Unpredictable Predictions

If you're in the punditizing business, it's almost impossible to resist the temptation to make predictions. That's in large part because so much of politics involves furious but finite conflicts, where the outcome is what matters. Who'll win this next primary? Who'll be the nominee, and win the election? Is this bill going to pass? We care about these questions, and so it's hard not to answer them, particularly if this is the business you're in and you like to think that you know what you're talking about. The trouble with predictions, of course, is that if you make a lot of them, you're going to be wrong a good deal of the time. Which is really a reflection of what makes politics interesting: things can change quickly, there are always a huge number of variables at play in anything like an election or legislative battle, new personalities emerge all the time, and you just never know what's going to happen.

And there really is no system that punishes people for making incorrect predictions. Part of the reason is ideological: Let's say you're a conservative with a job as a Fox News contributor, and you always predict that great things are going to happen for Republicans. You'll be wrong plenty often, but in the end you're giving the network's viewers what they want to hear, so your job isn't in jeopardy. Nobody exemplifies this more than prostitute-toe-gourmand Dick Morris, whose predictions are legendarily hilarious. But you have to give Morris credit for one thing: he doesn't hedge. He'll just come out and say that Barack Obama is going to drop out of the 2012 race (yeah, he said that). He wrote a whole book before the 2008 campaign explaining that Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice would face off as the two parties' nominees. He just lets it rip, without a note of hesitation or shame.

At Salon, Jim Newell does a nice round-up of some of the predictions from the primary season that turned out to be the most off-base, from people saying Romney had no chance of winning, to seeing the formidability of the Pawlenty juggernaut, to saying Rick Perry would obviously mow down the field. I'm happy to say that while I wrote an early column touting a Michele Bachmann candidacy as a less ridiculous idea than it appeared at the time, I didn't actually say she'd win, just that she'd be a formidable presence. And for a while there, she was, in her own unique way.

U. Penn psychologist Philip Tetlock did a lengthy analysis of predictions in politics, and concluded that while most everyone is terrible at predictions, those who have one big idea that they apply to everything do far worse than those who incorporate a diversity of ideas and sources (the former are Isaiah Berlin's hedgehogs, the latter are foxes). Knowing how dangerous predictions can be has led me to be careful about tossing them around willy-nilly, but I've also noticed something else: People like predictions. When I've made an emphatic one, it tends to get more links and tweets. Whenever I see friends or relatives whom I haven't seen in a while, or meet someone who finds out what I do for a living, invariably I get asked what I think the outcome of the moment's political conflict is going to be.

But fortunately, if you turn out to be wrong, as I certainly have been before, nobody really remembers.

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