Subtle thinkers

On 8 oktober 2015, in theorie, wetenschap, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Superforecasting’ (2015) of Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner:

Superforecasters don’t have special genetics, or uncommon luck.

Today, in Noordwijk on the Dutch coast, I will give my view on the long term future of the Amsterdam region for a small group of people. They invited me. Can I predict the future? Of course not. But according to Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner some people can. These ‘superforcasters’ are so-called ‘foxes’.  The writer and philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who wrote ‘The Hedgehog and the fox’, made a distinction between people whose understanding of the world depends on one or two big ideas (hedgehogs) and people who think the world is too complicated to boil down into a single slogan (foxes) ( Only foxes, Tetlock and Gardner write, can really predict. Tetlock is psychology researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, Gardner a Canadian journalist. “Humility in the face of a complex world makes superforecasters subtle thinkers”. Subtle thinkers? Superforecasters are not statisticians, although they feel comfortable with data. Their greatest ability is to synthesise material from sources with very different outlooks on the world. They think in fine gradations. They are willing to learn from mistakes. Am I a fox?

Those who stood out as superforecasters were anything but experts: one was a retired pipe installer, another a former ballroom dancer. Groups of people can also forecast. Again, not specialists or experts, people who think they know more than amateurs. According to Tetlock and Gardner, the average expert is “roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee.” No, you need an eclectic bunch of people: housewives, unemployed factory workers, homeless, professors of maths. Superforecasters are clever, but not superintelligent. They are less interested in whether they are right or wrong; they always want to know why. They are cautious, sceptic people, searching for nuance. Eminence and confidence are less relevant to them. “Superforecasters make for bad media stars.” Sounds familiar.

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