Nobody Really Cares about Political Predictions

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Over at Salon, Jim Newell has a fun piece about all the stupid predictions that pundits made during the Republican primary campaign. There’s obviously a lot of material to mine here, since every single prediction was wrong except for “Romney will eventually grind out a win.” Does that mean the punditocracy is hopelessly stupid? Maybe. But I think Paul Waldman gets closer to the truth here:

U. Penn psychologist Philip Tetlock did a lengthy analysis of predictions in politics, and concluded that while most everyone is terrible at predictions, those who have one big idea that they apply to everything do far worse than those who incorporate a diversity of ideas and sources (the former are Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehogs, the latter are foxes). Knowing how dangerous predictions can be has led me to be careful about tossing them around willy-nilly, but I’ve also noticed something else: People like predictions. When I’ve made an emphatic one, it tends to get more links and tweets. Whenever I see friends or relatives whom I haven’t seen in a while, or meet someone who finds out what I do for a living, invariably I get asked what I think the outcome of the moment’s political conflict is going to be.

I tend not to make too many predictions myself, though I confess that Romney’s eventual victory seemed so obvious to me that I was always a bit flummoxed that so many people seemed so certain someone else would take him down. It’s one thing to see people making lots of different predictions about, say, whether the eurozone will survive. That’s a genuinely hard problem. But why were so many people willing to get on the bandwagon for Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich? That’s craziness.

But I think Paul has the answer: most pundits don’t really care if they’re right. It’s not like they have any money riding on their predictions, after all. But predictions stir the pot, and unusual predictions stir the pot even more. This — controversy, provocation, contrarianism — is the coin of the realm for political pundits. Even among their peers they don’t get any props for being right, since political reporters, in their heart of hearts, probably believe the whole enterprise is completely chaotic and inherently unpredictable in the first place.

I have to admit that I’ve always wondered how good my own prognostication skills are. No better than a coin flip, I’d guess, but the only way to find out for sure would be to plow through a year’s worth of past posts and start grading them. There’s no way I’m doing that, and there’s certainly no incentive for anyone else to do it. That’s true of everyone else too, which is why we never have a very good sense of who’s a good forecaster and who isn’t. It’s because, really, we don’t want to know. Hell, if someone did turn out to have a good record, we’d probably chalk it up to luck and then go on ignoring them. An accurate crystal ball just gets in the way of a good conversation, and that’s the ultimate sin.

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate