Worse than chance

The biggest danger of the opinion writing business is the risk of tying oneself up in logical and rhetorical knots in order to justify things you wrote days, weeks, or months ago when events in real time render those opinions, well, not entirely correct. Here’s some evidence of that:

Writing about Jonah Lehrer’s book on decision making in The Sunday Times, I didn’t mention the findings of Philip Tetlock at Berkeley. He studied pundits and discovered they were, to a rough approximation, always wrong when making predictions. He took 284 pundits and asked them questions about the future. Their performance was worse than chance. With three possible answers, they were right less than 33 per cent of the time. A monkey chucking darts would have done better. This is consoling. More consoling still is Tetlock’s further finding that the more certain a pundit was, the more likely he was to be wrong. Their problem being that they couldn’t self-correct, presumably because they’d invested so much of their personality and self-esteem in a specific view.

The above excerpt is about political punditry, but it applies to the sporting press as well. After all, if you praised every move the Mudville Nine made in the offseason, it’s going to be really hard not to pick them as your favorites when you sit down to write that preseason picks column. And if you pick them as your favorites and they stumble out of the gate, it can be very difficult to assess their problems in an objective fashion rather than write that “there’s still time, they look strong!” piece. The same goes for opinions about steroids and business and everything else about which we self-appointed experts spew.

Which is why I try to throw so many jokes in with the posts. I mean, there’s gotta be something you can count on around here.

(link via Sullivan)

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Comments

  1. Sara K said...

    “certain a pundit was, the more likely he was to be wrong. Their problem being that they couldn’t self-correct, presumably because they’d invested so much of their personality and self-esteem in a specific view.”

    You can replace “pundit” with virtually any personal noun and be dead-on.  Lord knows it’s true of college freshmen in English courses, which is why one of my classroom mantras is “confusion often represents an advanced state of understanding.”

  2. Millsy said...

    Wrong significantly more than chance?  If these are binary outcome predictions, I could imagine this information would be pretty useful.  If you just take their predictions with the knowledge that they’re actually the opposite, you’re right 70% of the time.  Those are pretty good odds.

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