I'm having the damnedest time deciding whether the University of Pennsylvania's Philip Tetlock and J. Peter Scoblic, of Harvard Business School, are brilliant satirists or textbook idealists. Their op-ed in the NY Times, titled "The Power of Precise Predictions," is so earnest, so heartwarmingly eager and thus so jarringly naïve, I'm tempted to rule it a magnificent spoof along the lines of a modest Swiftian proposal. Then again, these gentlemen dwell professionally among the more thoughtful of our species, and since thoughtful atmospherics tend to support sincere meditation, who knows: They might very well believe they're on to something good for the good of us all.
Which is? That those who make political and policy predictions be held accountable. (Come on, class. Your guffawing is unbecoming.) That we collectively frown on fudging and dispatch from our vocabulary prognosticative words such as "might" or "could," which are "deployed freely." That "forecasts … include precise dates or time frames." That we "avoid cognitive pitfalls such as overconfidence and the failure to update beliefs in response to new evidence." That, in short, we "[r]eplace vague forecasts with testable predictions" — all in the service of public accountability, which engenders virtuous humility.
The Tetlock-Scoblic theory is that "accountability … encourages people to pre-emptively think of ways in which they might be wrong — before others do it for them." The underlying psychology here is, in the Tetlock-Scoblic vernacular, that "no one wants to look stupid." And since "[m]odest forecasts are more likely to be correct than bold ones," a new age of rhetorical reasonableness would flower. Verily, "we would begin to emerge from our dark age of political polarization." Sloppy Cassandralike forecasts would be out; Mr. Peabodylike precision would be in.
I have no idea what Tetlock and Scoblic are thinking. Recent history is littered with neoconservative uncanniness about "precise dates and time frames" of American triumphalism. It is filthy with interventionist overconfidence — all of which has been foully resistant to updated beliefs "in response to new evidence," and is a stinking charnel house of "testable predictions." From this, have neoconservatives acquired "modesty"? Have they tempered their predictions of American triumphalism? Have these bloodthirsty, uncannily and consistently wrong morons been held "accountable" in the public arena? Or are they merely invited for repeat performances on "MTP" and "This Week"?
Turning to domestic frauds, I invite Tetlock and Scoblic to look at the durability of "conservative" macroeconomics. Year after year, decade after decade, supply-sided prosperity has been proven an absolute sham. Its contributions to wealth inequality alone are a national (and global) disgrace. And yet have hard, indisputable economic data held supply-siders "accountable"? Look at the Republican presidential field and its economic policies, and look as well at our cretinous congressional majority. Sure, they look stupid, but they don't mind one bit. "Accountability" has had no remedial effect on their endless predictions of trickle-down splendor.
And what of conservatism's economics of austerity? One can pile up Europe's like failures and compare them to the United States' relative successes under President Obama, who has struggled to keep the dogs of rabid austerity at bay. How have those curs been held "accountable"? Why, by winning a congressional majority, of course.
Fact is, Messrs. Tetlock and Scoblic, one cannot get heard today unless one is loud, aggressive, imprecise, overconfident, stridently polarizing and prophetically doomsaying to extremes. That may not be true in the academy, but it's true in politics, it's true in the media, and it's true in my little world of blogging. I have witnessed this phenomenon too many times to deny its reality: Americans want to see a fight, and they want it as bloody and tribally polarized as it can possibly be. Accountability? Pshaw. No one gives a damn. Indeed, the more wrong one is, the more numerous the opportunities to throw return punches — which, again, is precisely what readers and viewers want to see: blood.