I know that Paul Krugman was not really serious when he linked this study naming him the most accurate prognosticator in America. Nonetheless, it's getting some play around the internet, and a warm reception from people who don't seem to know any better, so it's worth pointing out why this sort of thing is so dreadful. I mean, I'm sure it was a very fine senior project for the Hamilton College students who produced it, but the results tell us nothing at all about the state of prognostication in this country.
Krugman quotes this segment from the Hamilton College press release:
Now, a class at Hamilton College led by public policy professor P. Gary Wyckoff has analyzed the predictions of 26 prognosticators between September 2007 and December 2008. Their findings? Anyone can make as accurate a prediction as most of them if just by flipping a coin.
The students found that only nine of the prognosticators they studied could predict more accurately than a coin flip. Two were significantly less accurate, and the remaining 14 were not statistically any better or worse than a coin flip.
The top prognosticators - led by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman - scored above five points and were labeled "Good," while those scoring between zero and five were "Bad." Anyone scoring less than zero (which was possible because prognosticators lost points for inaccurate predictions) were put into "The Ugly" category. Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas came up short and scored the lowest of the 26.
I myself read Paul Krugman more often than Cal Thomas, so perhaps I should take this as evidence of my perspicacity . . . but no. This is nonsense. The study runs for a little over a year, between September 2007 and 2008. They didn't even look at all of the statements made by the prognosticators, but at a "representative sample", presumably because they couldn't handle the volume that would be required to analyze all of it. Some of the prognosticators made too few testable predictions to generate good results, and the riskiness of the prediction varied--someone who predicted that Obama was going to win the election in October 2008 seems to have gotten the same "score" for that flip as someone who predicted that Obama would do so in September 2007. The number of predictions varied between commentators, making comparison even more difficult.
Against this background, it makes no sense to say--as the students and the press release do--that this study shows that "a number of individuals in our sample, including Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, Ed Rendell, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Kathleen Parker were better than a coin flip (sometimes, substantially so.)" One of the commonest fallacies you see among beginning students of probability is the belief that if a coin has a 50% chance of turning up heads, then anyone who flips a coin multiple times should end up getting half heads, and half tails.
This is not true--especially when you have a small number of "flips", as most of the prognosticators did. (It's not surprising that George Will, who made the greatest number of predictions, was statistically very close to zero.) Rather, if you get a bunch of people to flip coins a bunch of times, you'll get a distribution. Most of the results will cluster close to 50/50 (as was true in this case), but you'll get outliers.
This is often pointed out in the case of mutual fund managers, as John Bogle does using this graph:
And indeed, my finance profs taught me that the top mutual funds in a given year are not any more likely to show up as next year's top funds. Indeed, they may be less likely to do well the next year. Why? Because funds have strategies, which do better or worse depending on market conditions. The funds that do well in a given year are probably the funds that were especially well positioned to show outsized fluctuations in response to whatever changed that year--but that also means that they're especially likely to do lose money when those conditions change. Because the fluctuations are a random walk, they do not vindicate the fund manager's strategy or perspicacity--but they may seem to, temporarily.
Which may cast some light on why liberal pundits did especially well in this test. If you were the sort of person who is systematically biased towards predicting a bad end for Republicans, and a rosy future for Democrats, then election year 2008 was going to make you look like a genius. If you were the sort of person who takes a generally dim view of anything Democrats get up to, then your pessimism was probably going to hit more often than it missed.
It would be interesting to go back and look at the same group in the year running up to 2010. But even then, it would tell us very little. To do any sort of a true test, we'd have to get a bunch of these prognosticators to all make predictions about the same binary events, over a lengthy period of time, and then see how they fared over a multi-year period. I suspect that they'd end up looking a lot like mutual fund managers: little variation that could be distinguished from random variance.
Once you take into account their fees, mutual fund managers, as a group, underperform the market. And I suspect you'd see the same thing with pundits: as a group, they'd slightly underperform a random coin flip. People like Lindsay Graham cannot go on Meet the Press and say "Yup, we're going to lose on November 2nd" even when it is completely obvious that this is what will happen; they need to present an optimistic bias for their base. Over time, that optimistic bias about no-hope causes will cause a slight negative drag on the predictive power of their statements.
Does that undermine the credibility of pundits? I don't think that predictions are the fundamental purpose of punditry (though I do encourage people to make them as a way of raising the stakes on the truth claims they make, and in order to give us a benchmark against which to analyze our reasoning). Pundits offer predictions, yes, but more importantly, they offer you facts, context, and analysis. Their really important work is to help you make your own wrong predictions about the world.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Places like St. Louis and New York City were once similarly prosperous. Then, 30 years ago, the United States turned its back on the policies that had been encouraging parity.
Despite all the attention focused these days on the fortunes of the “1 percent,” debates over inequality still tend to ignore one of its most politically destabilizing and economically destructive forms. This is the growing, and historically unprecedented, economic divide that has emerged in recent decades among the different regions of the United States.
Until the early 1980s, a long-running feature of American history was the gradual convergence of income across regions. The trend goes back to at least the 1840s, but grew particularly strong during the middle decades of the 20th century. This was, in part, a result of the South catching up with the North in its economic development. As late as 1940, per-capita income in Mississippi, for example, was still less than one-quarter that of Connecticut. Over the next 40 years, Mississippians saw their incomes rise much faster than did residents of Connecticut, until by 1980 the gap in income had shrunk to 58 percent.
As the public’s fear and loathing surge, the frontrunner’s durable candidacy has taken a dark turn.
MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina—All politicians, if they are any good at their craft, know the truth about human nature.
Donald Trump is very good, and he knows it better than most.
Trump stands alone on a long platform, surrounded by a rapturous throng. Below and behind him—sitting on bleachers and standing on the floor—they fill this city’s cavernous, yellow-beige convention center by the thousands. As Trump will shortly point out, there are a lot of other Republican presidential candidates, but none of them get crowds anything like this.
Trump raises an orange-pink hand like a waiter holding a tray. “They are not coming in from Syria,” he says. “We’re sending them back!” The crowd surges, whistles, cheers. “So many bad things are happening—they have sections of Paris where the police are afraid to go,” he continues. “Look at Belgium, the whole place is closed down! We can’t let it happen here, folks.”
Live in anticipation, gathering stories and memories. New research builds on the vogue mantra of behavioral economics.
Forty-seven percent of the time, the average mind is wandering. It wanders about a third of the time while a person is reading, talking with other people, or taking care of children. It wanders 10 percent of the time, even, during sex. And that wandering, according to psychologist Matthew Killingsworth, is not good for well-being. A mind belongs in one place. During his training at Harvard, Killingsworth compiled those numbers and built a scientific case for every cliché about living in the moment. In a 2010 Science paper co-authored with psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, the two wrote that "a wandering mind is an unhappy mind."
For Killingsworth, happiness is in the content of moment-to-moment experiences. Nothing material is intrinsically valuable, except in whatever promise of happiness it carries. Satisfaction in owning a thing does not have to come during the moment it's acquired, of course. It can come as anticipation or nostalgic longing. Overall, though, the achievement of the human brain to contemplate events past and future at great, tedious length has, these psychologists believe, come at the expense of happiness. Minds tend to wander to dark, not whimsical, places. Unless that mind has something exciting to anticipate or sweet to remember.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
A Chicago cop now faces murder charges—but will anyone hold his colleagues, his superiors, and elected officials accountable for their failures?
Thanks to clear video evidence, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged this week with first-degree murder for shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Nevertheless, thousands of people took to the city’s streets on Friday in protest. And that is as it should be.
The needlessness of the killing is clear and unambiguous:
Yet that dash-cam footage was suppressed for more than a year by authorities citing an investigation. “There was no mystery, no dead-end leads to pursue, no ambiguity about who fired the shots,” Eric Zorn wrote in The Chicago Tribune. “Who was pursuing justice and the truth? What were they doing? Who were they talking to? With whom were they meeting? What were they trying to figure out for 400 days?”
American education is largely limited to lessons about the West.
When I turned 15, my parents sent me alone on a one-month trip to Ecuador, the country where my father was born. This was tradition in our family—for my parents to send their first-generation American kids to the country of their heritage, where we would meet our extended family, immerse ourselves in a different culture, and learn some lessons on gratefulness.
My family’s plan worked. That month in Ecuador did more for my character, education, and sense of identity than any other experience in my early life. And five years later, my experience in Ecuador inspired me to spend more time abroad, studying in South Africa at the University of Cape Town. These two trips not only made me a lifelong traveler, but also a person who believes traveling to developing countries should be a necessary rite of passage for every young American who has the means.
I worked out of what might be the best-designed office space in America. Here's what it taught me about productivity, concentration, and happiness at work.
One day recently I worked out of, quite possibly, the best office I have ever been in. Granted, this is not a high bar for a cubicle drone like me. Still, the design touches were lovely: It was a glass cube with an ergonomic green chair and mahogany desk. There was a frosted-glass door, so theoretically, I could have worked pants-less. (I was fully clothed.)
The lighting was straight out of an ABC primetime family drama: a bright reading lamp to my left, a copper light above me, and another, softer light that glowed behind my laptop screen. Behind that was a magnetic board, where, if this were my actual office, I would have affixed a photo of my friends and me jumping simultaneously into the air.
Better-informed consumers are ditching the bowls of sugar that were once a triumph of 20th-century marketing.
Last year, General Mills launched a new product aimed at health-conscious customers: Cheerios Protein, a version of its popular cereal made with whole-grain oats and lentils. Early reviews were favorable. The cereal, Huffington Post reported, tasted mostly like regular Cheerios, although “it seemed like they were sweetened and flavored a little more aggressively.” Meanwhile, ads boasted that the cereal would offer “long-lasting energy” as opposed to a sugar crash.
But earlier this month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued General Mills, saying that there’s very little extra protein in Cheerios Protein compared to the original brand and an awful lot more sugar—17 times as much, in fact. So why would General Mills try to market a product as containing protein when it’s really a box fill of carbs and refined sugar?