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Is The Future Impossible To Predict?

Not if you ask the experts…However, they’re often wrong. Think about this the next time you turn on your TV.

When it came to predicting the likelihood of an outcome, the vast majority performed worse than random chance. In other words, they would have done better picking their answers blindly out of a hat. Liberals, moderates and conservatives were all equally ineffective. Although 96% of the subjects had post-graduate training, Mr. Tetlock found, the fancy degrees were mostly useless when it came to forecasting.

The main reason for the inaccuracy has to do with overconfidence. Because the experts were convinced that they were right, they tended to ignore all the evidence suggesting they were wrong. This is known as confirmation bias, and it leads people to hold all sorts of erroneous opinions. Famous experts were especially prone to overconfidence, which is why they tended to do the worst. Unfortunately, we are blind to this blind spot: Most of the experts in the study claimed that they were dispassionately analyzing the evidence. In reality, they were indulging in selective ignorance, as they explained away dissonant facts and contradictory data. The end result, Mr. Tetlock says, is that the pundits became “prisoners of their preconceptions.” And their preconceptions were mostly worthless.

What’s most disturbing about Mr. Tetlock’s study is that the failures of the pundit class don’t seem to matter. We rely on talking heads more than ever, even though the vast majority of them aren’t worth their paychecks. Our political discourse is driven in large part by people whose opinions are less accurate than a coin toss.

Read the rest of Jonah Lehrer’s article in the WSJ

Jonah Lehrer is the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.