Grading The “Experts”

In our modern world, we’re bombarded with the opinions of “experts.”  Virtually every news story about a development or an incident features a quote from an “expert” who interprets the matter for us and, typically, makes a prediction about what will happen.  “Experts” freely offer their forecasts on specific things — like the contents and results of the Mueller Report, for example — and on big-picture things, like the direction of the economy or geopolitical trends.

d36a6136-6dfd-425a-b7f7-2b2a1b446b1eThere are so many “experts” giving so many predictions about so many things that it’s reasonable to wonder whether anyone is paying attention to whether the “experts” ultimately turn out to be very good at making their predictions.

The Atlantic has a fascinating article about this topic that concludes that so-called “experts” are, in fact, dismally bad at predicting the future.  That’s not a surprising conclusion for those of us who’ve been alive, paying attention, and recalling some of the confident forecasts of days gone by.  Whether it’s the “population bomb” forecasts noted in The Atlantic article, or the predictions in the ’80s that Japan would soon own the world, or the prognostications about how elections will end up or whether one party or another has that elusive “permanent majority,” recent history is littered with failed expert predictions.

Why are would-be “experts” so bad at their predictions?  The article notes that academics and others who focus on one field tend to be especially wrong in their foretelling because they typically ignore other forces at work.  They also are often so invested in their specialty, and their belief in their own evaluations, that they react to failure by doubling down on their predictions — like doomsday cult leaders who tweak their calculations after a deadline has passed to come up with a new day the world will end.  People who are less invested in the belief in their own infallibility, and who are less focused on one discipline or area of study, tend to be much better at making predictions about the future than the “experts.”

Does the consistent thread of “expert” predictive failure mean that we shouldn’t try to see ahead at what the future may bring?  Of course not.  But it does mean that we should take the dire forecasts of “experts” with a healthy dose of skepticism.  Keep that in mind the next time a talking head says we need to make some dramatic change in order to avoid certain doom.

Dire Forecasts Of 2015

This 1975 UPI article has been making the rounds lately.  It predicts, based on then-current usage rates and the reserves of petroleum known to exist at that time, that the “last barrel of oil” will have been pumped from the “last well on earth” in 2015.

Back in the ’70s, these kinds of dire forecasts and disaster scenarios were pretty commonplace — and all of them, incidentally, made predictions of what life would be like about 40 years into the future.  Whether it was oil crises, the “population bomb,” world-wide food shortages, air and water pollution poisoning the environment beyond redemption, or the ever-present possibility of global nuclear war leaving the Earth a dead, irradiated husk, there were catastrophes galore just waiting to happen a few decades into the future.  As a result, some of the popular fiction and movie scenarios of the day were pretty grim, with bestsellers like The Late Great Planet Earth and movies featuring Charlton Heston shouting to the world that “Soylent Green is people . . . people!”

So, here we are in 2015, at about the time when some of the worst stuff — overcrowded people penned up like goats in soulless camps being fed algae as the only reliable food supply, mass starvation, “nuclear winter,” a return to the Dark Ages due to lack of energy sources — was supposed to he happening.  Instead of pumping the last barrel of oil, however, we’ve discovered so much new oil and natural gas that the price of oil is plunging.  Instead of dirty-faced people overrunning the planet, we’ve seen a steady overall decline in global growth rates and, in some countries, concern that birth rates are so low that new citizens aren’t fully replacing those that are dying.  And while there is still hunger in the world, the Earth is producing an abundance of food.

You know, when you compare the calamitous predictions to the modern-day reality, 2015 really is pretty sweet.  Now, if only there were flying cars and cheap space travel . . . .

Daily No More

By the year after next, don’t expect to see a daily newspaper hitting your doorstep each morning — according to the Nieman Journalism Lab, that is.

The Nieman Journalism Lab looks to future trends in journalism.  Last month, it predicted that the seven-day print newspaper is doomed.  It forecasts that newspapers increasingly will focus on digital publication and that by 2015 less than half of current newspapers will follow the seven-day, home delivery model.  Instead, print newspapers will be reduced to a two or three times a week vestigial option, offered as part of a much broader set of services and benefits available to “members.”

And rather than those irritating paywalls, the digital membership model would be like membership in your local public TV station,  giving you complete access and providing discounts and other benefits (presumably not just the tote bags and coffee mugs you see on every PBS fundraiser, either).  The membership model would allow the newspaper to act as a kind of mini-Google, collecting information about the news stories you access and then delivering targeted advertising based upon your reading pattern — advertising that retailers presumably would pay a premium for, because it is more likely to find a receptive audience than the tire ad on page C-7 of the sports section of your daily newspaper.

The most interesting prediction is that newspapers will focus less on news and more on “jobs to be done.”  The jobs would include reporting news, but also assisting members in making connections to services and groups in their communities, giving recommendations and answering questions, and helping members meet the right people in the right settings.  It sounds something like a combination of Emily’s List and Dear Abby.

I agree that the daily printed newspaper model cannot survive forever; it’s simply too slow, and expensive, to compete with digital delivery of the news.  Readership and ad revenues are ever-declining, too.  I’m a bit skeptical, however, that daily newspapers can successfully morph into quasi-social networking sites and then hold their own in that area, where there also is a lot of competition.  What newspapers do, better than anyone else, is find and report hard news — not opinion, nor advice, but actual facts about events and issues that should be of concern to members of their communities.  If newspapers move away from that area of strength to some more amorphous, soft-side model, they may be losing their identities and digging their own graves.

Is there still a market for hard news — without tote bags, membership benefits, and social networking gloss?  We’ll find out over the next few years.