A few years ago, I coined the term Nunberg Error, in honor of Geoffrey Nunberg and his observation about our tendency when forecasting to overestimate the impact of technological change while underestimating social change. It's time now to coin a new term, just in time for the avalanche of punditry around the midterms: the Tetlock Gambit.
Briefly, the Tetlock Gambit (named in honor of Philip Tetlock, author of the fantastic book Expert Political Judgment) is a kind of pundit's hedge: it's an outrageous prediction, made in the hope of a big payoff if it comes true, and with the knowledge that there'll be no penalty if it's false. So you can't be a true believer in, say, the idea that we'll use nanotechnology to rewire our brains, and forecast the same; you must make such a prediction self-consciously and cynically.
The example that inspires all this? Penn professor Justin Wolfers:
The Democrats will retain control of the House and the Senate. And I’m the only person in D.C. insightful enough to make this brave forecast.
If I’m right? Well you can bet that I’ll beat the drums loudly and tell everyone in sight that I called it. I’ll blog it all week. I’ll write an op-ed explaining my insights. I’ll go on to Jon Stewart’s show to explain the fine art of psephology. Hopefully you’ll be calling me the Nouriel Roubini of political punditry. I’ll go on to a new life of lucrative speaking engagements and big book advances, while I beat back my coterie of devoted followers.
And if I’m wrong? We both know there won’t be any real consequences. I’ll be sure to sell some clever story. You know, there was weather on election day (hot or cold, wet or dry — it all works!) and this messed with turnout. Or perhaps, This Time Was Different, and my excellent forecast was knocked off course by our first black president, by rising cellphone penetration or a candidate who may not be a witch. I’ll remind you how I nailed previous elections. (Follow the links, you’ll see I’m doing it already!) I’ll bluster and use long words like sociotropic, or perhaps heteroskedastic. And I’ll remind you that my first name is Professor, and I went to a prestigious school. More to the point, if I’m wrong, I’m sure we’ll all have forgotten by the time the 2012 election rolls around. Shhhh… I won’t tell if you won’t.
As he confesses at the end of his prediction,
[Y]es, my forecast is more about the marketplace for punditry than it is about this election. I’m influenced strongly by my Penn colleague Philip Tetlock, who has spent decades pointing out just how bad expert political judgment is. Given these market failures, I would be a fool not to go for the gold.
It was inevitable that someone would read Tetlock as a manual for how to succeed as a pundit, rather than as a caution against trusting pundits, much as Michael Lewis' Liar's Poker was read by some college students as a how-to manual for success on Wall Street, not a caution against going into finance.
No wait, someone has already done it: I did, in my "Evil Futurists' Guide to World Domination."