Computerizer via Pixabay/Victor Tangermann
Outlook Hazy

Specific People Are Weirdly Good at Predicting the Future

Peer into the crystal ball.

Dan RobitzskiMay 7th 2019

Fortune Tellers

If a world-renowned expert makes a prediction about the future, there’s a good chance that they’ll be wrong.

Historically, scientific evidence suggests that the people best suited to predict future world events are generalists who dabble in all sorts of fields, according to a fascinating new book excerpt in The Atlantic, because they’re less beholden to their own biases. On the other hand, people who have built up an impressive but narrowly-focused expertise tend to make less-accurate predictions because they tend to be limited by their own worldviews.

Dabbling

One might expect that people who have dedicated their lives to one field of study may be able to predict where that field is going. But data suggesting the very opposite began to emerge after a 20-year experiment beginning in 1984. In that experiment, seasoned experts and academics were pitted up against generalists— people who read voraciously and had a variety of interests — in a contest of predicting near and distant financial, political, and other events.

While people tend to gravitate toward confident experts, the generalists crushed the contest, per The Atlantic. People with strong ideologies one way or another all failed to predict the rapid collapse of the Soviet Union because they interpreted evidence through the lens of their own opinions, for example, while generalists were more likely to see it coming.

Doubling Down

The difference, according to the 20-year study, is that people who dabbled in a bunch of different fields learned from their errors. Meanwhile, the more narrowly-focused experts doubled down on their worldviews, often blaming some small unpredictable variable for their inaccuracy and becoming increasingly confident in their beliefs.

As Philip Tetlock, the scientist behind the 20-year study, wrote at the time, “There is often a curiously inverse relationship between how well forecasters thought they were doing and how well they did.”

READ MORE: The Peculiar Blindness of Experts [The Atlantic]

More on predictions: This Site Keeps Track of Elon Musk’s Predictions About The Future

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