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Experts Are More Wrong Than Right

There is an office fantasy football game called Football Survivor, that sounds so easy. Each player in the pool picks one NFL team each week. If that team wins, you advance to the next week. If your picked team loses, you are eliminated from the pool.

The only limitation on your pick is that you cannot pick the same team again, the rest of the season. For instance, if I picked the Colts in week one, I cannot pick them in any week thereafter.  So the basics of the game to survive, is to simply pick a winner. No point spreads involved. Doesn’t that sound easy? But, as they say in a 25 mph zone, not so fast!

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I have heard the advice to win Football Survivor Pool is to wait, and don’t wait. How about that advice! Unfortunately, help is everywhere but it doesn’t really help you. Which serves as the bridge to the real blog topic. Why Experts are more wrong than right. It’s why you can’t turn to ESPN and simply make football picks. But, this blog isn’t about sports; it’s truly about expert opinion that is usually wrong, and here is the scientific proof.

Philip Tetlock (Wikipedia) did a study with 284 political “experts” in the 1980’s, who made their living at being pundits and speaking their opinions. He asked them to make about a hundred predictions. The questions ranged from “Would George Bush be reelected?”and “Would the dot com bubble burst?”. By the end of his study, he had over 82,000 different predictions.  The study is summarized in the book Everything Is Obvious:* Once You Know the Answer. (here is an article titled Why Experts are Almost Always Wrong, summarizing the findings at Smithsonianmag.com)

After Tetlock tallied the answers, he compared their forecasts to the ultimate results. How did they do? They were right less than 33 percent of the time. A dart-throwing monkey would have randomly done better in predicting the answers!

Seriously? What was the reason for such a bad result by these experts?

It’s the psychological principle of certainty. Instead of following what their intellect was truly telling them, the experts made their responses conform to results that they wanted to find. In trial, jury consultants call it the trial story. Once a juror decides, then they basically receive evidence in a light that reaffirms their already formed opinion. It’s why it is real easy to think that someone who disagrees with us is being irrational and we are being reasonable.

How can this expert mistake be avoided? That’s where I get interested because there’s an example from history! It’s why Abraham Lincoln is considered one of our greatest presidents.

In Team of Rivals, historian Doris Kearns describes why Lincoln was so successful. He intentionally filled his cabinet with rival politicians, who regularly disagreed with him. Secretary of State William Steward was an anti-slavery crusader, while Attorney General Edward Bates was an avid and vocal slave owner.

Lincoln encouraged vigorous debate, instead of just pushing everyone to what he had already decided. A result of letting his cabinet argue? Lincoln was initially viewed as weak-willed and indecisive. Ultimately, William Steward would describe Lincoln as “The president is the best of us”. He would listen, consider and then arrive at his decision and not be deterred.

I remember reading a story about a General Motors board meeting, where former chairman of the board, Alfred Sloan, announced, “Gentlemen, I take it that we are all in agreement on the decision before us. I propose that we adjourn for further discussion of this matter until our next meeting, and allow time to develop disagreement among us“.

This may explain why so many political commentators and polls were wrong about Trump being elected President. Going into election night, it was assumed that we were all settling down for a Clinton landslide.

To summarize, here’s how Tetlock explained his years of research:

“Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started.

In field after field, when it came to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.”

Thanks for sticking with me through this long blog! Just food for thought. And for pic o’ day:

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