A CASE OF WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW YOU DON’T KNOW
The words refer to wise men and their wisdom, and derive from Sanskrit. But in our era of talking heads it has come to mean an ability to forecast the future. In a world that plans for the future, that invests in change, that seeks and prepares for growth, we want and we need to know what to expect. It is no surprise, then, that an industry has grown up around this demand to know what is going to happen, whether in financial markets, elections, consumer trends, or foreign affairs.
But do pundits actually know what they are talking about? Or would it be more accurate to say that the business of punditry exploits our fear of not knowing, our need to defend ourselves from the anxiety of ignorance in a world that bases so much importance on understanding the future?
In his new book, How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer cites the research of Philip Tetlock at the University of California at Berkeley into the actual performance of pundits. Comparing their predictions with actual outcomes, he found that “they tended to perform worse than random chance.”
This should not be a surprise to those who have come to appreciate how much desire and need shape perceptions. It is very hard to live with such intense and persistent pressures without unconsciously crafting a solution, an answer that appears to solve our problem.
But Tetlock’s research tells us more. Far from predicting the future, pundits tend to confirm the prejudices and assumptions of those to whom they speak. This is why, no doubt, their predictions are worse than randomly wrong. If they simply shot in the dark, they would do better. But by confirming what we want to believe, they tend to systematically avoid seeing what is new and significant. Confirming our prejudices, they also close our minds to the new information and thoughts we need to take into account of we are going to see what the future actually has in store for us.