Ideas vs. Interests

December 19, 2012

There’s a question that I’ve been asking myself for nearly three decades now and trying to get a research handle on, and that is why is the quality of public debate so low and why is it that the quality often seems to deteriorate the more important the stakes get?

About 30 years ago I started my work on expert political judgment. It was the height of the Cold War. There was a ferocious debate about how to deal with the Soviet Union. There was a liberal view; there was a conservative view. Each position led to certain predictions about how the Soviets would be likely to react to various policy initiatives.

One thing that became very clear, especially after Gorbachev came to power and confounded the predictions of both liberals and conservatives, was that even though nobody predicted the direction that Gorbachev was taking the Soviet Union, virtually everybody after the fact had a compelling explanation for it. We seemed to be working in what one psychologist called an “outcome irrelevant learning situation.” People drew whatever lessons they wanted from history.

Philip Tetlock in a conversation with Daniel Kahneman on the importance of revolutionizing prediction methods. CBO, are you listening?