Most Famous Pundits = Most Wrong

“Pointing out how often pundits’ predictions are not only wrong but egregiously wrong” is, in Newsweek science columnist Sharon Begley’s view (2/14/09), “like shooting fish in a barrel, except in this case the fish refuse to die. No matter how often they miss the mark, pundits just won’t shut up.” Citing “the fact that being chronically, 180-degrees wrong does not disqualify pundits is in large part the media’s fault: Cable news, talk radio and the blogosphere need all the punditry they can rustle up, track records be damned,” Begley looks at Stanford psychologist Philip Tetlock‘s methodical attempt to “identify those more likely to have an accurate crystal ball” using “something psychologists call cognitive style”:

At first, Tetlock’s ongoing study of 82,361 predictions by 284 pundits (most but not all of them American) came up empty. He initially looked at whether accuracy was related to having a Ph.D., being an economist or political scientist rather than a blowhard journalist, having policy experience or access to classified information, or being a realist or neocon, liberal or conservative. The answers were no on all counts. The best predictor, in a backward sort of way, was fame: the more feted by the media, the worse a pundit’s accuracy. And therein lay Tetlock’s first clue. The media’s preferred pundits are forceful, confident and decisive, not tentative and balanced.

Begley explains how the dominant news media format reinforces this harmful predilection: “Bold, decisive assertions make better sound bites; bombast, swagger and certainty make for better TV. As a result, the marketplace of ideas does not punish poor punditry.”

Survey some recent disastrous results in the FAIR magazine cover story Extra!: “Busted Bubble: The Press Fell Down on the Job on Housing Prices” (11-12/08) by Veronica Cassidy