“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”

WrongTomorrow.com screencap

Wrongtomorrow.com is a slaughterhouse for the punditocracy, keeping tabs on predictions made by public figures “in order to hold people and media outlets accountable for pretending to see into an unpredictable future.”

On the surface this seems like a great idea: use the power of the Internet and crowdsourcing to gather the commentary of our talk radio culture in one place and prove once and for all who is for real and who is full of sh*t. However, this is a disaster waiting to happen for real analysts. The populace doesn’t have a clue about how intel forecasting works. Something like this could cause the mob to get out the pitchforks, weighing ducks and fake beards (not that the pundits aren’t already accomplishing this).

What I hope is that this site gets popular enough that public figures are more careful with their words, think before they speak and offer the citizenry well formed, nuanced policy options. What I fear is that this site will become so popular that it stifles risk-taking in the analysis and forecasting world, silencing that one person who could identify next black swan, but was too scared of the mob to do so.

I agree with Henri Poincare, one of the pioneers of chaos theory, who said that “It is far better to foresee even without certainty than not to foresee at all.”

Via DF. Quote in the title is attributed to Nils Bohr, Nobel laureate in Physics.

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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4 Responses to “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”

  1. tdaxp says:

    From the site:

    “thomas friedman

    “Improv time is over. This is crunch time. Iraq will be won or lost in the next few months. But it won’t be won with high rhetoric. It will be won on the ground in a war over the last mile.” – 2004-11-11 211 weeks ago wrong”

    While some of the statements are clear predictions, this categorization strikes me as more problematic. Security continued to deteriorate over time in the “next few months” from Nov. 2004. Substantial portions of Iraq were under control of factions openly hostile to the government. If that was not a loss from Friedman’s objectives, that was only because of the stubbornness of Bush, who knew that the U.S. had time to keep changing its strategy.

    Later, we changed our strategy, and the outcome is much closer to victory.

  2. TS says:

    A related exercise in long-term thinking and accountability:
    http://www.longbets.org
    But with more accountability.

  3. Ralph Hitchens says:

    All I wish and pray for is for prognosticators — media pundits in particular, but also politicians, intelligence analysts, etc. — to 1) be honest about the fact that they are making predictions about things that almost certainly have unknown variables and therefore wildly varying potential outcomes (cf. chaos theory), and 2) honestly acknowledge when they are wrong.

    There’s nothing disgraceful about guessing wrong in a situation where variables are either ambiguous or totally unknown. What’s wrong is not acknowledging the fact that you were wrong about something and then going ahead with another prediction unaccompanied by the slightest hint of humility. (Bill Kristol, are you listening?)

    I can pass judgment in this fashion because as an intelligence analyst I made one spectacularly wrong prediction: in 1987 I loudly expressed my certainty that the USSR would not withdraw from Afghanistan. Even made a bet on it. Not long afterward, before Gorbachev announced the withdrawal, I saw indisputable evidence (classified military indicators) that I was wrong, and treated a colleague to dinner at one of DC’s best Afghan restaurants.

  4. Ralph Hitchens says:

    PS– Nils Bohr must have been channeling Yogi Berra.