2007/04/22

The usefulness of predictions

Media Matters has a very good piece on pundits and how they make themselves look foolish by constantly offering predictions of future events, which as Media Matters documents, they do with a very poor track record. Pundits predicted that opposing President Bush's warrantless wiretapping scheme would be political death for the Democrats. Turned out that opinions were pretty evenly balanced when the issue first came up, but the more Americans have learned about the gross excesses that the program has engaged in, the more horrified they've been and the more determined they've been to shut it down. FAIR showed in early 2006 that the vaguer the polling question, the more Americans approve of warrantless wiretapping. The more specific the questions get, however, (For instance, when "terrorist suspects" is changed to "citizens who are suspected of having ties to terrorists") the more concerned American citizens become about their liberties and the less willing they've been to trust the Bush Administration.

But the media persists in focusing on making predictions, to the detriment of actually, y'know, reporting and telling citizens what they actually need to know in order to make informed, proper decisions. The media has reported on the (apparently non-existent) desire of Americans to leave gun control laws just as they are in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings while neglecting to point out that:

Americans strongly supported the assault weapons ban that the Republican Congress allowed to expire in 2004, and yet its expiration did not lead to a large spike in the number of Americans who support stricter gun laws. Might that suggest that many Americans don't know the assault weapons ban no longer exists?

In other words, if the media were to concentrate on reporting actual facts, rather than wasting time with endless predictions, the American public might be better informed.

To progressives, liberals and lefties, this seems like a no-brainer, obvious conclusion. I have a theory as to why that is. When we're in about junior high or high school, we learn about Karl Marx. What is one of the first things we learn about him? Why, that he made bad predictions! He predicted that capitalism would inevitably collapse of its own contradictions. Capitalism turned out to be more flexible and adaptable that Marx thought it would be. He also predicted that society would go through several phases, from capitalism to socialism to communism. What actually happened in Russia was that the Soviet Union started out as a highly centralized, militaristic bureaucracy and well, remained one until the end.

Do Marx's poor predictions mean that studying Marx is a waste of time? Of course not. He came up with many good insights and publicized a good deal of important data. His pointing out that the upper or ruling class has many interests that are separate and distinct from those of the middle and working classes is an insight that most conservatives resist to this day. Lefties are therefore aware from a young age that understanding what's going on in society is entirely different from making accurate predictions about what will happen in the future. Sure, it's good to be able to make accurate predictions, but it's far more important to understand what's going on today, here and now.

One of the real problems with news organizations that focus on predictions is that it's rare for anyone to really track how good those predictions are. The organization that makes the predictions has no motive to publicly go back and analyze how well it did its job. It might do so privately, but it has no reason to share those results with the public. Likewise, there's no motivation to look at other news organizations and track how well they're doing as "those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." If NBC accuses CBS of making poor predictions, CBS could turn around and demonstrate how NBC got its own predictions wrong.

Back during the late 1990s, there was a media magazine that did a regular monthly feature as to how well pundits predicted the future. They found predictions that pundits made that could be checked and then checked how accurately those predictions turned out to be. The results were that very few pundits got below 33% and equally few got above 66%. Out of every three predictions, one prediction would be right, one would be wrong and the third would be up for grabs. I also once came across a gossip magazine in a laundromat that was about three years old. It had "psychic" predictions at the back. Again, about a third were correct, about a third were completely off the wall and about a third were reasonable guesses that could very well have gone either way.

In short, I endorse the Media Matters piece wholeheartedly! News organizations should concentrate on what's actually going on and should focus on verifiable facts as opposed to trying to play the psychic or the prognosticator.

My advice to the media: Leave the predictions to the "psychics" in the supermarket tabloids and work on what's actually going on in the world today.

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