The Perils of Making Predictions
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.”