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The Future of Prediction

An interesting article in the Boston Globe on the future of prediction.

Philip Tetlock’s findings, which he collected in a 2005 book called “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?”, were disturbing because they seemed to imply that prediction was impossible. But Tetlock’s study did not cause him to give up on forecasting entirely — it just convinced him that individual experts were never going to be very good at it. There could be other ways to predict the future, he believed — ones that relied on formulas instead of opinions, and which could be tested, tweaked, and improved rather than merely trusted.

The basic idea behind this kind of prediction is the same one that propels all of science: You create a hypothesis based on your understanding of whatever you’re trying to study, test it to see if it fits with reality, and then make adjustments if it doesn’t. Science essentially offers predictions: how high a ball will bounce if you drop if off the table; what happens if you mix two chemicals together. This kind of certainty has long been elusive in the fuzzier realms of politics and culture, but an increasing amount of data about how we live — and an ever-improving ability to process it — has changed the ways we can apply that basic insight. Criminologists are crunching vast amounts of crime data to predict where in a given city murders and robberies are likely to take place. Terrorism researchers mine data on attacks for patterns, and turn it into clues about where future attacks are likely to take place.

What about crowd sourcing — “If you ask enough people, their collective wisdom will average out to something closer to true than any one of them could have provided on his or her own.”

In a sense, what techniques like Bueno de Mesquita’s try to do is take the element of human judgment out of prediction: The idea is that if you can ignore opinions and find a more systematic way to interpret the facts, you stand a better chance of being right. But what if the data itself consists not of facts but people’s opinions? The idea of crowdsourcing knowledge has gained significant attention in recent years, now that it’s possible to quickly reach huge numbers of people through the Internet. …

What is the future of prediction?

Given the intellectual horsepower dedicated to the problem, it’s tempting to forecast that we’ll continue to get better at it. Over time, our technology is growing more advanced, our capacity to make sense of the numbers is expanding, and our testing of past predictions is becoming more rigorous. … But the real question, when it comes to predicting the future of forecasting, may not be whether we can or can’t forecast accurately — it’s whether we want to.

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If you want to learn more, read Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? and The Predictioneer’s Game.