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December 20th, 2005

  Differently Clued


Having just read Louis Menand's review of Philip Tetlock's new book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? in the Dec. 5 issue of The New Yorker, I am resolved that I shall no longer feel embarrassed about my dismal track record as a predictor of events. Apparently no-one else is much better. To quote Menand:

It is the somewhat gratifying lesson of [Tetlock's book] that people who make prediction their business — people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses, and participate in punditry roundtables — are no better than the rest of us. When they're wrong, they're rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it, either. They insist that they were just off on timing, or blindsided by an improbable event, or almost right, or wrong for the right reasons. They have the same repertoire of self-justifications that everyone has, and are no more inclined than anyone else to revise their beliefs about the way the world works, or ought to work, just because they made a mistake. No one is paying you for your gratuitous opinions about other people, but the experts are being paid, and Tetlock claims that the better known and more frequently quoted they are, the less reliable their guesses about the future are likely to be. The accuracy of an expert's predictions actually has an inverse relationship to his or her self-confidence, renown, and, beyond a certain point, depth of knowledge. People who follow current events by reading the papers and newsmagazines regularly can guess what is likely to happen about as accurately as the specialists whom the papers quote. Our system of expertise is completely inside out: it rewards bad judgments over good ones.

Well, thank goodness for that. I was beginning to think I might be clueless. It now seems that I am, if not exactly clueful, at least no worse than averagely clued — perhaps better clued than people who are paid far more than I am for sounding off. (Sound of small coin being rattled in tin cup.) In a spirit of diversity, perhaps I should just consider myself differently clued.

It is therefore with serene insouciance that I review the predictions I made twelve months ago for the year 2005. Here they were.


1. Iran will test a Bomb.

Wrong. Iran got herself a new president, who is nuttier than the Berryville Monastery fruitcake that I hope is winging its way to me as I write, in time for the Christmas gorge-athon. Iran did not, however, test a bomb. I could spin this by referring to the new president as a "bomb" — he even seems to be bombing with the Oh-insult-us-please-Mr-authentic-voice-of-the-Third-World-oppressariat Euro-weenies — and suggest that the Iranian hard-liners are just testing him on the world stage. To spin the issue like that would be glib, low, and contemptible … despite which, I shall not do it.

2. Mel Gibson will get an Oscar.

(My argument here was that "the Left, of which Hollywood is a wholly owned subsidiary, is desperate to get on speaking terms with those weird — what do they call themselves? — 'Christians.'") Wrong. The Passion of the Christ got three nominations, but no award, unless there was a grateful one from the trade association for manufactuers of artificial blood, which there surely ought to have been.

3. Some moderate will take over leadership of the Palestinian Arabs … and be assassinated by Hamas.

Wrong. Along with everyone else, I have completely lost interest in the Palestinians since that lovable Mr. Arafat went to join the choir invisible. (Which the old poof must have hoped contains lots of cute choirboys.) Even the Palestinians seem to have lost interest in the Palestinians, to judge from their failure to engage in any sensational internecine murder recently. Who knows? — Perhaps they will accept the existence of Israel, kick out the U.N. aid pimps, hang their trouble-makers, and settle down to make a normal living for themselves and a future for their children. Ha ha ha ha! — just kidding.

4. In the U.S. government, the first signs of the Second Term Crack-Up will appear, possibly in the form of a sex or money scandal. See also next item.

Wrong. The MSM did their best to whip up interest in the Plame-Rove-Novak-Miller-Libby roadshow, but failed, since (a) nobody could remember who was who or what malfeasance was supposed to have been committed, and (b) there seemed to be no sex or money involved. My colleague Rick Brookhiser tells me that every presidential second term since James Monroe's has been a failure. Well, if this one is going to be a failure, on the evidence so far it will be more of a flat-soufflé failure than an exploding-boiler failure.

5. The Iraqis will fail to take charge of their own affairs. The U.S. will muddle on, offering increasingly implausible excuses for our continuing presence there. The U.S. public will get increasingly fed up with the whole business. The first congressional resolution to cut off funding for Iraq will be proposed, but quickly defeated.

I'm going to mark myself wrong on this one, though I think "wrongish" would be fairer. Of the affairs the Iraqis really seriously need to take charge of, the most important are those relating to security — military and police affairs. There are reams of stuff published about this all the time, making every case on the spectrum, from utterly-hopeless to almost-there. I read as much as I can of all this, negative as well as positive, and my rough impression is that things are looking up, and we might be getting somewhere. The main problem seems to be with ingrained Arab perceptions of authority and its obligations — especially as those perceptions apply to the creation of a patriotic military-officer class with proper concern for the troops.

Whatever the truth of that, I surely over-estimated the fed-upness of the U.S. public. To judge from Christmas party conversations with neighbors and friends, Iraq doesn't loom very large in public consciousness. It's just something droning away in the news background, touching only the lives of people with kin in Iraq, and of course a few fired-up ideological partisans. Outside those small circles, nobody's much bothered. Ordinary Americans would like to get out of the mess we got ourselves into over there, but they'd like to get out with the feeling that we did the right thing at last. Our losses are — horrible but unavoidable word — "acceptable," and in an age when nobody gives a fig about federal spending, the financial cost doesn't register.

We could go on like this for years, and probably shall. With plenty of luck and a following wind, we might come out looking OK, with an Iraqi government perhaps up to the standards of a Latin-American-style kleptocracy, run by powerful clans looting the public fisc for their own advantage, but managing national resources rationally, not massacring their people in batches of more than three digits at a time, and not threatening U.S. interests. That would be wonderful.

6. A million or so illegal immigrants will come across our borders or overstay their visas. Among them will be some dozens or hundreds of Middle Eastern terrorists. George W. Bush will refer to all million-odd as "good-hearted people."

Mostly right. The usual estimate of net illegal immigration (arrivals minus departures) is half a million. Annual inflow in the late 1990s looks like around 800,000, so "a million or so" is likely enough for this year's inflow, and the presence among them of M.E. terrorists can surely be taken for granted. There are some signs that the President is getting the message on illegal immigration, but he still sees the issue through a glass darkly, and is not above spinning the numbers to suit his own open-borders sensibility. (See the closing paragraphs of this piece.) However, I cannot locate any recent GWB usages of the old happy-clappy phrases about "good-hearted people,"  "family values don't stop at the Rio Grande,"  "nation of immigrants,"  "just trying to put food on their families," etc., so perhaps, whatever the state of the President's mind, Karl has successfully accomplished a rhetoric overhaul.

7. Britain's fox-hunting ban will generate major civil disobedience.

Wrong. The Act of Parliament banning fox hunting came into effect February 18. The first full hunting season opened on November 5. According to the Countryside Alliance (a pro-hunting lobby), "every pack of fox, hare, mink and stag hounds registered in England and Wales at the time hunting was banned was still hunting." The law has turned out to have lots of loopholes, you see. So long as you are not using actual dogs to actually chase down and actually kill an actual fox, there is lots of stuff you can get away with. It probably doesn't feel the same to the hunters, but from sheer defiance they are meeting and sort-of hunting without any great ruckus. (Though one hunt is being prosecuted by an anti-hunting lobby.)

8. At least one major European nation will legalize same-sex marriage.

Yep. The 2005 tally actually includes two major nations (Spain, U.K.) as well as two minor ones (Andorra, Slovenia). They are not necessarily all saying the m-word out loud in this context, but that's basically what people are getting.

9. Something seriously unpleasant, and inimical to U.S. interests, will happen in one or more of the following places: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, China, Russia, South America.

Wrong. None of these countries or regions is any better disposed towards us in December than they were in January, but none of them kneed us in the groin in any obvious way, unless you count Hugo Chavez's anti-U.S. ranting. It is not unlikely, however, that one or other of these places has done something on the quiet to harm us, something we shall not find out about for a while — selling nukes to terrorists, perhaps. So this is a "maybe wrong." It's always wisest to think the worst of your enemies.

10. Millions of people in Africa will die from violence and disease, and nobody will care much.

Correct. Duh. Yawn.

11. The performance of the U.S. intelligence services will decline further following current reorganization. It will become apparent to the general U.S. public that we have no real clue what is happening in any part of the world critical to U.S. interests.

Indeterminate. I am going to stand by that first statement on general principles, though in the nature of things it is difficult to know whether it is strictly true. (On the other side of the balance sheet, the absence of any major terror attack on U.S. soil for the fourth calendar year in a row suggests that the intel folk may be doing something right.) As for the U.S. public's perceptions, I doubt there has been any change.

12. Britney Spears will spend time in an institution, either correctional or therapeutic.

Obstetric, actually. I guess I can't really count this as falling within the terms of my prediction, so this is another "Wrong."

13. Numerous utterly unpredictable things will happen.

Score one for the Derb!

14. I shall be 60.

This one was dead-on accurate, too, though I'd rather have been wrong about it.


Final score: close to 6 out of 14, giving myself the benefit of all possible doubts. Looking back at Mr. Menand's comments, this doesn't seem so bad. Hey, I'm a pundit! Any well-funded think tank want to hire me? (Repeat cup-rattling sound.)