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Pausing for Pundits

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So, what's on your mind these days? Maybe you're looking ahead to the general election or pondering the nature of judicial activism. Whatever the case, recent events make me pause, as I do often, to think about how much time we spend reading and listening to speculation and predictions from pundits-- that curious cadre of people we've installed in our society, on our talk shows and on our RSS feeds and newspapers who tell us what to think. Whatever one thinks of them, there's little question that these bearers of blood pressure do a very effective job of inflating the deeply contingent nature of reality and making us worry. In my industry, one of our trade magazines reported that the deployment of the words "double-dip recession" which crested at a frenzied 230 articles per week last year has now subsided to under 40 in February of 2012. Then there's the continuing GOP race for the presidency which has inspired tome-length pieces and telethonic TV time on both sides about what our country would be like under a President Cain, Paul, Bachmann, Santorum, Perry, Gingrich, Romney or the prospects for an Obama second term. "What if" and "watch out" lines of inquiry have become the national pastime. Bob Garfield, host of NPR's On The Media puts it this way: "They're (pundits) just there for dramatic tension and confrontation."

When we consider how much of our work time, weeknights and weekends all this soaks up, it's fair to ask whether the mavens are providing anything valuable to us. We know all this has value to the commentators -- putting aside the media stars like Ed Schultz and Ann Coulter (worth $11.5 million and $8.5 million, respectively), the average yearly salary for an analyst is between $50,000 and $80,000 (many commentators and analysts work for much smaller cable networks), but pundits for major networks routinely earn a few hundred thousand dollars yearly, and many have multiple gigs across media platforms so they can double or triple that.

How Right Are They? Getting us riled up is big business but what's in it for us? One of the deans of the field of pundit debunking is Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He did a longitudinal study of what the experts predicted on the right and the left during the 1980s as Reagan entered the arms race against the Soviets and pressed the cold war rhetoric. Tetlock found that everyone was wrong. The liberals assumed that Reagan would cause a breakdown in diplomacy as the USSR hardened its geopolitical stance and the hawks said that any changes the Soviets did undertake wouldn't be real; of course, the opposite happened with the advent of Gorbachev, glasnost, perestroika and historic reforms that caused the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Tetlock then turned his small case study into "an epic experimental project" surveying 284 political experts -- people who made their living commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends -- and began asking them to make predictions about future events. The results? They often performed worse than random chance with the average expert right less than a third of the time. He also found out some things most of us already suspected:
  • mathematical models do better than people
  • education and popularity increase the predictors' confidence but not their accuracy
  • experts overpredict change and underpredict the status quo
  • extremists predict worse than moderates

A group of students at Hamilton College in New York led by public policy professor P. Gary Wyckoff analyzed the predictions of 26 prognosticators over a 16-month period in their 2011 research paper, "Are Talking Heads Blowing Hot Air?" They started their paper in classic quixotic college senior fashion: "To our knowledge, ours is the first attempt at creating a "consumer report" for the average American who wants to know when to tune in and who to take most seriously. Our hope is that with enhanced accountability, prognosticators will become better -- and with enhanced visibility, citizens will be more discriminating, listening to more accurate predictors."

They found that age, race, gender, previous employment as either a politician, adviser to the president, or journalist, and number of years as a journalist, have no bearing on a prognosticator's ability to be correct. They did find that trained lawyers did especially badly and liberals and older people did better. There were nine prognosticators who were classified as "good" predictors. They were Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, Ed Rendell, Chuck Schumer, Kathleen Parker, Nancy Pelosi, David Brooks, Eugene Robinson, and Hank Paulson. Who were the pundits who were more wrong than right? Sam Donaldson, Cal Thomas and George Will.

Beware the Hedgehog
Part of what's nettlesome about prognosticators is how sure they are of things, often on scant evidence. Tetlock calls this the difference between hedgehog and the fox (borrowing from historian Isaiah Berlin). As he tells it:

Some experts... started with a big-idea premise about human nature, society, or economics and applied it to the specifics of the case. They tended to reach more confident conclusions about the future. Other experts displayed a bottom-up style of reasoning: politics as a much messier inductive art. They reached less confident conclusions and they are more likely to draw on a seemingly contradictory mix of ideas in reaching those conclusions (sometimes from the left, sometimes from the right). We called the big-idea experts 'hedgehogs' (they know one big thing) and the more eclectic experts 'foxes' (they know many, not so big things).

According to Tetlock, the most consistent predictor of accurate forecasts was "style of reasoning": Experts with the more eclectic, self-critical, and modest cognitive styles tended to outperform the big-idea people (foxes outperform hedgehogs). Glen Greenwald in an article in the National Interest pillories the pundits for their confidence and for presuming to speak for all American people -- as in "the American people don't like this new law". Greenwald is also rankled by the lack of accountability when they are wrong.

The Fast and the Furious
One of the most regrettable things that the pundit industry has bequeathed us is tone. At times of national sturm und drang like the debates over health care or raising the debt ceiling, you'll hear the familiar hyberbolic, alarmist pronouncements. Whether it's a "ticking time bomb" or "bankrupting our kids and grandkids" or becoming a "third-world debtor nation" or a "socialist welfare state" pundits (most often the hedgehogs) pitch their verbal cocktails in splenetic, apocalyptic terms that are about creating ultimatums.

The thinker, Richard Hofstadter called it the paranoid style. He began his 1964 article in Harper's this way: "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds... I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind." According to the Hamilton study, "Politicians were much more likely to use extreme language, and journalists with more experience were also much more likely to as well." And what's all this doing to us? "In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant." Hofstadter here makes the critical point for me: that the way our pundits speak is the way we "normal" people now speak -- in our lunch rooms and our dinner tables. We've been raised to be angry and totalizing and full of bravado. In other words, we're hedgehogs at a time when the world demands complexity and yes, courtesy.

In the end, I do believe that punditry has its place. Here I disagree with a writer like Rick Perlstein who believes the nature of the world is unpredictable and that nobody knows anything so we shouldn't look to experts for counsel. The value of history as opined famously by George Santayana is to teach us not to keep making the same mistakes. So historical context is a good way to dispel alarm and motivate action (which may be why I like Doris Kearns Goodwin so much on Meet the Press). Some people are trying to hold the pundits to a higher standard: Sanjay Ayer, following, Tetlock's lead has created a website called PunditTracker, that will keep track of the predictions that pundits make and score whether or not they actually turn out to be -- you know, true. I think it's a worthy enterprise but ultimately, it still comes back to us. Forming our opinions is difficult. It is a frustrating, active, dialectical process of researching, remembering and reconciling facts. I was once fortunate enough to be in a graduate class with a renowned anthropologist -- a modern-day Socrates -- who weekly asked his students about very provocative, galvanizing issues (female circumcision was one). Each time, the very bright, articulate Ivy-educated students would launch their broadsides full of prima facie opinions and each time the professor would dismantle the evidence with the facts and with history. Once he did, the students would withdraw quickly as they ran out of ammo. It wasn't meant to embarrass but to explicate the nature of reality -- it's really complex. A good rule of thumb is to have fewer opinions but to make them good ones (I'll be the first to admit that I don't know enough about Syria or Sudan to form a coherent thought about what we should do). We need to be foxes, no matter what the pundits say. We simply can't rely on received opinion lest we lose ourselves in the process.

Research for the article was provided Sheila Roche. She can be reached at sroche@altergroup.com.