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.

Creative What-Ifs

The Atlantic recently carried a fascinating article on the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team.  It’s hard to imagine that anything new could be written about the Beatles, but the writer’s thesis is that it’s silly to try to figure out whether John Lennon or Paul McCartney wrote most or all of a particular song, because that ignores the impact of the partnership itself and the broader relationship between these two gigantic talents.  They wouldn’t have produced so much good music, the theory goes, if they hadn’t been pushing and challenging and trying to outdo one another.

Sometimes partnerships work, sometimes they can become poisonous.  Creativity comes in all forms:  solitary geniuses, brilliant but self-destructive alcoholics, a sudden burst of novelty that causes an entire artistic community to realize that old boundaries should fall and experimentation and new approaches should replace the calcified prior techniques.  I’m not sure that it’s possible to really draw broad conclusions from a songwriting partnership like Lennon and McCartney.

What most intrigued me about the article, however, was the last part of it, when the writer explains that, according to his producer, Lennon was actively planning on collaborating with McCartney after he finished Double Fantasy.  Of course, the murderous actions of Mark David Chapman prevented that from happening — but what if Chapman hadn’t killed John Lennon?  Could Lennon and McCartney have successfully teamed up again, or would the magic had been gone?

There are lots of similar artistic what-ifs that are tantalizing to consider.  What if Mozart hadn’t died at such an early age and had a composing career that was as long as Haydn’s?  What if Charlie Parker hadn’t become addicted to morphine and heroin and had carried the jazz torch rather than Miles Davis?  What if J.D. Salinger had been as prolific as, say, Stephen King?  What if Vincent Van Gogh hadn’t committed suicide?  We’ll never know.

Looking Ahead, Warily, At 2014

On January 1, it’s always tempting to review the old year and look ahead to the new.

So, what about 2013? Most people seem to think it was a pretty mediocre year in the world — not terrible, certainly, but nothing to do handsprings about. Bill Moyers argues, however, that 2013 was the best year in human history. Moyers contends that the arc of history is moving in a favorable direction and that big picture, long-term factors, such as people living longer, less extreme poverty, less frequent and less deadly wars, less violent crime, and less discrimination, made 2013 a year to celebrate.

072Those of us who experienced it, of course, don’t typically compare our lives to those of serfs in the Middle Ages, so we tend not to take the long view — but perhaps we should. I think that any year that ends with family and friends experiencing health and happiness should be chalked up as a pretty good year. Why shouldn’t the world as a whole look at years the same way?

What should we expect in 2014? Will it be an ill-omened year? After all, in the last century the year ending in ’14 was an unfettered disaster that saw the start of a senseless war that killed millions of people for no apparent reason and ultimately contributed to the rise of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Let’s hope we’re not on a 100-year cycle here, because 1914 clearly was one of the worst years in history.

Speaking of which, The Atlantic recently published an article in which experts identified the worst years in history. One picked 1914, but more picked 1918, when the First World War ended in massive bloodshed and then an influenza outbreak began that killed additional millions. Others picked 1942 and 1943, when World War II raged and the Holocaust was at its height; still another selected the year more than 65 million years ago when a huge asteroid struck the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, wiping out all life for hundreds of miles and causing a mile-high tsunami that wiped clean the east coast of America.

So, let’s have a little perspective here as we head into another new year. I’m not insisting that 2014 be one of the best years in human history, I’m just hoping it’s not one of the worst.