In Review: Superforecasting

Originally published 3/5/2016

I probably shouldn’t admit it, but up until the last year, I didn’t see a lot of value in forecasting. I thought my only real exposure to the field of forecasting was the weather, the only job, I used to say, you could be wrong every day and still have a job.  Fortunately, I’ve since learned this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

When I first started my current role in June of 2015, my manager recommended Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise.  You may recognize Silver’s name from his well-known blog fivethirtyeight.com.  While I did find the content itself interesting, the read was a bit dry and took me a while to make my way through.  I did learn an appreciation for the complexities of weather and earthquake predictions and why we still haven’t been able to master either.  I also learned about the hedgehog and the fox cognitive styles, and why one is better than the other in predicting the future.  Overall, I was glad I read it, but I didn’t see the immediate impact to my daily life.

That was not the case with Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction.  I was immediately drawn in by the stories of individuals who are so good at forecasting that they are dubbed “Superforecasters.”  Philip Tetlock does an excellent job of showing us not only how to make more accurate forecasts, but why it is so important.  He did an excellent job of showing me just how wrong I was when I assumed the meteorologist was no good at his job because it didn’t rain when he said there was a 70% chance of rain.  The accuracy of any one forecast can be sensationalized by the news, but in Tetlock’s view, it’s more like one dot that makes up a Pointillism painting – you must aggregate a series of results to see the full picture.

I loved Tetlock’s take on the realm of forecasting because his work goes far beyond the realm of predicting earthquakes, shedding light on a better way to live our lives.  It became clear how I can become better at forecasting for retirement or evaluating forecasts made by politicians or pundits in the media.  Tetlock describes the importance of first starting with the outside view of a situation, looking at history and statistics before diving into the specifics of a particular climate.  This point resonated with me because it can be applied to other areas in our lives.  When your spouse or partner does or says something that offends you, could you take a moment to look at the history of the behavior before vilifying them for one mistake, and perhaps give them the benefit of the doubt?  The contrary could be true as well, if you are constantly abused, how much weight should you give to this one apology?

One of the quotes that stuck out most to me from the book was this: Beliefs are hypotheses meant to be tested, not treasures to be guarded.  This notion feels so powerful, and helps me identify the root of many conflicts we face today.  When you are more concerned with being right than finding the truth, your ego won’t let you consider ideas that may challenge your beliefs.  However, if you view your beliefs as a set of guiding principles that you’ve arrived at with the best knowledge you have available, but are open to changing those beliefs if the the facts or your take on the information changes, you have a much better chance at becoming a superforecaster.  If you can let go of your need for confirmation bias, you can start to see a situation as it really is, not how you want it to be.  Whether you actually want to make predictions about the future, or you simply want to get better at navigating through this ever-changing world, a willingness to embrace new ideas and consider the possibility that you are wrong are critical.

I would highly recommend Tetlock’s book.  He doesn’t get technical in laying out the procedures to follow to make more accurate predictions, but rather describing the set of qualities that make his superforecasters good at what they do.  I’m sure everyone can glean some piece of wisdom that help change the way you see the world.