Sunday July 03, 2016

If we're so full of information, why do we get everything wrong? - Michael's essay

"We all thought we knew what the outcome of the referendum would be. We heard from every quarter that the Remain contingent led by the prime minister David Cameron would carry the day. It would be close, we were told, but Remain would win," says Michael Enright. After the shocking outcome of the Brexit vote, Michael wonders why we keep looking for certainty from our pundits and politicians.

"We all thought we knew what the outcome of the referendum would be. We heard from every quarter that the Remain contingent led by the prime minister David Cameron would carry the day. It would be close, we were told, but Remain would win," says Michael Enright. After the shocking outcome of the Brexit vote, Michael wonders why we keep looking for certainty from our pundits and politicians. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Listen 4:44

Does anybody know anything? I mean really know anything?

In 1983, screenwriter William Goldman in his Hollywood book wrote: "Nobody knows anything."

He was talking about how movies get made. Every decision about a movie is a guess, he said; sometimes a lucky one. Beyond that, nobody knows anything.

We think we know. We have information. After all we are bombarded by packaged isotopes of information every hour of every day and night in the week.

We are the most informationized generation in human history. We have think tanks and experts and pundits and consultants and above all the internet.

Years ago T.S. Elliot asked; "Where is all the knowledge we lost with information?"

To be fair, there are some things we know. For example, Hillary Clinton will be the first woman in American history to make a serious run for the presidency. We know that.

Likewise we know that the Toronto Maple Leafs will not win Lord Stanley's Cup during the lifetime of anybody now breathing.

Then there are things we don't really know but can assume because they seem so obvious. We assume taxes are going to go up next year because our experience tells us they never go down.

There is something chastening about the fact that nobody knows anything. Life is unfair, complicated, and uncertain.  - Michael Enright

This week I've been thinking about Brexit and not knowing anything. And I promise not to mention it again.

We all thought we knew what the outcome of the referendum would be. We heard from every quarter that the Remain contingent led by the prime minister David Cameron would carry the day. It would be close, we were told, but Remain would win.

We were told this by British politicians, the betting shops, financial people on both sides of the Channel and the Atlantic and by pundits of every political hue.

Well, we see how all that expertise worked out.

Prior to the deluge, the Political Studies Association of London surveyed members, journalists and academics.

Overall, 87 per cent of respondents said Britain was more likely to stay in the European Union.

Here's the breakdown on the predicted probability of Britain leaving; academics 38 per cent; pollsters 33 per cent; journalists 32 per cent.

And of course we were all told that Boris Johnson would be the next prime minister; told by everyone save Johnson himself. Wrong again.

AFP_CL926

Top Brexit campaigner and former London mayor Boris Johnson said Thursday he will not stand to succeed Prime Minister David Cameron, as had been widely expected after Britain's vote to leave the European Union. (LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

The problem is we look for assurances and answers where there are none. We seek salvation in speculation.  And the more weighed down with expertise the expert, the more we think we are learning; the closer we are to reality, to empirically proven truth.

Which is all wrong.

Some years ago the author and research psychologist Philip Tetlock set out to discover why. Believe it or not, he made a study of 82,361 predictions by 284 mostly American pundits.

He began by thinking the accuracy of those predictions was connected to levels of higher education, political or policy experience, high sense of realism. Turns out background had little to do with accuracy. 

So the experts got the Brexit wrong, got the Trump phenomenon wrong, got the Bernie Sanders insurgency wrong. And we in the media were happy to promulgate their inaccuracies.  - Michael Enright

Interestingly the more celebrated the pundit, the worse the accuracy. Media love forceful, confident, dynamic talking heads. It makes for better television. We get nervous with balanced, hesitant, thoughtful experts. 

So the experts got the Brexit wrong, got the Trump phenomenon wrong, got the Bernie Sanders insurgency wrong. And we in the media were happy to promulgate their inaccuracies. 

There is something chastening about the fact that nobody knows anything. Life is unfair, complicated, and uncertain. 
It's encouraging in a way, that nothing is for sure and that expertise is as capricious as a coin toss. And it compels us to rely more on our gut instinct and our common sense antennae.

Another British prime minister from long ago, Harold MacMIllan, once said: "We have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts."

Click the button above to hear Michael's essay.