Experts, Crashes, Media, Skepticism

There is a surprisingly interesting article at Money Magazine on why so many so-called experts utterly missed the market crash, credit crisis, and housing collapse.

Its an interview with Philip Tetlock who is (with no small amount of irony), an expert on experts. He is a professor of organizational behavior at the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas Business School, and has been studying experts for 25 years.

“But you shouldn’t simply write all gurus off. Tetlock’s research found that one kind of expert turns out consistently more accurate forecasts than others. Understanding what makes them better can help you make more reliable predictions in your own life. Tetlock explained it all to Money’s former managing editor, Eric Schurenberg, in a recent interview. . . .

What makes some forecasters better than others?

The most important factor was not how much education or experience the experts had but how they thought. You know the famous line that [philosopher] Isaiah Berlin borrowed from a Greek poet, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”? The better forecasters were like Berlin’s foxes: self-critical, eclectic thinkers who were willing to update their beliefs when faced with contrary evidence, were doubtful of grand schemes and were rather modest about their predictive ability. The less successful forecasters were like hedgehogs: They tended to have one big, beautiful idea that they loved to stretch, sometimes to the breaking point. They tended to be articulate and very persuasive as to why their idea explained everything. The media often love hedgehogs.

How do you know whether a talking head is a fox or a hedgehog?

Count how often they press the brakes on trains of thought. Foxes often qualify their arguments with “however” and “perhaps,” while hedgehogs build up momentum with “moreover” and “all the more so.” Foxes are not as entertaining as hedgehogs. But enduring a little tedium is worth it if you want realistic odds on possible futures.

Fascinating stuff.

My own thesis as to their problematic prognostications places a healthy amount of blame on the conspiracy of optimism.

And on a related note, Dean Baker and I are interviewed in Editor & Publisher magazine on what Journalists can do when interviewing these experts: What to ask, how to dig beneath the data, how to not get rolled by the spinmeisters:

Wish list for reporters covering this and future financial crises

Be more skeptical of sources. “You have to play lawyer, ask what is this person’s motivation for saying what they’re saying.” The best reporting on the automobile industry’s true financial predicament was at an upstart Detroit Web site that supplies unvarnished automotive reviews and editorials about the industry, The Truth About Cars. “They understood the business and its challenges; they were railing for several years against the unsustainable nature of the capital structure of the Big 3,” he says.

Question data, constantly. Last March, for example, The Wall Street Journal ran a story saying the vast inventory of foreclosed homes was starting to bring people back into the housing market, and cited figures from the National Association of Realtors showing a jump in sales in February of 2.9% from the month before. But he points out that in every year home sales are lowest in January, so changes from January to February are measuring seasonal differences, not actual improvements in house sales. The tendency to overemphasize the most recent data point in a monthly series is called the “recency” effect. “It is a foolish way to ignore the trend and give greater emphasis to today,” he notes.

Give good context. The struggle to control the narrative of how the housing crisis and ensuing financial meltdown occurred is in full swing, exemplified by Karl Rove’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in January that fingered Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as among “the principal culprits of the housing crisis.” But he and others point out that the two government-sponsored enterprises, though they became too large and overleveraged, had nothing to do with the explosion of high-risk lending that took place between 2002 and 2007.

Both articles are thought provoking and worth exploring . . .


Why the experts missed the crash
Eric Schurenberg
Money Magazine, February 18, 2009: 4:10 PM ET

Expert Tips on Covering the Financial Crisis
Barbara Bedway
Editor & Publisher, February 18, 2009 12:01 AM ET

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