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The Perils of Making Predictions

April 3, 2013

Pundits beware: Punxsutawney Phil gained a reprieve last week, after narrowly escaping lynch mobs and the possibility of time on death row. NBC News announced that “Punxsutawney Phil is innocent beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

An Ohio prosecutor, Mike Gmoser, had issued an indictment for the Pennsylvania groundhog who, on February 2, erroneously predicted an early spring. His handlers eventually took the fall, but frustration and disdain were still directed at the varmint. In no time at all Gmoser’s phone was ringing off the hook. “There’s a lot of people who want a piece of him,” he told reporters. “I know because I’m getting recipes from around the country.”

It’s true. With temperatures still hovering in some places around freezing, the seasonal scene for many central and northern states has been grim. The promise of spring has been, until now, just that—a promise.

That’s why Phil’s narrow escape should be a cautionary tale to all the pundits and talking heads who speak with such conviction and authority about the future. The public is tired of experts who continue to get it wrong.

Weather forecasts aside, as a nation we spend entirely too much television and radio time making unnecessary predictions. A significant percentage of these scenarios are advanced only in the context of now, rather than in reference to deeper underlying trends. A lot of it is just sheer entertainment.

Unfortunately, erroneous predictions in the policy world can cost lives, divert resources or leave the country flat footed. Remember the number of experts who issued dire warnings about the impending disaster of Y2K?  (Think of how much money we spent on that non-event!) Or the group-think conviction that the Soviet Union was a coherent country, prompting President George H.W. Bush to admonish the Ukraine in 1991 to remain part of it. Within months the USSR collapsed. And tragically, there were far too many “me toos” who publicly said that the war in Iraq would be easy and that their oil would pay for it.  Remember, the military operation would go “swimmingly” (Bill Kristol)? And finding weapons of mass destruction would be a “slam dunk” (George Tenant)?

Conversely, where were the experts and pundits to warn us of the 2008 economic meltdown? Fundamentals clearly pointed to an unsustainable housing bubble, and the toxic financial products that underpinned it.

Wrong-headed political punditry has also reached new levels, though with far fewer consequences. How many pundits told us that Sarah Palin was a brilliant choice as John McCain’s Vice Presidential running mate? How many talking heads predicted Michelle Bachman would be the Republican nominee in 2012—or even Donald Trump?

“The dirty little secret about political punditry,“ wrote Jim Newell in Salon, is that “it requires very little knowledge or skills and there are no consequences for being wrong.” This is a good thing for the community of talking heads, since the likes of Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, Michael Barone, Larry Kudlow, Jim Cramer, and Dick Morris all predicted a run-away victory for Mitt Romney.

Recently, pundits of the other persuasion, including Chris Matthews, James Carville and Ed Schultz, have spoken passionately about Hillary Clinton’s prospects for 2016. As they know better than most of us, any number of things could intervene between now and the 2016 race. President Obama is only 63 days into his second administration and much remains uncertain about his term, as well as the evolving mood of the country and any line-up of candidates that may seek to succeed him.

So if you want a forecast on who will be the candidates and the next president of the United States, there’s no need to tune into your favorite cable station. Why not ask Punxsutawney Phil for a prediction? The LA Times noted that “According to stormfax.com, since Punxsutawney Phil began issuing predictions in 1887, he has been correct about 39% of the time.” According to the writer, Phil Whitefield, this “is a much higher percentage than say someone like Karl Rove and his prediction in the 2012 presidential election, and no one called for Rove’s balding head on a stick.”

11 Comments leave one →
  1. PAUL J. HANSEN permalink
    April 3, 2013 12:12 pm

    SUSAN-YOU SAID IT! PERIOD! WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON NORTH KOREA-(SORRY TO ASK YOU TO PREDICT)

    PAUL J. HANSEN

  2. Jim Covington permalink
    April 3, 2013 12:21 pm

    Great post!

  3. Ruth permalink
    April 3, 2013 2:22 pm

    Who could have said it better….“it requires very little knowledge or skills and there are no consequences for being wrong.”   Amen!   Big surprise of the week that came from a neighbor, a loyal Fox viewer, stated that she was tired of listening to the “talking heads” all talking at the same time, like the ladies on “The View”. What took her so long!!

    ________________________________

  4. Tony DuPuis permalink
    April 3, 2013 2:22 pm

    Humor, knowledge, wit, passion, truth, fair, balanced, insightful…
    Got to LOVE this post Susan !!!

    :-) :-) :-)

  5. Dean permalink
    April 3, 2013 3:24 pm

    Perfect post……but, why do we keep listening to them instead of thinking for ourselves?

  6. April 3, 2013 4:04 pm

    I have a dear British friend who is a bookmaker (respectable, legal and traditional in England) and who is sometimes that industry’s representative to Parliament.

    So I’ve found that the most reliable barometers of prediction, including as to American politics, are the betting odds-makers as they are the only ‘pundits’ who are both capable of and inclined to render a purely apolitical prediction. For the most ‘honest’ of reasons (money) bookies don’t care a whit about anyone’s spin, bias, propaganda or political bigotry, not even their own; they don’t care who wins politically, only that he/she be the correct choice of betting odds.

    The British bookies’ odds were consistently for Obama throughout the 2012 campaign. Those odds grew closer as the end drew nearer, but they never varied from Obama as the winner, even after his abysmal first debate performance.

  7. April 3, 2013 4:45 pm

    In 2010, liberals and Democrats lost a mid-term election by historic margins that dwarfed their relatively modest gains in campaign 2012, let alone Obama’s hair-thin, .0243% margin of win in an historically corrupt election heavily sqewed by the Ron Paul wild card.

    Indeed, barely two short years ago unprecedented waste was laid to Dem congressional offices, governorships, state and municipal offices, and referenda (like gay ‘marriage’) nationwide. Likewise, predictably unreported, greater percentages of gays, blacks, Hispanics and women both ran and won as Repub candidates and voted Repub than any time in history. It was, as even Lord Obie admitted, a record “shellacking”.

    There followed thence a chorus of voices from the punditory right celebrating the ‘death of liberalism’, the ‘new irrelevance of the Dem party’, the imminent one-term demise of president ‘Jimmie’ Obama, and pontificating about how it was so ‘obvious’ that the Dem party would need to fundamentally revise its ‘takeover by its out-of-control, rabid left wing’.

    RIP.

    Today’s smug Dem cocktail wizards braying the same politically bigoted ‘predictions’ adjusted for their own partisan myopia would do well to remember the only political axiom that consistently prevails, that the only sure thing about politics is that there is nothing sure about politics.

  8. April 3, 2013 6:59 pm

    A prediction — Another Eisenhower For President! Only half joking, Susan. You probably have too many other things to do that don’t require running for office. But, oh my, you would be magnificent…

  9. April 3, 2013 8:25 pm

    Another prediction that went wrong–that the Baylor women’s basketball team would easily win the NCAA tournament, given 75-1 odds by the bookmakers of being right–shows that there is just no certainty anywhere in the world.

  10. Don Webster permalink
    April 4, 2013 11:16 am

    Just about the only talking heads who enlighten are on the PBS Newshour. The program has about a 5% market share in its time slot. Thst pretty much says it all. Susan, I hope your shot across the bow sets off some wider public discussion of these nonsensical so- called public interest shows. And “show” is the right word, as you suggest.

  11. Rick Jones permalink
    April 4, 2013 10:06 pm

    Always read Susan’s blog & always worth it. Not to critique C-PAP royaly, BUT “conservatives” trying to move forward includes ALL Republican “success/winners”speakers input 1)Mitt, 2)Sarah, 3)Newt, 4)Wayne Lapierre NRA. How qiuckly can you move back into political ignominy at “Light Speed”? Also noted, JPMC’s Jamie Dimon reference to $6.2B loss@1)”tempest in teapot” chump change, 2)NO IDEA where “chump change” went that was FDIC insured!! NO ONE lost their jobs OR went to prison. Jamie Dimon(clearly a street punk) lost $12M, half of promised bonus $$$$$. As if Jamie would miss such “chump change”!! Only in America where such Wall Street incompetence gets rewarded! The “money changers” have certainly returned to the “Temple”.!! Sorry to bother you Mr.Dimon in D.C. testimony & missing your T TIME!! The financial tail continues to wag the political dog in USA. In Shangai, there would certainly be beheadings in the public square of justice!!

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