2015, Books, Non-Fiction

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (2015) by Philip Tetlock, Dan Gardner

This is a fascinating book about how human beings can potentially get better at predicting the future and the types of people who are probably better at predicting the future. (Not pundits, I’m sure you’re shocked to hear.) I suspect I would have liked it more had I not already been familiar with Tetlock’s work.

So, full disclosure, I have listened to an extended podcast about this book and I did so before I read this. (By accident.) Because of that, some of the anecdotes in this book were already familiar to me, and that definitely coloured my experience of this book. I should also mention that pundits who make predictions and never have to account for them later on is one of my least favourite aspects of modern life.

And as a minor nitpick I should mention that, like all pop psychology books, there are a few of the usual studies trotted out, which can be a little boring for those of us who read too many of these books. Though this is enough of a different subject compared to most, that there is at least a different spin. Now that that’s out of the way…

It’s kind of shocking to me that nobody has tried to do something like this before, or at least that we haven’t heard much about it. Given how many humans have claimed to predict the future throughout history, it’s crazy it took this long for someone to try to figure out whether or not it’s actually possible.

The tournament methodology might strike some as weird but it makes a lot of sense given how hard predicting the future truly is. It works rather well, as a matter of fact, and I’m not sure what other format would have worked better.

Through this tournament method of competing teams, it appears that it is possible for people to actually be less bad at predicting the future. Moreover, there are likely better ways of thinking about the future. None of this should be that surprising I think. What’s surprising, to me, is that it took so long for anyone to take these steps.

It’s right to be somewhat skeptical of this whole process, and these results. Maybe there’s some fundamental error here, either in terms of the possibility of predicting discrete future events, or in terms of the behavioural traits that allow this. But I still think that what’s described in this book is a quantum leap forward in terms of how we think about predicting.

And I’m optimistic about this idea slowly filtering its way into the public consciousness. Since it was published prediction markets have become much more popular. But, more importantly for the average person, some media outlets have started evaluating their predictions at the end of the year. It’s only a couple, but it’s certainly a start. I’d like to envision a future where we routinely expect pundits to actually be held to account for the stuff they say.

I certainly think there’s potential here for something far greater than an interesting book. And I hope that more people read this book and begin to demand more accuracy in claims about the future from their media.

Well worth your time.


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