The Cluttered Mind Uncluttered

Ph.D., Psychology, author, speaker, consultant

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Please Fire the Pundits!

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I should be a pundit. According to a new study, I possess the two qualities most predictive of accurate prognostication. More on that shortly. You should be a pundit; you have as much chance of being correct in your predictions as most pundits. More on that a bit later too.

Remember the days when there were only relatively few pundits in the world. They held forth in the major newspapers and weekly magazines , and on the network morning shows. And they seemed to know what they were talking about (though I might just be having one of those “good old days” moments).

Oh, how times have changed. With the explosion of 24/7 cable news, (where there isn’t enough hard news to fill those long hours), talk radio (where actual expertise is not a job requirement), and, of course, the Internet (where anyone with a URL and an opinion has a megaphone with which to express themselves), punditry has reached new heights (or depths, depending on how you look at it). No doubt being a pundit is a great gig: notoriety, a high soapbox on which to stand and, for many, a full-time, well-paying job.

But perhaps the best part of the job is that pundits have absolutely no accountability for what they say. Have you ever read the Predictions of the Year edition of the National Enquirer? Of course not; no one would actually admit to stooping that low, despite the millions of copies sold (but I digress). But let’s just say you did so I can make a point, which is that no one ever looks back to see if any of those predictions actually came true. The only prediction most anyone has paid attention to after the fact is that May 21, 2011 was going to be Judgment Day, as predicted by Harold Camping (we woke up that Saturday, saw we were in neither Heaven or Hell, and went back to sleep).

Now, back to my original statement that you and I should be pundits. A recent study conducted by a group of college students (out of the mouths of babes, as they say) that has gotten quite a bit of press lately found that a sample of noted pundits had about as much credibility as Nostradamus and said Armageddon. Here’s the CliffsNotes summary: The predictions of 26 pundits (15 professional pundits, 9 politicians, and  two hybrids, New Gingrich and Mike Huckabee) who regularly appear on the Sunday morning news shows and in major newspapers were assessed for their accuracy.

Their findings? First, referring to my assertion that you should be a pundit, if you flipped a coin, you had about the same chance of predicting future events as most of those so-called experts. The most accurate pundit was the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. I don’t find this surprising given that he is a Nobel Prize winner in economics whose predictions were forecasts of the economy. The worst pundit was Cal Thomas, the long-time columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

Second, as to my belief that I should be a pundit. According to the research, the qualities most associated with the accuracy of predictions was being a liberal and not having a law degree. As someone who leans left politically and is not in possession of a law degree, I fit the bill to a T. So where do I sign up?

Admittedly, there were some potential flaws in the study that might call its findings into question (and I’m sure conservatives and lawyers have pointed them out ad nauseum). First, the sample is relatively small. Second, the predictions related to political issues may have been considerably different had the study examined the prognostications prior to and just after the 2010 midterm elections rather than the 2008 Presidential elections. As predictions of both pundits and politicians alike tend to fall along ideological fault lines, it doesn’t seem farfetched to, well, predict that the predictive accuracy would have been different. But the study does have considerable support from a much larger study conducted by the noted psychologist Philip Tetlock.

In his study of almost 300 experts and over 80,000 predictions, Tetlock found that neither education nor experience were related to the accuracy of predictions. The single greatest predictor was which of two cognitive styles that the pundits possessed, what he termed hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs have one big idea and apply it to everything, express their ideas with absolute certitude and confidence, and reject conflicting views. In contrast, foxes are base their predictions on verifiable evidence, open minded, and are receptive to opposing opinions.

Admittedly, pundits do more than just predict (mostly inaccurately) the future. They can ask questions that need to be asked. Pundits can offer perspectives and insights that can broaden our understanding of important stories. And they can illuminate issues and enlighten us. But they can do all that in about 10 minutes.

So what do we make of these studies? They are interesting and provocative and will have zero impact on anything or anyone. The punditocracy isn’t going to all of a sudden have a “come to Jesus” moment, renounce its dissembling ways, and retire to Florida. And punditry is far too profitable for those media who give it voice to ever see the light. Perhaps only an electromagnetic pulse that fries the grid (remember Dark Angel?) would do the trick (though that’s more wishful thinking than prediction).

Admirably, one goal of the Hamilton College study was to help consumers of the punditry to make better decisions about who they should listen to. How wonderfully naïve and idealistic is that! But let’s get real here. People listen to pundits not for their expertise or predictive accuracy. Rather, they follow the prognosticators who confirm their own beliefs and, as Tetlock points out, to give people a greater sense of control over a future that is unknown and, as a result, kind of scary. In other words, pundits simply feed our human weaknesses of needing to be right and needing to feel safe.

Categories: Politics
Dr. Jim Taylor

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