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Book Review: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner
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Book Review: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner- Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

One unfortunate consequence of all-day, all-night news channels has been the need to fill twenty-four hours every day with content, even when content is rare to be found. This initially gave rise to a redefinition of the word “news,” as content became news by virtue of being televised on a news station, whether that news about heightening tensions in some global hotspot or the shenanigans of some pop star of the month. It also, in the past decade and a half, gave increasing relevance to talking heads, those pundits who, in the absence of new news, practically replaced news with speculation. One could argue that mere speculation is simply the proposal of multiple possibilities, but public response indicates that it’s far more: speculation in the absence of news becomes the news itself, as we are reminded almost weekly. Talking heads on news stations speculate on some horrible event, then when the speculation proves to be unfounded or ridiculous, the public and the broadcasters have already moved on to the next story.

Contrast the fuzzy language and lack of verification by television pundits with the forecasters in Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (Crown, 2015), in which Philip E.Tetlock explores his life’s pursuit of a measurable evaluation of forecasters’ abilities to predict future events. That oft-cited research where professional pundits’ predictions were revealed to be no more accurate than a monkey’s predictions by way of throwing darts at a dartboard is Tetlock’s research (a study he expands upon so that it reaches far beyond the oversimplification of that metaphor), and his work didn’t stop there. Tetlock put out a call for teams of forecasters who would compete against other teams of forecasters in a tournament funded by the United States government’s intelligence agencies. The author’s team was dubbed the Good Judgment Project.

“In year one,” Tetlock writes, “GJP beat the official control group by 60%. In year two, we beat the control group by 78%. GJP also beat its university-affiliated competitors, including the University of Michigan and MIT, by hefty margins, from30% to 70%, and even outperformed professionalintelligence analysts with access to classified data. After two years, GJP was doing so much better than its academic competitors that (the sponsoring agency) dropped the other teams.” Tetlock’s team’s processes and habits of mind revealed that it’s not what someone knows, but what someone does, that makes him or her a more accurate predictor. Once the author gets past the setup and explanation, which leans a bit mathematical, he gets into the specific habits and attitudes of his “superforecasters,” those members of his project who placed in the top 2% of forecasters for accuracy.

Participants were asked questions every day about future events, such as “Will the North Korean government detonate a nuclear weapon before the end of the calendar year?” They were free to do as much research as they felt necessary before the submittal deadline, and were free to adjust their predictions as many times as they wished. Each forecaster answered the question (yes or no) and added a percentage of certainty. Highly certain predictions that proved correct scored more highly than mildly certain predictions that proved correct, while mildly certain predictions that proved wrong only hurt scores slightly, compared to strongly certain predictions that proved wrong.

What makes superforecasters super accurate, it turns out, is not some gift of presience: “Foresight isn’t a mysterious gift bestowed at birth. It is the product of particular ways of thinking, of gathering information, of updating beliefs,” says Tetlock, adding, “Superforecasting demands thinking that is open-minded, careful, curious, and—above all—self-critical. It also demands focus. The kind of thinking that produces superior judgment does not come effortlessly. Only the determined can deliver it reasonably consistently, which is why our analyses have consistently found commitment to self-improvement to be the strongest predictor of performance.”

Readers who are put off by too many graphs and numbers may find the first portion of the book difficult to get through, but they are encouraged to ride it out, as Tetlock de-emphasizes the importance of math in one’s ability to forecast well. Participants in his project demonstrated a certain comfort with numeracy, but he’s not talking about calculus here, and some superforecasters go out of their way to make their predictions using very little math at all. The second half of the book, in which the author breaks down the superforecasters’ methods, is where the really good stuff is, and it’s not difficult to see how such approaches and developable skills can be invaluable for decision-makers in any field. In fact, one chapter, called “The Leader’s Dilemma,” specifically addresses the tension between forecasting and leading.

One of the books’ enormous strengths is Tetlock’s profiling of some of his specific superforecasters, in which he examines their backgrounds and motivations. They are a diverse group of smart, interesting people, but most of them are everyday people who have trained themselves to approach predictive questions a certain way—a way that just about anyone can put into practice. The author even invites the reader to sign up for the forecasting tournament on the Good Judgment Project’s website, which also appears to offer training for companies interested in developing these skills.

Superforecasting is one of Amazon’s 20 best books of 2015 in the business and investing category, and a super-interesting read that many will find inspiring.


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Book Review: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner- Executive Leadership Articles

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