Pity the Poor Pundits: They Can't Win

Political commentators fight a losing game -- their profession rewards the kind of controversial statements that are most likely to make them wrong.

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The Chronicle of Higher Education has a revealing survey of how much more accurate the academic and mathematical analysts of the 2012 election were than the leading political commentators:

[Princeton neuroscience professor (and this blogger's friend and colleague) Sam] Wang was 50 for 50. (As I write this, Florida's results are still being tallied. Wang had it in Obama's column, but he also called the state a coin toss, correctly predicting that it would be the tightest race.) His prediction of the percentage of the popular vote going to each candidate was dead on: Obama 51.1, Romney 48.9. Oh, and he was also 10 for 10 in U.S. Senate races.

The poster boy for election forecasting, Nate Silver, who had been ridiculed by some conservatives, was also vindicated and deserves plaudits. But he wasn't the only one to crunch the numbers correctly. Along with Wang, Drew Linzer of Votamatic was also correct across the board. Linzer, an assistant professor of political science at Emory, predicted way back in June that Obama would get 326 electoral votes, and his projections remained remarkably stable throughout the campaign.

Unfortunately, the author, Tom Bartlett, compares the quants' records only with those of conservative pundits who were confident of a Romney victory. He also doesn't mention the errors of the conservative guru Michael Barone, renowned for his encyclopedic mastery of district politics, as noted by Michael Kinsley in the Los Angeles Times. Surely, though, most liberal commentators were equally confident of Obama's victory on their own ideological grounds. (One exception is Frank Rich, the current doyen of liberal defeatism and civic despair. While he did admit the possibility and perhaps likelihood of an Obama victory, his New York magazine article should be joyful reading for all Tea Partiers who can stand being called "cockroaches.")

The inaccuracy of pundits, right and left, should be no surprise. Six years ago, the prizewinning book Expert Political Judgement, by the psychologist Philip E. Tetlock, revealed that the media systematically reward passionate and articulate consistency in experts over less flashy but more holistic approaches. The best strategy for both political and economic forecasters may not be to weigh all factors, but rather to issue bold statements that will be remembered as genius if confirmed and forgotten if wrong (especially because experienced pundits sometimes show their brilliance best in explaining away their previous errors). Didn't Walter Lippmann, the commentary superstar of the 1930s, believe, on the basis of one 1933 speech, that "Herr Hitler" would pursue revision of the Treaty of Versailles through the peaceful auspices of the League of Nations, calling him "the authentic voice of a genuinely civilized people"?

The dilemma of experts and pundits is that the kind of firm and controversial statements that the market desires from them are the very sort that are most likely to make them incorrect. Will the increasing accuracy of the political quants change politics? I have some thoughts on that, but I'll refrain from expressing them. That, after all, would be a prediction.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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