« On V's Most Thought P… | Home | Things Are Getting Be… »

Of Fortune Tellers and Political Pundits: Predictions are Tough

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2011", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Every year, The Economist publishes “The World in...”, an issue dedicated to the year ahead, discussing major events that will occur--like elections--and predicting outcomes--like who will win the elections--that may or may not occur, usually with plenty of hedging. In the introduction for The World in 2011, The Economist bragged about its track record:

“How accurate was our effort last time round?

“In the predictions game, inevitably, you win some and you lose some. The good news for The World in 2010 is that our wins outnumbered our losses. The bad news is that some of those losses were big. Our record on the British election, American politics and the global economy are three prime examples.”

In The Economist’sThe World in 2012” editor Daniel Franklin summed up the difficulty with making predictions as, “expect the unexpected.” He said this because less than a month after the “The World in 2011” hit news stands, the Arab Spring happened. And no one predicted that. (Despite this, The Economist’s “The World in...” is an annual must read.)

This is why we avoid making predictions at On Violence. If The Economist, a magazine staffed by full-time journalists and part-time academics, cannot accurately predict the future, how can we? Thrice before we have bemoaned our own prediction making, at the same time acknowledging our unhealthy addiction to opining about the future. (Michael C is still predicting the Lakers will get Chris Paul this season.)

Predicting the future is impossible. Or nearly so. NPR’s On The Media, the Freakonomics podcast and FiveThirtyEight have all pointed out the dismal track record of pundits who make predictions. Outside of guessing whether the sun is going to rise tomorrow (On V says, “It will.”), there’s really no point.

Which brings us back to the Arab Spring, a case study in expecting the unexpected. No one predicted it, though some did point out the structural problems of many Middle East nations, like gross income inequality, bulging youth demographics, and lack of social mobility. No one, though, could say when or where or if these would ever boil over.

If someone does claim that they “predicted” the Arab Spring, it’s probably just flat dumb luck. For instance you could take this paragraph...

First, this is a perfect example of revolution in flat world. Other conflicts have occurred since Thomas Friedman first advanced his theory in The World is Flat, but none quite like this. In a state desperately trying to exercise control over the media--kicking out journalists, banning demonstrations--Twitter, Facebook, and cellphones broadcast the revolution to the world. Their revolution failed--we don’t doubt that--but this is the first sign of things to come.

...as a prediction by On Violence of the Arab Spring. But that’s applying 20/20 vision to the past; we were nowhere near predicting violent unrest spreading across the Middle East like a virus, killing old and decrepit dictatorships. And our prediction came almost two years early. Michael C personally thought it wouldn’t happen until after the U.S. left Iraq.

The solution to the problem of too many predictions? Self analysis. Some of our favorite columnists, reporters and pundits have started prediction audits, analyzing their predictions over the past year and seeing which ones came true. Some of the best prediction audits have come from Fareed Zakaria, David Weigel and FiveThirtyEight.

In that vein, in two weeks, Eric C and I will look back through our predictions in 2011 to see where we went right or wrong. We’ll also try to keep our blog on analysis and commentary, while trying to avoid the fool’s game of predicting the future.