The Quality Of Public Debate

You’ll find an excellent talk at given by Dr. Phillip Tetlock on political forecasting.  He’s a psychology professor from the University of Pennsylvania who is known for a book he wrote several years ago called Expert Political Judgement:  How Good Is it?  How Can We Know?  He conducted a twenty-year study in which he interviewed 284 experts, everyone from Marxists to free-marketeers, journalists, economists, governmental officials, and professors, asking them to make political predictions about the future on a wide range of issues.  How often were they right?

It turns out that their expert predictions are only slightly better than chance and sadly, even basic algorithms which simply extrapolate trends consistently beat them.  During his talk he made a lot of great points.

There’s a question that I’ve been asking myself for nearly three decades now and trying to get a research handle on, and that is why is the quality of public debate so low and why is it that the quality often seems to deteriorate the more important the stakes get?  … There is quite a bit of skepticism about political punditry, but there’s also a huge appetite for it. I was struck 30 years ago and I’m struck now by how little interest there is in holding political pundits who wield great influence accountable for predictions they make on important matters of public policy.

When hearing that, I leaned back in my chair and thought, “Yeah, well, they’re not in the business of offering objective information or helping us make informed decisions.  They’re propagandists.  They’re more like salespeople.  No, take that back.  They’re more like entertainers who cheerlead for a particular side.”  Then a few minutes later he confirms my thoughts.

It’s easy for partisans to believe what they want to believe and political pundits are often more in the business of bolstering the prejudices of their audience than they are in trying to generate accurate predictions of the future. […]  So, we found three basic things: many pundits were hardpressed to do better than chance, were overconfident, and were reluctant to change their minds in response to new evidence. That combination doesn’t exactly make for a flattering portrait of the punditocracy.

It’s nearly impossible to predict what the future will bring.  Especially in the long term.  Apparently political experts can make accurate short-term predictions, but we’re all blind as to what will happen in the distant future.

How do people react when they’re actually confronted with error? You get a huge range of reactions. Some people just don’t have any problem saying, “I was wrong. I need to rethink this or that assumption.” Generally, people don’t like to rethink really basic assumptions. […]  If you have a theory how world politics works that can lead you to value avoiding one error more than the complementary error. You might say, “Well, it was really important to bail out this country because if we hadn’t it would have led to financial contagion. There was a risk of losing our money in the bailout, but the risk was offset because I thought the risk of contagion was substantial.” If you have a contagion theory of finance that theory will justify putting bailout money at risk. If you have a theory that the enemy is only going to grow bolder if you don’t act really strongly against it then you’re going to say, “Well, the worst mistake would have been to appease them so we hit them really hard. And even though that led to an expansion of the conflict it would have been far worse if we’d gone down the other path.” It’s very, very hard to pin them down and that’s why these types of level playing field forecasting tournaments can play a vital role in improving the quality of public debate.

I find myself wrong about politics all the time.  I was against the GM bailout but that seemed to work out alright.  We were paid back and millions of jobs were saved.  I was honest about it and said, “Well, I was wrong.”  But I could see a free-marketeer say, “Yeah, but that just kept a bad company in business.  If we would’ve let them go under, a new, better company would have taken its place.  We can’t pick winners and losers.”   Then I think, “Yeah, OR a foreign competitor could’ve come in and taken over, leaving all those workers unemployed and in need of government assistance.”  Here’s the problem – a lot of political and economic ideas are non-falsifiable.  What would need to happen in order to convince you that you’re wrong?  If the economy thrives then you’ll say, “See, the free market works!”  But when things go south, and a bailout was successful, we’ll hear, “Well, it would’ve been even better had we left things alone.”

That’s the thing about politics – you can interpret the same event in so many different ways.  Events are spun every which way, and when pundits and experts are wrong, nobody seems to care.  I have a lot of respect for the social sciences, but as a scientist, a lot of the prediction making of political “experts” is no different to me than astrology.  That goes for every side of the aisle.  And don’t get me started on political blowhards.

Pundits and politicians have to give off this sage aura that they’re in control, that they know what’s going on, and that we need to follow them.  They’re sleazeballs and their feigned confidence is divisive.  I think it’s all bad theater.

I’m a concerned citizen who tries to stay informed, but it’s almost impossible to get good information.  We drown in misleading polls, loaded statistics, and rhetoric.  I remember once trying to learn what’s wrong with our healthcare system.  You know what happens when you Google it?  You get floods of articles from MSNBC, Fox News, and ABC News, all saying the same few things.  None of them teach you how things work, or compare our system to what other countries are doing.  I literally searched hundreds of pages.  Who has time to sift through all that garbage?  I eventually got fed up and quit.  I was hoping to find a professor somewhere who has spent his life studying healthcare systems, unbiased and willing to teach me how it all works.   By chance I stumbled upon a Coursera offering, a full course on what I was looking for.  I plan to sign up but it hasn’t started yet.  It’s called Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act.  Finally, someone without an agenda who will teach me what’s going on in detail.

It’s hard to find quality information.  As Noam Chomsky points out, media sources are not out to inform, they’re out there to make money.

You’d think with the internet we’d have an easier time finding information, but that’s not always the case.  There are so many blogs and websites who just make stuff up, and news sources aren’t reliable either.  It’s really no wonder why we have such trouble discussing important issues.  The incentives for our leaders and media sources are all screwed up.

7 thoughts on “The Quality Of Public Debate”

  1. Bailouts are not wrong because they keep a bad company in business. If bad companies need money, they should go to private lending firms who specialize in those sorts of deals. Then they can be properly checked out for risk assessment and loaned money based on their merits and the lenders appetite for risk. If they can’t get the money that way, that’s just how it goes.

    Bailouts are wrong for the same reason many other things in politics are wrong: because forcibly confiscated money is being used to do something against the will of the people from whom it was confiscated. And that’s not even getting into what the role of government should be – which it was mostly set up to protect individual rights (hence the freedoms listed originally are freedoms FROM various forms of government encroachment) Are there any checkboxes on tax returns that ask you where you would like your money to go? No, they can use it for whatever.

    You weren’t wrong. Something like over 90% of the population were against TARP bailouts, and yet they passed anyway. It was a corrupt robbery of gigantic proportions. Ok, so the GM loan got paid back – you and I sure as hell didn’t see any of that money – neither the bailout money nor any tangible personal benefits from its repayment. So you weren’t wrong to hate it.

    Government steals our earnings, inflates away our savings, and then a ton of it goes to killing various shades of brown people overseas via the military industrial complex. Lovely. Next time you see a drone missile, just imagine what part of that was mine as it crashes into some home and wipes out a family for absolutely no reason at all. And the president gets a Nobel Prize for this. We are living in Bizarro World.

    1. I don’t think the problem is with economic growth. The economy is doing just fine. The problem is the erosion of the middle class. Growth in GDP doesn’t necessarily mean better lives for the people. We’ve had consistent economic growth but families are getting poorer and poorer. If you look at the statistics going back to 1971, over the past 40 years you see a general erosion of wealth for all middle class families. Adjusting for inflation, the middle class has been defined as families earning between $39,000 to $118,000 per year. In 1971, 61% of families fell into that group. That’s now down to 51% and is dropping every year. Net wealth and savings have been plummeting. Total debt, such as student loans, mortgage debt, and credit card loans are at all time highs. Even the median income within that 51% of middle class families has been falling – dropping from $72,956 to $69,487.

      A lot of this has to do with us moving out of the post-industrial economy. For example, a lot of auto-workers and other factory workers have either been outsourced or replaced by automated robots, such as those created by Kiva Systems and others. Now all that’s left for these people is mopping floors or flipping burgers. Companies like Apple have all their manufacturing done at slave-mills like Foxconn in China. Big companies make record profits while wages stagnate. I wonder how long before we’ll have robots doing those jobs as well. I see places like Wal-mart putting in automated check-outs. Their warehouses are already completely automated. Same goes for places like Their warehouses are nearly totally automated.

      Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for automation. It’s just this can’t continue. And I don’t see how capitalism will address these problems. I’m pretty sure we’ve had this discussion at Alex’s? But there are a lot of other problems other than automation — I just happen to follow that issue more closely than others because of personal interest.

      The top 1% however, their wages, bonuses, and net wealth are on the rise. Savings from outsourcing and automation all go into the hands of a few wealthy elites. Our society is drifting toward a world of have and have-nots. Wealth inequality is the highest it’s ever been and continues to rise. There’s all kinds of causes, such as corruption, bankers, the finance industry (they’re all doing just fine — paying themselves record bonuses and getting bailouts), but the wealth is not trickling down. These people aren’t “job creators” — they’re parasites. Corruption within government is a huge part of it, as you point out. But there are other problems as well.

      Middle class families struggle for a lot of reasons. There’s been a rising cost of education, a loss in pension funds, skyrocketing health care costs, skyrocketing housing prices, and falling wages. I don’t fully understand why education costs keep shooting up. That may well be because of government interventions. I have read that as the government dolls out Pell Grants, a few years later, the universities just raise their costs to match. So while govt programs in that area are well intentioned, I don’t think they’re doing any good. I don’t fully understand healthcare either, but I hope that Coursera course helps me out. I do know that we spend twice as much as other countries. For what we’re spending, if we only had a more efficient system, we could easily cover everybody. Something’s broken somewhere. And as we both know, housing prices are due to Alan Greenspan’s manipulation of the interest rates as Fed chairman. Cheap money for everyone. That also led to massive speculations on Wall Street and eventually had a lot to do with the meltdown in 2008. So the problem there is corruption within government. Problems with pensions are due to Wall Street corruption and inflation.

      We also can’t forget that our infrastructure is falling apart. In big cities, the water pipes are from like the 1960s and 70s. Our energy grid is ancient. Tons of work needs to be done. As you mentioned, our money is spent fighting wars in faraway places, and propping up military basses all over the world. We’re having to act as the policeman for the world while our infrastructure is in shambles. They just waste our money.

      I think the U.S. government is, in general, evil. I still stand by what I said with the GM bailout though. It seemed to work out ok. Nearly 1.5 million people were able to keep their good paying jobs. I don’t have to get a direct benefit if I know it helped people. At the same time, I’m hesistant. I don’t want the government to start bailing out every failing company. That’s corrupt. In principle I’m still against bailouts, but I’m just saying this case seemed to be an exception to the rule.

    1. Looks like I stand corrected. Just as the article says, the media has been spinning a story that we made a profit and saved all these jobs. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that none of it is true. We ended up losing half of the bailout money. Geez. Hooray for corporate welfare.

  2. Librarians actually make a career out of knowing how to navigate information and sift out the garbage. If you really want to find reliable sources, go to a library. They have TONS of great sources on paper and online and you can usually use the online ones for free if you’re on site. If you want comparisons of healthcare systems between countries, try a using a university library. Or, if you’re library-phobic for whatever reason, try a free, academic-worthy resource like Google Scholar. You still have to sift, but the papers are mostly scholarly and more and more are free on the internet. If they’re not free, GO TO A LIBRARY. I just searched for “health care systems and comparative review” in Google Scholar and found a free article from the US National Library of Medicine published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2010 called “Comparative effectiveness and health care spending—implications for reform” by
    MC Weinstein, JA Skinner. If you’re really interested in informing yourself, learn where to look and how to look. Libraries and librarians are in the business. Ask them!

    1. You know, I’ve used Google Scholar before in the past, but in this instance it just didn’t click in my head to use it. I appreciate you reminding me about it. I just did a search and found the paper you were referring to. Maybe I’ll have more success looking through there. I may have a look at the university library here in town too. Thanks!

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