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Predicting My 2016 Predictions

Dec 21, 2015

I admire people who put super in front of their names, whether they are heroes, models, visors or intendents. So when I heard about superforecasters, I saw an opportunity to join their ranks, since I already write an annual prediction column and the job sounded like the made-up kind no one can check on.

I wasn't sure what qualified as super, but I was concerned I didn't have the right stuff, since with the help of Silicon Valley's top venture capitalists, I said Bitcoin's value would rise to $2,000 in 2015 (December price: $460), the stock market would go up 20% (it's flat) and chefs would start using 3-D-printed food (I'm not even sure what that means). Also, for 2014, I declared that polygamy would become acceptable. Back in 2011, I stupidly foresaw a pimento-cheese fad. For 2008, I was sure that as soon as Dick Cheney was no longer Veep, his buddy would shoot him back in the face.

But the new book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction argues that even someone like me can improve his predictions. Just by reading it, I was already improving: I correctly predicted that I wouldn't finish Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. So I called its co-author, Philip E. Tetlock, to ask him to explain his system to me. Tetlock, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, published the results of a study in 2005 that showed that experts were no better at predictions than chimps throwing darts. Which, I assume, was one of the most dangerous experiments ever attempted.

Despite his 2005 findings, Tetlock also discovered a tiny group of people who were really good at predictions by running annual tournaments in which volunteers updated varied predictions every day in return for a $100 Amazon gift card. The top predictors all had several key traits: a habit of keeping track of their failures (like me), a disbelief in fate (like me), a willingness to consult experts (like me), a vague proficiency at mathematics (probably overrated) and a tendency to get way too excited about Amazon gift cards (like me).

Tetlock told me I was already on the way to super status because of the specificity of my failed predictions. "The incentives are to stick with vague-verbiage forecasting if you're trying to survive in a blame-game culture," Tetlock explained. I, of course, do not worry about the blame-game culture since I am the blame-game culture.

So, like a superforecaster, I consulted an expert for my 2016 predictions: superforecaster Warren Hatch. A former Morgan Stanley portfolio manager, Hatch is now a partner in a research firm on Wall Street. I asked him about sports, the Oscars, the stock market and my odds of finishing Superforecasters, but he stuck to predictions he'd already considered. And he doesn't make predictions so much as spit out exact-percentage likelihoods to precise, legally worded questions, such as "Will the euro touch $1 over the course of the next year if no country leaves the euro or euro zone?" Or "How long will a magazine journalist be on the phone with Warren Hatch if he naively asks him to make predictions about 2016?"

A superforecaster first looks for odds of the most general version of the event happening based on historical events, then gets specific, and then waits until you're reading BuzzFeed lists on your computer instead of listening and yells out a number. Hatch thinks that there's a 66% chance a Republican will take the White House; 90% that Assad will still run Syria by the end of 2016; 20% that the U.S. will ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership by the presidential election; and 70% on that euro thing.

When I told him and Tetlock that the problem with these predictions is that no one cares, Tetlock said, "That's one of the unfortunate paradoxes. There's an inverse relation between fame and accuracy." This seemed like an eternal truth, along with the fact that no one ever dreams of being rich and accurate. So I am abandoning all hope of being super, and I'm forging ahead with my attempts to join the growing group of people well known for being stupid.

Here forthwith then are my usual outrageous, unresearched predictions with vague verbiage: In 2016 we will give up a lot of our privacy. Turmoil will roil the Middle East. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West will break up and then, in separate elaborate ceremonies, marry themselves. And I will have 1,000 times as many social-media followers as Philip Tetlock and Warren Hatch combined.

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