Expert political judgement

Yesterday the Prime Minister decided to release the date of the election in order to provide certainty to the Australian community.

Whether this is a wise decision or not will be the topic of hot debate over the coming fortnight or so. I happen to think it wasn’t a wise political decision for many reasons which I have gone over at length in previous posts. That however is my opinion based upon what I intuitively know and we shall see how it plays out over the coming months.

What we will see a lot of this year are political predictions from the “experts.” The problem is most of them will simply be opinions. There will be no understanding of the nuance or what’s really happening. It will all be “She said, He said” or merely coverage of the surface fanfare and silliness that consumes a lot of political campaigning and reporting.

Philip Tetlock in his brilliant book “Expert Political Judgement” did a 20 year study of 284 experts such as journalists, government officials and university professors in the USA who made over 28,000 predictions and found that most were only slightly better than chance. Most basic computer algorithms by contrast managed to make far more accurate predictions than the so called experts.

Tetlock’s 20 year study also split the experts into two personality types which were based on an essay by Isaiah Berlin. The first type were labelled hedgehogs who jump to a one conclusion and stick to it regardless of the evidence. The second type were labelled foxes who tend to keep an open mind and have multiple methods that are incorporated into how they make predictions. The study showed the foxes made far more accurate predictions than the hedgehogs and it’s understandable when you watch recycled media coverage of various so called expert columnists who make their living structuring their opinions to suit a particular audience who craves psychological validation.

Reading the book makes one question the ability of the media to influence political events because most of it is simply talk which is ignored by those who count who have far better and more important things to do with their lives.

It’s worth keeping this in mind when you hear much of the loud noise that will crowd out what’s really going on in the national debate. If someone is using a computer algorithm to back up their opinion, they are far more likely to predict accurately into the future than someone who has a partisan opinion and sticks to it regardless of the data. Nate Silver and others like him proved this fact during the US election.

Judging by the reaction yesterday, I think everyone needs to take a deep breath and drink a glass of milk. Events will play out the way they’re meant to play out. All we can do is go on about our lives and watch what happens.

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