Peter Martin writes an important article in today’s SMH:
When a guess is as good as a forecast
There’s a reward for staying with the pack. You’ll keep your job if you are wrong in good company, even if the people who act on your advice lose the lot.The shocking and little-acknowledged truth is that most expert forecasts are wrong. Not only wrong, but more wrong than if they had been generated at random.
He goes on to contrast economic experts with weather forecasters and pollsters like Nate Silver…
There are exceptions. Weather forecasters are especially good, as we are discovering right now. The New York Times data geek Nate Silver got the presidential election spot on. These exceptions tell us something. Neither Silver nor our weather forecasters think they are experts (Silver comes from sports rather than politics). They are guided by the data – regardless of who it offends – rather than their own judgment.
By contrast experts have reputations to protect. Whether they realise it or not they often play games, avoiding intellectual curiosity if it will leave them out on a limb away from the pack. They remember their good forecasts and bury the bad. Put plainly they are not the sort of people you would want providing economic advice that could have catastrophic consequences.
I would say the same thing applies to political forecasters: “they remember their good forecasts and bury the bad.”
- How stupid must Phil Coorey feel now after all his breathlessly reported midnight phone calls from Labor insiders about Rudd’s imminent comeback ended with nothing.
- Will Peter Hartcher ever be able to wipe the egg off his face for telling us that the last week of parliament, where so much time was spent on the AWU “scandal”, would be “the government’s greatest crisis”?
- And then there was Michelle Grattan’s conclusion that Julia Gillard had no option other than to resign as Prime Minister for “the good of the party” over Slipper and Thomson.
- Perhaps even more laughable was Dennis Shanahan’s demand that Gillard resign over his misreporting of the Bob Carr appointment!
- Dennis scores a bar to his medallion for “Extraordinary Ineptness Above And Beyond The Call Of Duty” for his body of work, going back years, convolving into landslide wins any Newspoll figures that even hinted at support for the Coalition, and for relegating those that supported Labor to page 3 of The Australian.
- As a last example, consider Shaun Carney’s 2011 assessment, developed over column miles of turgid patrician prose that, because the government was certain to be wiped out at the 2013 election, he need not discuss or analyse any of its policy measures or proposals. Neither did we need to worry about the Coalition’s lack of policies, as they were so certain to be elected. Our lot was to just to wait and see what they might be, and to accept them all when they appeared.
I’m sure you’ll all have your own prime examples of political commentators dropping a brick on their own feet, poking themselves in the eye with their own biros and parking on hillsides without engaging the handbrake.
Martin notes that “experts have reputations to protect.” In the case of economic “experts”, I go further to observe that in their professional work, they can get fired or even sued for advising clients to spend money on what turns out to be a Dutch tulip farm, but it’s a lot harder to sack someone or drag them into court if they advise restraint, and that advice turns out to be too conservative.
No-one ever got sued for telling customers not to spend their money, even if spending it might have made them a motza in return. The experts can always point to “poor fundamentals” – high price-to-earings ratios, “European Insolvency”, “The Looming Fiscal Cliff” or whatever – in defending themselves against such charges.
Likewise, on fundamentals, political columnists prefer to exclaim “Look at the polls!” in prognosticating future political developments. They present a series of polling snapshots, one after another, showing one side consistently in the lead and extrapolate this out to unavoidable victory by the time the election comes around. In doing so they claim a basis in “rock solid social research”.
Martin’s distinction between “experts” and journeymen – between economic forecasters and weather forecasters for example – has a parallel in the “race call” game of political punditry.
Any professional horse race caller who used a snapshot of the field in the back four furlongs to predict the winner at the finish post, who ignored the closing gap between first and second as the final turn was approached, and who then stuck to their early prediction, ignoring the leading jockey’s use of the whip in the final straight and the stride by stride improvement by the challenger, would lose his job immediately.
Yet this is exactly what the political “race callers” are doing.
Has there ever been a political article that doesn’t include a mandatory reference to “bad polls for the government”, even when there doesn’t seem to be a justification to do so?
Has there ever been an article that considers the government may have a strategy of coming from behind – after all it’s fairly orthodox politics to get the bad news and the hard yards out of the way first – or that it might be the Coalition’s turn for some hard luck, a resignation, a scandal or a leadership challenge?
The bad polls are just a series of snapshots. By taking the binary approach – whoever’s winning will stay in front and keep winning – the political “experts” permit themselves – and encourage their few remaining readers – to be lazy.
They also cover their arses, in the same way that the economists predicting doom and gloom cover theirs: by referring to “the fundamentals”, whether those “fundamentals” be the economic situation in Greece, or a momentary voting intention gap between Opposition and government in the opinion polls. And just like the economic “experts”, political “experts” always forget their mistakes, no matter how grievous.
What Martin is really talking about, in my opinion, is the difference between “gurus” and “engineers”.
Gurus have notoriety and celebrity. Their predictions are cited by others as pseudo “proof” of a proposition. Hence we have Chris Pyne’s parliamentary citing, in and of itself, of Grattan’s call for the Julia Gillard’s resignation, as if such a grave step by a celebrated political columnist as to demand a resignation of the Prime Minister is justification enough for the PM to consider that career move seriously.
Engineers (and scientists, with the exception of Einstein and Richard Feynmann) are the journeymen of the prediction business. Nate Silver’s job was to clinically analyze the figures, using his own “patented” techniques – which, after all, involved mostly just looking at available, respectable polling figures dispassionately – and to predict the result of the Obama v. Romney election.
Silver didn’t chop and change his criteria for winning based on pawing through chicken giblets, or altering his definition of “success” as, say, Dennis Shanahan did and still does. Silver stuck to his guns and his techniques, professionally collected over a lifetime’s work, and turned out to be nearly 100% correct.
Weather forecasters use science to accurately predict the weather – floods, droughts, high winds, cyclones and catastrophic fire conditions – so that ordinary people, from farmers to commuters, will know in advance when to plant crops or to carry an umbrella.
Bigger stakes are in play when it comes down to predicting disastrous heatwaves, as in the last few days, so that emergency services can prepare to fight the resulting holocausts and citizens can prepare themselves to evacuate, if necessary. Lives are saved and property is protected by the work of such engineers in the weather forecasting game. They must get their predictions as right as possible.
But in the weather industry there are also gurus.
“Lord” Monckton is one. Professor Plimer is another.
Another an egregious example of the type, Andrew Bolt, depicts himself as a charismatic local leader of the “World Is Cooling” movement, styling those who follow the overwhelming verdict of climate science engineers as “Warmist Patsies” in one of his latest erudite pieces on the subject. It seems that putting “-ist” on the end of a word turns the target of the derogatory suffix into a fanatic. That these “Fanatics” comprise those who accept a body of opinion, relying on the very best that science can provide, cuts no ice with Bolt and his colleagues.
It should be noted that the word “scientist has an “-ist” at the end of it to. Coincidence? Maybe…
Climate Science became political Climate Guruism in Australia around the latter part of 2009, when Copenhagen failed and Tony Abbott was elected leader of the Liberal Party. Up until then consensus that global warming was not only real, but that it was down to anthropogenic reasons, was overwhelming in the polls, upwards of 90% according to a Newspoll survey in 2008.
Politics is what happened.
Climate science was officially declared to be “crap” by the leader of one half of politics in Australia.
The herd followed.
What choice did Coalition supporters have but to examine their consciences on warming? Disbelieving in Climate Science allowed them to de-stress about the future. We are an optimistic species, after all. That’s part of our formula for success. Ostriches don’t really bury their heads in the sand, but humans do.
When political science grabbed climate science and ran with it, consensus got shoved out of the way. The morphing of climate into politics meant the death of climate, its transformation from a “science” into “perception”. Suddenly everyone’s opinion counted, and was as good as anyone else’s. In politics, perception is everything. Opinion is malleable. Facts are negotiable. It doesn’t hurt if you think Julia Gillard’s got a fat arse, either.
The Climate Gurus moved in. It was as if telling Newspoll that you no longer “believed” in global warming would render global warming nonexistent. The thought, rarely expressed in any reputable forum because it sounds so infantile to hold it, but real nevertheless, was that we could almost poll climate change away.
And if there was no global warming, then we didn’t need to combat it. Even if it did exist (highly unlikely, said the Climate Gurus) there was nothing we could do about it.
Legislative action for carbon pricing was pointless because it would take years to work and even then would only reduce world temperatures by 0.00000000000001 of a degree Celsius. Anyway, they don’t call Greenland “Greenland” for nothing… the Vikings used to have farms there, when it was warmer! No matter that there weren’t 7 billion people on Earth , balanced precariously between subsistence and starvation, back when the Vikings were calling the shots.
There was also the matter of the weather.
About every 14 years or so Sydney’s Warragamba Dam fills to capacity. It is around 90% now, and was overflowing a few short months ago. The last time it was so full was in 1998. The time before that was around 1984. Our climate moves in fairly regular cycles.
When cycles are good, the “optimism gene” we all have (to counter our ability to contemplate a potentially bleak future) kicks in strongly. We hear things said like, “Perpetual drought? Look at the floodwaters! The dams are full!” Always look on the bright side of life…
Then there was “The Lie”. By impeccable logic, the punters and the Climate Gurus figured that if Julia Gillard could be construed to have “lied” about the Carbon Tax, then that meant Global Warming didn’t existand didn’t need to be countered.
The truth is, or so the “Warmist Patsy” scientists of the BOM, living high on the hog from their perks and travel entitlements say, it’s going to be a long hot summer.
In the words of the bureau just yesterday:
Large parts of central and southern Australia are currently under the influence of a persistent and widespread heatwave event. This event is ongoing with further significant records likely to be set. Further updates of this statement and associated significant observations will be made as they occur, and a full and comprehensive report on this significant climatic event will be made when the current event ends.
Note that the scientists writing the update do not refer to a “weather event”, but to a “climate event”.
The word “climate” is the difference between packing an umbrella on your way to work against changing a whole way of life. Climate is months and years. Weather is tomorrow, or this afternoon.
The statement above is seriously put. The words are chosen carefully.
It is more than a statement.
It is a warning.
Yet the political gurus, the (bullshit) artists who finesse the national discourse with their words of wisdom and their invaluable setting of “the context”, see only what the polls say.
- Like dilettantes eating cake they speak of whole legislative volumes being repealed so that the Coalition’s “Green Army” of Grey Nomads can plant trees to soak up carbon (heh, heh).
- They pontificate about Gillard’s “lie” as if that alone renders moot the climate disaster we have made for ourselves.
- They giggle over Abbottisms like, “A tonne of carbon dioxide is essentially weightless” and write about the political implications of sending Carbon Compo cheques to dead people (dead people in Lebanon, if they can be unearthed).
- They make merry with the fate of our climate – and ultimately our planet – seeing only political points and thrusts, polling ups and downs, refusing to consider the catastrophic circumstances of ineffective action to turn this looming extinction event around.
They say “we are political scientists, not climate scientists.” Their guru status is shored up by the “fundamentals”: the polls look bad for acceptance of global warming, and hence for the government. Can’t argue with that, eh?
Take a recent example: the Slipper Saga.
What was more important tot he gurus about Peter Slipper was not that the government used the extra number he provided to stay in power after passing Carbon Pricing legislation, not that he proved an abuse of process involving senior members of the Coalition parties… but who said what to whom about a bottle of mussels, and (latterly) whether he drove out to Bungendore to buy a case of wine.
The brutality of politics must note that the government got what it wanted out of Slipper, and he got what he wanted out of the government. The government made the best of their side of the bargain, getting their Carbon Pricing legislation onto the books, while Peter looks like he might have frittered his glittering prizes away.
The mindless pack mentality of the gurus decrees that they must go after the ex-Speaker, obsessing over his pecadilloes and trivial misdemeanours, to justify the continents of column acres they have used trying to damage the government through him as a surrogate. The gurus like to be right, and even if they eventually forget when they were wrong, they’ll do their best to destroy anyone who gets in the way of one last try at self-justification.
Meanwhile the government got a result, an observation the gurus dismiss as almost trivial. Look at the polls.
The long, hot summer about to come will challenge the “Optimism Gene”. A low rainfall and high temperatures come to dominate our climate over the next few years the reality of what the journeymen scientists have been predicting will stage a comeback in the public’s minds.
In the short term, we may find that doubters from cattlemen under the Spooneristic influence of Barnarby Joyce, to even the dyed-in-the-wool Gillard haters like the gaggle of thugs at Bolt’s blog may be forced into intellectual meltdown by the return of inclement climate “events”: drought, heat and then more drought. They’ll get over it, if they’re honest with themselves.
Paradoxically, the government may find that the dreaded polls return to their favour with the aid of undeniable warming phenomena. If Climate Change is once again universally accepted, then legislative measures to combat it – already seen as pretty benign, if not profitable to those who had the wit to turn off a few lights in their domestic homes – will become more accepted.
Unsurprisingly, the few professional climate scientists I have spoken to are hesitant to publicly reveal their conclusions about global warming for fear of being hounded down and mocked as “Labor stooges”.
How strange it is that the emergency apparatuses of whole states can be mobilized when these same people warn of catastrophic fire conditions in the offing, yet they are vilified for their longer term predictions. They may not have to keep silent for much longer. The long, hot summer might do the trick for them.
As to the gurus, they will persist in their irrelevancy for a while, until they lose their jobs, with their companies – one by one – cut out from under them by falling stock prices, bogan buyouts, suicidal partisanship, and self-imposed attrition. Their predictions, surpassed by the randomness of a dartboard (in Martin’s words) will continue to be ignored, if anything, accelerating in fatuousness.
Scientists and engineers turn into gurus when they begin to believe their own publicity. But as the media tank runs dry there is only sludge left in it. In such a small and diminishing pond, only the dregs are left, ancient crocodiles devouring each other in the thickening mud, after they have done with devouring truth. Fewer and fewer will take what they read as gospel.
The long, hot summer about to devastate Australia will assist in that job nicely.
There’s an “-ist” is “assist”, too.