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.
A series of damaging stories about the president's methods of consoling grieving Gold Star families represent the president’s latest entirely self-inflicted wound.
The question to President Trump on Monday sounded relatively innocuous: “Why haven't we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?” It’s certainly not the kind of question that seemed likely to set off several days of heated controversy.
But the hubbub that has ensued, centering on Trump’s response to the deaths of four soldiers in Niger and, more broadly, the way he deals with grieving military families, is yet another example of how this president inflicts crises on himself. This pattern has happened several times since Trump entered office, with the tussle over the size of his crowd on Inauguration Day and his claim that Barack Obama “wiretapped him.” In each case, Trump’s bluster and his seeming obsession with Obama have led him to commit serious unforced errors.
In the media world, as in so many other realms, there is a sharp discontinuity in the timeline: before the 2016 election, and after.
Things we thought we understood—narratives, data, software, news events—have had to be reinterpreted in light of Donald Trump’s surprising win as well as the continuing questions about the role that misinformation and disinformation played in his election.
Tech journalists covering Facebook had a duty to cover what was happening before, during, and after the election. Reporters tried to see past their often liberal political orientations and the unprecedented actions of Donald Trump to see how 2016 was playing out on the internet. Every component of the chaotic digital campaign has been reported on, here at The Atlantic, and elsewhere: Facebook’s enormous distribution power for political information, rapacious partisanship reinforced by distinct media information spheres, the increasing scourge of “viral” hoaxes and other kinds of misinformation that could propagate through those networks, and the Russian information ops agency.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
The staggering scope of the country’s infrastructure initiative—and what it means for the international order
The Pakistani town of Gwadar was until recently filled with the dust-colored cinderblock houses of about 50,000 fishermen. Ringed by cliffs, desert, and the Arabian Sea, it was at the forgotten edge of the earth. Now it’s one centerpiece of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, and the town has transformed as a result. Gwadar is experiencing a storm of construction: a brand-new container port, new hotels, and 1,800 miles of superhighway and high-speed railway to connect it to China’s landlocked western provinces. China and Pakistan aspire to turn Gwadar into a new Dubai, making it a city that will ultimately house 2 million people.
China is quickly growing into the world’s most extensive commercial empire. By way of comparison, after World War II, the Marshall Plan provided the equivalent of $800 billion in reconstruction funds to Europe (if calculated as a percentage of today’s GDP). In the decades after the war the United States was also the world’s largest trading nation, and its largest bilateral lender to others.
A small group of programmers wants to change how we code—before catastrophe strikes.
There were six hours during the night of April 10, 2014, when the entire population of Washington State had no 911 service. People who called for help got a busy signal. One Seattle woman dialed 911 at least 37 times while a stranger was trying to break into her house. When he finally crawled into her living room through a window, she picked up a kitchen knife. The man fled.
The 911 outage, at the time the largest ever reported, was traced to software running on a server in Englewood, Colorado. Operated by a systems provider named Intrado, the server kept a running counter of how many calls it had routed to 911 dispatchers around the country. Intrado programmers had set a threshold for how high the counter could go. They picked a number in the millions.
For decades a respected but somewhat eccentric figure even within the jazz scene, the pianist and composer is at the peak of his influence as he reaches his centennial this month.
The peak of Thelonious Monk’s fame came in 1964, in his 47th year, when his painted portrait—dourly glowering or shyly guarded, depending on the beholder—improbably graced the cover of Time magazine.
Though widely respected by musicians, the pianist and composer had always remained an outlier even in the jazz world, set apart by his singular musical vision as well as his eccentricity, yet his Time cover seemed to represent his ascension to the heights of American culture as a whole.
When the cover was slated to run in November 1963, the nation’s No. 1 hit was the old standard “Deep Purple,” and jazz still seemed dominant. But after John Kennedy was shot, Time bumped Monk. By the time the story ran in February1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had begun a dominant run as the Beatles’ first No. 1 in the United States. Jazz was over as a mainstream force in American culture and so, arguably, was Monk. From then until his death at just 64, in 1982, he struggled increasingly with ailments physical and mental, stopped writing new music, experienced increasing critical disdain, and finally disappeared from view for nearly a decade.
A new study shows that families act on insufficient information when it comes to figuring out where to enroll their children.
A person trying to choose their next set of wheels might see that car A made it farther than car B in a road test and assume it gets better gas mileage. But that’s only true if the two tanks are filled with the same substance. Putting high-octane gas in one and water in the other, for example, provides little useful information about which car makes the most of its fuel. A new working paper titled “Do Parents Value School Effectiveness?” suggests that parents similarly opt for schools with the most impressive graduates rather than figuring out which ones actually teach best. The study joins a body of research looking critically at what it means for a school to be successful.
Take the work of Erin Pahlke, for example. The assistant professor of psychology at Whitman College saw research showing that girls who attend school only with other girls tend to do better in math and science. The trick, she said, is that those studies didn’t analyze “differences in the students coming into the schools.” As it turns out, those who end up in same-sex schools tend to be wealthier, start out with more skills, and have parents who are more proactive than students who attend co-ed institutions. In a 2014 meta-analysis, Pahlke and her colleagues reviewed the studies and found when examining schools with the same type of students and same level of resources—rather than “comparing [those at] the public co-ed school to [their counterparts at] the fancy private school that’s single-sex down the road”—there isn’t any difference in how the students perform academically. Single-sex schooling also hasn’t been shown to offer a bump in girls’ attitudes toward math and science or change how they think about themselves. In other words, it often looks like single-sex schools are doing a better job educating kids, but they aren't. It's just that their graduates are people who were going to do well at any school. They’re running on high-octane gas.
The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history.
When did America become untethered from reality?
I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books.
Despite claiming he was better at consoling the families of slain servicemembers than his predecessors, Trump offended the family of La David Johnson and skipped calls and letters to other grieving loved ones.
Thirteen days after Sergeant La David Johnson was killed in Niger, and a day after Donald Trump boasted about his actions to console grieving families in contrast to his predecessors, the president called Johnson’s family Tuesday night.
It didn’t go well.
Representative Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, was with widow Myeshia Johnson when Trump called. “She was crying the whole time, and when she hung up the phone, she looked at me and said, ‘He didn’t even remember his name.’ That’s the hurting part,” Wilson told MSNBC.
“He said, ‘Well, I guess you knew’—something to the effect that ‘he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway.’ You know, just matter-of-factly, that this is what happens, anyone who is signing up for military duty is signing up to die. That’s the way we interpreted it. It was horrible. It was insensitive. It was absolutely crazy, unnecessary. I was livid.”
By lavishing infrastructure dollars on illiberal governments, Beijing is supplanting American soft power.
Along a major tributary of the Mekong River in northeastern Cambodia sits the newly opened Lower Sesan II Dam hydropower plant. The 400-megawatt dam will produce badly needed electricity for the country, but at the cost of potential major ecological damage and the eviction of some 5,000 families from the area. Such consequences are unlikely to sink the fortunes of Hun Sen, Cambodia’s strongman leader who, for 32 years, has relied on the largesse of foreign governments to fund infrastructure projects: For this latest venture, he has China to thank for footing the more than $800-million bill.
In the past, Southeast Asian nations largely turned to the United States and its Western partners to finance such undertakings; in exchange, several of them would maintain the trappings of a democratic society. But under President Donald Trump, America’s waning regional influence is opening the door for China to expand its footprint in the region, even if that means Beijing must deal with illiberal, repressive autocrats seemingly determined to remain in power forever. “I believe I can live at least 30 more years, therefore I can continue as prime minister for 10 more years. It is not difficult for me,” the 65-year-old Hun Sen remarked at the inaugurationfor the dam last month.