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.
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.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
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.
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”
Protofeather fossils discovered entombed in amber from the Late Cretaceous era support theories of dinosaur and avian evolution
Protofeather fossils discovered entombed in amber from the Late Cretaceous era support theories of dinosaur and avian evolution -- and make for one beautiful gallery
Dinosaur and bird feathers preserved in amber from a Late Cretaceous site in Canada reveal new insights into the structure, function, and color of animals that date back to about 78 million years ago.
Researchers led by University of Alberta paleontologist Ryan McKellar say these specimens represent distinct stages of feather evolution, from early-stage, single filament protofeathers to much more complex structures associated with modern diving birds. After analyzing the preserved pigment cells, the authors add that these feathered creatures may have also had a range of transparent, mottled, and diffused colors, similar to birds today. They can't determine which feathers belonged to birds or dinosaurs yet, but they did observe filament structures that are similar to those seen in other non-avian dinosaur fossils. Their findings appear in the current issue of the journal Science.
A new study pinpoints the Facebook status updates that irk us to the point of no return.
In the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the two title characters, worried that they haven’t done anything noteworthy to share at said reunion, decide instead to lie and claim they invented Post-it notes.
Their story quickly unravels, of course, but had the movie been made a decade later, even the very concept of the ruse would have been impossible. Everyone would have known about Romy’s daily slog at the Jaguar dealership through Facebook.
Or would they?
The ebb and flow of Facebook friendships has become fruitful territory for social scientists in recent years. At least 63 percent of people report having unfriended someone on Facebook, but what prompts these digital rejections can tell us a lot about both the nature of real-life friendship and about how we manage our online personalities.
What it's like to look for romance when "a big smile can be frightening"
The way to Paulette's heart is through her Outlook calendar. “Honestly, if you want to be romantic with me, send an email through Outlook and give me all the possible dates, locations, and times, so that I can prepare,” she said.
The former Miss America system contestant and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music-trained opera singer knew she had a different conception of romance than her previous boyfriends had and, for that matter, everyone else.
“People tend to think of romance as spur of the moment and exciting,” she told me. “I think of romance as things that make sense and are logical.” However, she didn't know why until this year when, at the age of 31, when she was diagnosed with autism.
This is a low-stress way to ease back into the ancient art of blogging. Our leaders, from J.J. Gould to Chris Bodenner, have explained the logic behind this new feature on The Atlantic’s site here. My colleagues, including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg, have gotten into the swing of things as you will read.
A taxonomy of how we talk about class and wealth in the United States today
Last week, President Obama went on the road promoting an economic agenda for the middle class. As expected, John Boehner and other Republicans fired back by charging Obama with “squeezing the middle class.” It’s not even an election year, yet “middle class” is hotly contested linguistic real estate. But nobody seems to know what this term means.
“Middle class” remains our favored self-designation, although the percentage of Americans who select it fell from 53 percent in 2008 to 49 most recently, according to Pew Research. As a friend’s high-school teacher loved to say, “The great thing about America is that everyone can be middle class.” Good thing she wasn’t teaching math.