Who is best at predicting the future

(In a contest involving hundreds of geopolitical questions) a small number of forecasters began to pull clear of the pack: the titular “superforecasters”. Their performance was consistently impressive. With nothing more than an internet connection and their own brains, they consistently beat everything from financial markets to trained intelligence analysts with access to top-secret information.

They were an eclectic bunch: housewives, unemployed factory workers and professors of mathematics. But Philip Tetlock (who teaches at the Wharton School of Business) and his collaborators were able to extract some common personality traits. Superforecasters are clever, on average, but by no means geniuses. More important than sheer intelligence was mental attitude. Borrowing from Sir Isaiah Berlin, a Latvian-born British philosopher, Mr Tetlock divides people into two categories: hedgehogs, whose understanding of the world depends on one or two big ideas, and foxes, who think the world is too complicated to boil down into a single slogan. Superforecasters are drawn exclusively from the ranks of the foxes.

Humility in the face of a complex world makes superforecasters subtle thinkers. They tend to be comfortable with numbers and statistical concepts such as “regression to the mean” (which essentially says that most of the time things are pretty normal, so any large deviation is likely to be followed by a shift back towards normality). But they are not statisticians: unlike celebrity pollsters such as Nate Silver, they tend not to build explicit mathematical models.

But superforecasters do have a healthy appetite for information, a willingness to revisit their predictions in light of new data, and the ability to synthesise material from sources with very different outlooks on the world. They think in fine gradations. 

Most important is what Mr Tetlock calls a “growth mindset”: a mix of determination, self-reflection and willingness to learn from one’s mistakes. The best forecasters were less interested in whether they were right or wrong than in why they were right or wrong. They were always looking for ways to improve their performance. In other words, prediction is not only possible, it is teachable.

Prediction, like medicine in the early 20th century, is still mostly based on eminence rather than evidence. The most famous forecasters in the world are newspaper columnists and television pundits. Superforecasters make for bad media stars. Caution, nuance and healthy scepticism are less telegenic than big hair, a dazzling smile and simplistic, confident pronouncements.

From a review in The Economist of the book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner