Forecasting might appear to be a game but in fact it is real. We are making forecasts every day, when we are buying a product at the supermarket, or when we decide to date someone or live with him. We are making forecasts when we make financial investments.
Forecasting is important. On a personal level because the ability to forecast may be the difference between success and failure. And despite the unwillingness of some decision-makers to examine and accept scientific evidence – think the case of parents who opt out of vaccinations for their children, or the lack of action to lower the level of greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet – as societies, we have started embracing evidence-based policies in order to deal better with contemporary challenges.
Superforecasting – The Art and Science of Prediction is a fascinated book, about lots of things I didn’t know about. Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner tell us why forecasting is so important and crucial in our daily lives, look into what make people good forecasters, and what elevates forecasting to superforecasting.
Because of people like Tom Friedman and the rise of big data, people have started to have an interest in forecasting. But despite the interest, forecasters’ accuracy is not measured and forecasting itself is not very well analysed at all.
There is an inverse correlation between fame and accuracy, says Philip Tetlock, a psychologist who teaches at Berkeley. The more famous an expert is, the less accurate he is. Tetlock’s conclusions are based on a long-term study, the Good Judgment Project which won a massive four‑year US government‑sponsored forecasting tournament.
There is a story in the book, the fox vs hedgehog metaphor that is very interesting. The story is based on a fragment of a poem written by the Greek poet Archilochus, 2,500 years ago. It actually says: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” ‘Πολλ’ οίδ’ αλώπηξ, εχίνος δε εν, μέγα’, for those who know ancient Greek.
The meaning of this epigramma, is that the “hedgehogs” devote their whole life to one big issue, insist on their views, and they are reluctant to change them even when they fall out. They are so committed to their ideology that they expect solutions to everyday problems to come through some great theory, their favourite theory, preferably.
On the contrary, the “foxes” tend to be more eclectic. They use accumulated interdisciplinary knowledge and adapt their approaches according to real circumstances, while doing their own self-criticism whenever necessary. Above all, they recognize the complexity of the world in which we live in, and rely more on observation and less on theory.
Of course, if you are a producer for a television show, you tend to go with the hedgehog. You don’t really care if she is a good or bad forecaster. What you really need is a media pundit, someone who is bold and decisive, one that can tell an interesting story …. the eurozone is going to melt down in the next two years, for example.
‘Foresight isn’t ‘a mysterious gift bestowed at birth,’ says Philip Tetlock. It is the product of particular ways of thinking, of gathering information, and of updating beliefs. Broadly speaking superforecasting demands focus, thinking that is open-minded, careful, curious, less ideological, and above all, self-critical. The most systematically and thoughtfully we go about forecast the better we do.
I really liked this book and I enjoyed learning about these things. I had a look on the website and I even made my first attempt on forecasting. I am now looking forward to see the results. Am I a fox or a hedgehog?