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Book Reviews

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

by Dan Gardner; Philip E. Tetlock

In 2010, Dan Gardner published Future Babble, a fascinating look at the often dodgy business of expert predictions. Much of the scientific core of the book was derived from the research of Philip Tetlock, himself an expert on the art and science of predicting the future. Superforecasting is a sort of follow-up to Future Babble, in which primary author Tetlock (writing in collaboration with Gardner) uses the results of the Good Judgment Project, his multi-year study of forecasting, to explain the thinking behind predictions that work.

Superforecasting Philip E. Tetlock Dan Gardner October 2015To engage in a comparison of results, the first hurdle that must be overcome is being able to measure the accuracy of predictions among volunteer forecasters. Once he’s established his guidelines, Tetlock is able to rank his volunteers, thereby discovering a class of people with more than just a knack for making the right calls. He calls these above-average futurists “superforecasters.”

What we all want to know from a book like this is what makes a superforecaster super, and Tetlock helpfully breaks down the various skills and mental habits involved. Superforecasters are smart, numerate, and good at processing information from different sources. They know their limitations, and recognize that no one can entirely predict the future (for example, after five years out, you’re basically into the realm of chance). They are aware of the pitfalls posed by misleading types of thinking that are easy to slide into. They are good at breaking down big problems into component parts. They are not dogmatic and are quick to adjust their thinking in light of any new facts. Much of this may seem obvious, but it is just as obvious that people don’t think this way naturally. There is a certain discipline that goes along with being a seer.

In addition to its subject’s inherent interest, Superforecasting will also appeal to fans of Freakonomics and the work of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, who popularize the latest developments in social psychology and behavioural economics. (Daniel Kahneman stands out as the guru of what has become an entire subgenre of popular science, and his name comes up frequently here.)

Such books are also part of a larger intellectual movement, toward an understanding of the universe as essentially probabilistic, with Big Data providing the power to crunch all the numbers and give the best odds. Superforecasting is just “another manifestation of a broad and deep shift away from decision making based on experience, intuition, and authority . . . toward quantification and analysis.” Though Tetlock tries to put some distance between them, superforecasters are thus much like modern “quants,” with the next step in the evolution of the human mind appearing to be a human-computer synthesis capable of overcoming our biologically ingrained mental failings.

In one of the book’s more interesting points, Tetlock notes that people who find meaning in events tend to be happier than those who only judge probabilities that are themselves meaningless (that is, superforecasters). He also concludes by acknowledging that the tools of forecasting can’t be used to determine what sorts of questions might be worth asking, and that there may yet be a role for the humanities in all of this.

But this prediction may be informed by wishful thinking – a human frailty – and in any event that’s not the book Tetlock and Gardner have written. What they have given us is instructive enough to help us judge what’s to come.