Day By Day

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Thinking About the Doomsters

George Will revisits some of the more egregious instances in which expert predictions regarding the environment have been hilariously wrong and notes that repeated failures have in no way deterred climate "experts" from issuing apocalyptic pronouncements. These repeated predictions of doom have become so absurd that they have generated critical commentary such as Easterbrook's "Law of Doomsaying" which advises doomsayers to "Predict catastrophe no sooner than five years hence but no later than 10 years away, soon enough to terrify but distant enough that people will forget if you are wrong."

Will suggests a new law -- "The Law of Clarifying Calamaties" which states "Real calamities take our mind off hypothetical ones." and notes that public concern about the environment has declined as our credit crisis has worsened. Perhaps coincidentally, in recent years rather than warming, the climate has been cooling.

Read it here.

This is all great fun for journalists and pundits. But why should we have more confidence in the economic doomsters than in the now-discredited environmentalists? I would suggest that everyone avail themselves of Peter E. Tetlock's "Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?" (Princeton University Press: (2006) [here] In it Tetlock shows that expert opinion little better than non-expert in judging the future course of events, and no better than linear models. In other words, expertise in a subject does not better a person's judgmetn regarding future events. [Read the New Yorker review of Tetlock's work here.]

So why pay attention to expert opinion? Well, they are diverting, just like reading your horoscope, and they can focus public attention on important problems -- but as Tetlock would recommend, listen to them but think for yourself. And as you do so remember "Light's law" -- "There is no such thing as disinterested authority."