Seeking Justice for Inaccurate Pundits

A new study shows pundits are only right about half the time

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Pundits' predictions are generally no more accurate than a coin toss, according to a study released this week by Hamilton College. Students analyzed talking heads' predictions between 2007 and 2008 and found that Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd are the most reliable prognosticators, Cal Thomas the least and Thomas Friedman made five correct predictions out of 10. But most pundits fell in the middle, with about a 50 percent accuracy rate. Those with law degrees tended to be a bit less accurate. Reaction to the study among can be split between two camps: That's Not What Punditry's About vs. Bring on the Pundit Justice.

The first group argues that the Hamilton students are totally missing the point of punditry. It's not about the predictions, it's about the issues, they say. Among them:

  • Skeptical of Nearly All of the Findings  Financial Times' Cardiff Garcia says that sure, "accountability never hurts." But the study's conclusions are too sweeping. What "it actually did was... [find] that, say, Paul Krugman made better predictions than Tom Friedman about the topics that each chose to talk about in a 16-month window. What we can generalise from this kind of thing is really quite limited, if not negligible."
  • Even Wrong About Coin Tosses  The Atlantic's Megan McArdle explains that, "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... 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 ... but you'll get outliers." She continues,

"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. ... 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."

  • It's About the Framework  Outside the Beltway's James Joyner says. "The thing that separates a good pundit from a hack is the ability to analyze facts in an illuminating framework and a willingness to adjust his view as new information comes in." Besides, he writes, many of the "pundits" studied are actually politicians, who have to say their team is going to win even in the face of polls that suggest otherwise. Joyner says he's only interested in talking heads who can "frame the discussion in interesting ways and incorporate known facts into their argument in a fair manner."

The second camp would say the first camp is ruining the fun. The Hamilton study quotes an essay by Glenn Greenwald in The National Interest, in which he decries the total lack of accountability in punditry, "the ultimate accountability-free profession" in which talking heads  "never learn their lesson, are never held accountable and virtually never acknowledge their errors."  The second camp shares Greenwald's craving for pundit justice, and they're a bit gleeful in the fact that the study calls out particular talking heads for being wildly inaccurate.

  • Finally  Gawker's Hamilton Nolan says the study is just "the best" because it proves pundits to be wrong and law degrees to make them more wrong. "Every single one of our prejudices is confirmed! Love it," Nolan writes.
  • How Come No One Cares?  Tuscon Weekly’s Dan Gibson laments that, "Other than the chance that Jon Stewart might run a series of your Fox News clips in a sequence some day, there's not much accountability for political pundits. Make a bold, media ready prediction one day, by the time a week goes on, who cares anymore?"
  • They Must Suffer Like I Suffer  The Huffington Post’s Jason Linkins explains his weekend torment: "As anyone who routinely tunes in to watch Sunday Morning prognosticators sound forth on their big predictions about politics will tell you: it hurts to watch. So much. So very much. But they'll also tell you that being a political tout seems to be a pretty great gig: you show up, you say a bunch of stuff, and you never worry that you'll ever be held accountable for whatever you get wrong." He continues:

"Nevertheless, from time to time, some intrepid souls take it upon themselves to study the augury and attempt to make a determination about who is right and who is wrong. ... What did they find? Basically, if you want to be almost as accurate as the pundits they studied, all you have to do is a) root through the cushions of your couch, b) find a coin, and c) start flipping it. Boom! You are now pretty close to being a political genius. If you are just as gifted at torturing metaphors, you are now 'Thomas Friedman.'"

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This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.