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Are dart-throwing monkeys better at predicting case outcome than you?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

Trial attorneys want to pick winners. It’s a form of predicting the future. And lawyers are often pretty bad at doing it accurately.  A new book leads us to think that even dart-throwing monkeys might be better at predicting which cases are winners and which ones are just…not.  [At times we are tempted to apologize for the implications of research (we could have just said that prediction of outcomes is random) but instead we have provided you with a great line for so many occasions, i.e., “Great job—almost as good as a dart-throwing monkey!”  No need to thank us.  Just keep reading our blog!]

What’s that you say? You have years of experience and a strong intuition about what makes a case a winner and what doesn’t? Alas. Many experts have gone before you and marched into the dark abyss of failed predictions. In his new book, Future Babble, Dan Gardner takes us through 40 years of failed predictions on economics, energy, environment, politics, and so much more.  We are fans.

Gardner acknowledges his debt to political scientist Philip Tetlock, who set up a 20-year experiment in which he enrolled nearly 300 experts in politics. Tetlock then solicited thousands of predictions about the fates of scores of countries and later checked how well they did. Not so well. Tetlock concluded that most of his experts would have been beaten by “a dart-throwing chimpanzee.” Tetlock found that the experts wearing rose-tinted glasses “assigned probabilities of 65 percent to rosy scenarios that materialized only 15 percent of the time.” Doomsters did even worse: “They assigned probabilities of 70 percent to bleak scenarios that materialized only 12 percent of the time.”

It’s pretty sobering to realize that our experts have less insight into the future than we like to think. The best we can do is make educated guesses. Gardner distinguishes between fox-pundits and hedgehog-pundits. (Foxes know a lot about many things and hedgehogs know a lot about one thing or one theory and use it to explain the world through a single lens.)

To be a good hedgehog, Gardner says you simply need to do this: “Be simple, clear, and confident. Be extreme. Be a good storyteller. Think and talk like a hedgehog.”  And, according to Gardner, you will be on TV talk shows, be called for comments on current events and likely almost always be very, very wrong.

So, to predict better, draw from many sources of information, consult with your colleagues and persons-on-the-street (preferably different genders and backgrounds) and force yourself to focus on the facts. And remember this—there is a reason we like to make fast decisions on whether an outcome will happen or not:

Gardner also explains why so many of us keep falling for false prophesy: Humans beings hate uncertainty. Gardner offers myriad insights from research in cognitive psychology and behavioral economics that explains how and why we succumb to our desires for certainty. “Whether sunny or bleak, convictions about the future satisfy the hunger for certainty,” writes Gardner. “We want to believe. And so we do.”

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