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Jewish Journal

Enough of the Pundits!

by  David A. Lehrer

December 18, 2009 | 5:28 pm

This past weekend I had it. I’ve given up watching the time-killing Sunday morning talk shows and their endless supply of “all-knowing” pundits.

Last weekend I suffered through the bloviating of Arianna Huffington on George Stephanopolous’ This Week where every one of her opinions was delivered with the certainty usually reserved for the sciences where facts are indisputable (2+2=4, no ifs, and, or buts) not for choices involving countless variables, human beings and the vagaries of real life. Although this decade finds her on the left side of the political spectrum along with one of my least favorite windbags, Katrina vanden Heuvel, she has equals on the right—- from Ann Coulter to Laura Ingraham. (Lest I be accused of sexism, there is no shortage among the male of the species—Dick Morris, et al.)

They and countless others share an immodesty that is truly breathtaking.

Last Sunday, in discussing President Obama’s speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and his decision to increase troops in Afghanistan, Arianna offered her conclusions on the impact of Obama’s decision as if she had the powers of a prophet—-

no military solution in Afghanistan is possible

. No qualifications, no ambiguity, no “I think” or “I believe”—-simply bald assertions that are meant to make it sound as if she possesses information and divining skills denied to the rest of us.

Well, I’ve had it with her and most of the other Sunday morning mavens; no more of being a patsy for their self righteous baloney. We should all know better.

At his blog, The Frontal Cortex, my son Jonah Lehrer has written of a seminal study done on pundits and their accuracy by Phillip Tetlock of Berkeley.

Or look at political experts. In the early 1980s, Philip Tetlock at UC Berkeley picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends” and began asking them to make predictions about future events. He had a long list of pertinent questions. Would George Bush be re-elected? Would there be a peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Quebec secede from Canada? Would the dot-com bubble burst? In each case, the pundits were asked to rate the probability of several possible outcomes. Tetlock then interrogated the pundits about their thought process, so that he could better understand how they made up their minds. By the end of the study, Tetlock had quantified 82,361 different predictions.

After Tetlock tallied up the data,

the predictive failures of the pundits became obvious. Although they were paid for their keen insights into world affairs, they tended to perform worse than random chance.

Most of Tetlock’s questions had three possible answers; the pundits, on average, selected the right answer less than 33 percent of the time. In other words, a dart-throwing chimp would have beaten the vast majority of professionals.

Tetlock also found that the most famous pundits in Tetlock’s study tended to be the least accurate, consistently churning out overblown and overconfident forecasts. Eminence was a handicap

.

But it’s not just that these BS artists are frequently wrong; what’s worse is that in their bravado they negatively impact us and our being thoughtful consumers of news:  But here’s the worst part: even terrible expert advice can reliably tamp down activity in brain regions (like the anterior cingulate cortex) that are supposed to monitor mistakes and errors. It’s as if the brain is intimidated by credentials, bullied by bravado.

I’m not sure how to protect my “anterior cingulate cortex” so I am just not going to watch these windbags anymore—-as my son noted, watching four chimps throwing darts at various policy options would be as informative and predictive.

PS There are a few pundits on the right (e.g. David Brooks) and left (e.g. Tom Friedman) who qualify their analysis by acknowledging the complexity of the issues, the lack of simple, clear choices and the legitimacy of the views that may differ from theirs. I can watch and read them on Sunday, or any other day.

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