This story really needs to get posted before Sunday December 30, the biggest day of the year-end prediction season. For weeks there has been rawhide in the air throughout America’s newsrooms as editors snapped their bull whips and admonished reporters to finish guessing what was going to happen in 2019. Of course, they don’t call it guessing.
The “jeu classique” in the prediction story is to appear thoughtful, at times pensive (even to the point of wistful sadness) but, most importantly, different. Nobody wants to predict what someone else predicts. There is no attention-getting to be found in crowd following.
The best thing about predictions is that nobody remembers what you predicted so there is little consequence to being wrong. Oh sure, the occasional pundit looks back at last year’s story and gives himself a grade but I have always suspected they simply skipped their most dreadful performances, with readers none the wiser. There also appears to be an unwritten rule prohibiting prediction accuracy scorekeeping against a rival reporter.
I have never understood what people did with the predicted information. Suppose you did know well in advance that the Supreme Leaders of North Korea and the United States would call each other dotards sometime in the spring. What possible use can any of us make of that information? Is there a name calling futures market?
Seems to me a good way to think about predictions is to think about what is motivating the person making them. To that end, it is useful to recall that the news business is pretty dreadful so predictors are primarily motivated by keeping hold of the dwindling number of eyeballs reading their stuff. Watch out for those who tell you want you want to hear, lest sucking up overwhelm alleged wisdom.
Sports reporters will predict splendid outcomes for home teams except for the Washington Redskins whose owner, Dan Snyder, is now the most hated man on earth. He ranks below Donald Trump at a Resist rally. The splendid outcomes (pestilence for Snyder is viewed as splendid) make the readers happy, which keeps them as readers and thus helps the sports reporters at contract time.
Business section reporters – especially the younger ones – are motivated primarily by how much they hate being business section reporters. When they arrived from journalism school and were assigned to the business section, they were only dissuaded from jumping out the window because office-building windows usually don’t open. They want to be anywhere but the business section and, of course, the newspapers provide precisely zero business training to these feminist studies experts from Oberlin. Actual harm results from their stock market predictions though they do serve the salutary purpose of unleashing foolish dollars to be hoovered up by the better informed.
I haven’t the smallest idea what entertainment reporters predict because, with considerable effort and over much time, I have eliminated those parts of my brain that would ever have known which celebrity was which.
Then there are political predictions. A disease rampant among those who cover politics is to confuse what they think with what they hope. I like to imagine an especially strident pundit making his or her especially strident point about Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump or the other way round, if needed. They predict what they predict because of political preference not wisdom. Cognitive dissonance has long been a source of mirth.
There is actual science about predicting stuff. We can be victims of anchoring (inability to change our minds) or extrapolating (inability to predict anything other than a continuation of current trends) or bias (having a preferred outcome and predicting that). It isn’t worth worrying about those because they are just explanations of how to be wrong when you are trying to be right. In year-end predictions, nobody is even trying to be right.
Want to make predictions better? Ask people to bet on them. When some blowhard tells you something he thinks will happen next year, ask him how much of his own cash money he has staked on the outcome.
Bearing all of this in mind, here are four predictions:
- There will be many news and TV stories about predictions in the next few days.
- Thanks to random chance some of the predictions will be correct.
- The predicted outcomes of this or that will be of no value to the reader who will be unable to take any action based on the advance knowledge.
- Somebody will quote Yogi Berra saying, “It’s tough to make predictions especially about the future.”
There you have it an easy strategy for winning the prediction game: simply predict the obvious.
Happy New Year. That’s not a prediction, that’s a wish.