Bryan Caplan  

The Economist: Give Tetlock Final Cut

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A year ago, The Economist wrote another stylish but insubstantial editorial.  The topic: the Arab Spring.  The opening:

Roughly two-and-a-half years after the revolutions in the Arab world, not a single country is yet plainly on course to become a stable, peaceful democracy. The countries that were more hopeful--Tunisia, Libya and Yemen--have been struggling. A chaotic experiment with democracy in Egypt, the most populous of them, has landed an elected president behind bars. Syria is awash with the blood of civil war.

No wonder some have come to think the Arab spring is doomed. The Middle East, they argue, is not ready to change. One reason is that it does not have democratic institutions, so people power will decay into anarchy or provoke the reimposition of dictatorship. The other is that the region's one cohesive force is Islam, which--it is argued--cannot accommodate democracy. The Middle East, they conclude, would be better off if the Arab spring had never happened at all.

That view is at best premature, at worst wrong. Democratic transitions are often violent and lengthy. The worst consequences of the Arab spring--in Libya initially, in Syria now--are dreadful. Yet as our special report argues, most Arabs do not want to turn the clock back.

What's so bad about the editorial?  It confidently predicts that the Arab Spring will ultimately have good consequences:

Egyptians, among others, are learning that democracy is neither just a question of elections nor the ability to bring millions of protesters onto the street. Getting there was always bound to be messy, even bloody. The journey may take decades. But it is still welcome.

At the same time, however,  the piece (a) proposes no clear measure for good consequences, and (b) makes no testable predictions.  Does the rise of ISIS show The Economist was wrong a year ago?  What if ISIS takes over Syria and Iraq and holds it for ten years? 

The Economist is hardly the worst offender here.  I pick on them because they're awesome at fostering the illusion of wisdom.  Indeed, The Economist exemplifies the "often wrong but never in doubt" experts that the great Tetlock exposed in his Expert Political Judgment.  Which gives me an idea.  The Economist - or any comparable publication - wants to turn over a new epistemic leaf, they should give Tetlock final cut.  Hand him the penultimate version of the magazine, give him a red pen, and let him delete all the elastic punditry.

The only strong objection to this reorganization is that the Tetlock cut of The Economist would lose piles of money.  Almost no one wants to read a magazine free of elastic punditry.  But if you're a fan - much less an editorialist - that's an awkward argument to make.



COMMENTS (4 to date)
Steve Sailer writes:

Well, what _has_ Tetlock's Good Judgment Project had to say about the Arab Spring? I Googled the topic yesterday but couldn't find anything substantive. Does anybody know?

Perhaps one issue is that if Tetlock didn't ask at the beginning of 2011 something along the lines of "Will there be 1848-style popular resistance across the Arab world?" then he doesn't get any data on what his forecasters think.

Hansjoerg Walther writes:

As I have written in a comment on your previous post: The civil war in Iraq and the rise of ISIL which used to be just Islamic State in Iraq (and only recently tried to branch out to Syria) is not a consequence of the Arab spring.

That cannot be true simply for chronological reasons. ISIL, under various names, has operated since 2003, the civil war has been going on for a decade (it was politically convenient to call it an "insurgency", but there is hardly a difference):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraqi_insurgency_(Iraq_War)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraqi_insurgency_(post-U.S._withdrawal)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_State_in_Iraq_and_the_Levant

In this case your complaint about experts is as void as if you faulted them for not predicting WWII as a consequence of the Arab spring.

I think you have a point here, even a good point at that. Experts are overconfident and often don't have a clue. But why illustrate it with a example that is wrong? Overconfidence? ;-)

ThomasH writes:

What is the hypothesis that Caplan is advancing?

Steve Sailer writes:

I'm not complaining about experts, I'm asking what Tetlock's well-funded Good Judgment Project predicted about the various events in the Middle East that we've been reading about in the newspapers.

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