Friday, March 20, 2009

The trend toward being noisily wrong

BACK IN the 1960s, a rather perceptive radio news analyst, Edward P. Morgan, began his nightly broadcast by confiding to his audience that he knew absolutely nothing at all about agriculture.   "Therefore," he continued, "I believe I am eminently   qualified to talk about agriculture on tonight's program." It was his sardonic way of emphasizing that to be a national pundit, one does not need to know what he or she is talking about.

Boy, would Morgan have had scads of material for his programs today!  Spend five minutes (that should be enough) viewing the  scrums of rowdy political analysts shouting their conflicting views and you must surely conclude that no one has a clue, either about the issue on the table, or whether the panelists wouldn't be better off analyzing old Disney cartoons. 
With their counter-spins whirled into the camera on, say, the remedy for our economic woes,  it should soon be obvious that they can't all be wrong - or right? -  despite whatever claims to expertise the panelists accord  themselves.  In the end, it is only a  charade and a  show-biz line of work that pays well.  What else can you be forced to conclude when two such "experts" (economists, politicians, analysts from each network's private stock) arrive on the scene quite  prepared to disagree?  Fact is, there is much less expertise than there are experts today.  And that's not saying a helluva lot. 

I recently came across a piece on a blog named Bryan (an Englishman, I believe) that was titled Pundits Are Wrong About Everything.  That sounded about right to me (else, why would I be referring to it?)   Appleyard drew his inspiration from a study by Philip Tetlock, a professor at UCal Berkeley.  Tetlock   asked 284 pundits about their forecasts for the future, and recorded the findings:  The experts were right less than 33 pct. of the time!

Appleyard happily notes:
"A monkey chucking darts would have done better.  This is consoling.  More consoling still is Tetlock's further finding that the more certain a pundit was, the more likely he was to be wrong.   The problem being that they couldn't self-correct, presumably because they'd invested so much of their personality and self-esteem in a specific view." 
Some salient examples come to mind:  Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle et al saying the war  would be brief with Perle going so far as to say that within six months, the Iraqis would honor liberator George Bush with a big plaza in downtown Baghdad;  Alan Greenspan vigorously supporting the hollow mortgages that got us into so much trouble; George Bush's Mission Accomplished caper. 

And of late, the economic experts on CNBC, the cable channel of choice for hyenas, are gravely endangering their lungs defending the  millionaire executives  on Wall Street with their  own versions  of Economics 101.  I was left to wonder, for instance, when CNBC host Mark Haines insisted that Wall Street companies "can't be run well by a bunch of people who don't make more than $250,000."    Oh?  In light of today's Wall Street Meltdown, let's give the $250,00o entry level applicants a try. How much worse would they be?  Trust me. Despite what Prof. Tetlock might tell you, I am never wrong.  Well, almost never.     


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