no more reliable than anyone else. But one new insight Tetlock brings to the table relates to Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between hedgehogs (which know a lot about one thing) and foxes (which know a little about a lot of things). From the book:
Low scorers look like hedgehogs: thinkers who “know one big thing,” aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display bristly impatience with those who “do not get it,” and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters, at least in the long term. High scorers look like foxes: thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible “ad hocery” that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess.
Now, that description of a hedgehog … does that bring anyone to mind?
This is what concerns me about the notion of peak oil and the almost cultish following its accrued in some quarters. Too many peak oilers view themselves as Prophets who have stumbled on the Theory of Everything and view it as their mission to educate the blind, benighted masses.
People like that, even (nay, especially) people who know a whole lot about the subject, tend to be wrong about what’s going to happen. This is not a value judgment, but a simple statement of empirical fact.
I do not question the basic facts of peak oil. Oil’s a finite resource; ergo, it’s going to run out. Noting that there will be a peak in production is simply math.
But peak soon? Now? This past Thanksgiving? And run civilization headlong into a brick wall of scarcity, privation, and conflict? I don’t know. For now, I’m withholding judgment.
But here’s the ominous rub:
The upside of being a hedgehog, though, is that when you’re right you can be really and spectacularly right.