Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

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What is the book “Superforecasting” about?

According to Philip E. Tetlock, a scientist, and Dan Gardner, a journalist, everybody attempts to predict the future somehow or other. People struggle to earn a degree to become professionals, go on dates to start a family in future, change boring jobs for those with better prospects. All of these are based on our expectations that are, actually, our predictions.

This is not just a matter of our private life. Accurate predictions are vital for politicians and big businesses as they influence decision making.

But how can anyone know in advance that what’s been predicted is going to come to fruition? Experts offer very pricey services. But are their predictions accurate enough?

From 1984 to 2003 – almost 20 years – Tetlock accumulated about 28,000 predictions made by 284 experts who asked not to be named. This research revealed that an average expert’s anticipation was slightly more precise than random guessing. He determined the two most popular methods of forecasting: intuitive assumption (the most common) and critical thinking (the most accurate).

As Tetlock figuratively said, an average expert is as accurate as a chimpanzee playing darts. He or she can randomly take a good aim several times, but it is evident that there is no method or strategy in it. This is a pure accident. The term ‘darts chimpanzee’ results from research during which a big group of experts tried to predict various events related to the economy, elections, military conflicts, exchange rate fluctuations and so forth. After a while, the researchers assessed the predictions and concluded that an average expert opinion is equivalent to random guessing – that very ‘darts chimpanzee’.

Most predictions undergo no checks – they merely become forgotten. Hardly will someone be willing to keep track whether they have come true. However, people tend to trust predictions because they are confidently voiced by a renowned expert. Many so-called forecasters made their fortunes out of their predictions which, according to Tetlock, are as dubious as miracle elixirs that were sold by Middle-Age itinerant traders. But it does not mean that every prophecy is already false, and the future cannot be foreseen.

There are theoretical predictions as well as natural barriers when it comes to forecasting. By way of example, no one could have anticipated the Arab Spring. Many experts assumed kleptocratic middle-eastern regimes were outliving themselves while provoking more dissatisfaction, infringing the rights of regular citizens and merely robbing the population.

But none of them could have guessed that it all began with the events in Tunisia where the police took a wheelbarrow from a young street vendor el-Bouazizi pressing for a bribe and then they took away his trade permit. The lad went to a public official to file a complaint but was turned down due to lack of time.

Desperate, he committed an act of self-immolation as a mark of protest. This was a starting point of an unheard-of clamor which gradually spread all over the country and made the Tunisian head of state Ben Ali flee. Then the clamor leaped over to Egypt and caused a regime change. The uproar had been gaining momentum for more than a decade.

Some people could have guessed that the new time would demand some other forms of government, but no one could have anticipated that the clamors could have been triggered by the quarrel of an unknown young vendor and a policeman. It is impossible to say what small event may provoke a tectonic upheaval. All we can do is suppose that they will take place sooner or later.

The authors maintain that, technically, any sane and persistent person can make predictions without any expert assistance. Forecasting is not a gift. It is a skill that can be nurtured as long as you have a strong desire.

Summary and 8 Ideas “Superforecating”

Idea №1. Separate the predictable events from the unpredictable ones.

Idea №2. To find the answer to a difficult question, you should divide it into several simple questions.

Idea №3. Set the right balance between internal and external factors.

Idea №4. Maintain the right balance between the underestimation and overestimation of new facts.

Idea №5. Take into consideration the effects of all forces and study all the prospects in every objective.

Idea №6. Set the right response probability while taking into consideration all the degrees of a doubt but do not get stuck in doubt for long.

Idea №7. Find the balance between theory and practice.

Idea №8. Do not be overly assertive, yet do not give up due to misfortunes.

Review “Superforecasting”

The book Superforecasting is not suitable for heavy reading or reading just to feel pleased. It is full of puzzles, brain teasers and theories requiring outside-the-box thinking. So, the reader will have to use his brains. A great deal of the material relates to mathematics which may bewilder a person that is clueless about it.

Nevertheless, Tetlock sometimes gets off the subject beginning to express his fascination with his favorite forecasters who take part in his studies.

Overall, the book keeps the balance between exciting and educating the reader. People who strive to normalize their lives and anticipate future events will find the authors’ ideas highly useful.

The authors recommend looking for people who you see eye to eye with, cooperate with them and master the art of prediction together. A good forecaster should understand and accept the arguments voiced by others, specify his proof points and learn to vindicate his views constructively. This puts in the order and improves thinking capabilities. The authors believe we should interact to find the best of everyone.

Pros and Cons:

  • The book is full of fascinating ideas, stories and examples, logical problems and brain teasers which will make your brain work.
  • Some critics point out that the book contains more information on ‘superforecasters’ than on the methods of superforecasting.

About Authors

Philip E. Tetlock (born 1954) is a Canadian-American political science writer and is currently the Annenberg University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is cross-appointed at the Wharton School and the School of Arts and Sciences.

Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of books about psychology and decision-making. His work has been called “an invaluable resource for anyone who aspires to the think clearly” by The Guardian and “required reading for journalists, politicians, academics, and anyone who listens to them” by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.

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