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The bloody obviousness of most good predictions

2010 June 23
by Ian Welsh

Back when I was in university, one day I found myself in a first year sociology class with a 150 odd other students.  The Prof, a wonderful teacher who went by Dr. Anderson, and to whose door I once tacked a list of 15 intellectual disagreements, asked the class a simple question.

“How many of you treat men and women exactly the same?  Put up your hands if you do.”

Everyone’s hands went up.  Everyone except mine, that is.

She then asked how many people didn’t treat men and women the same.

I put up my hand.

I spent the next 15 minutes being villified by my classmates, called sexist and even a homophobe (I’ve never figured out how we got to homophobia.)  I was livid, and by the end of it incredulous.

After the class I talked to her.  First I asked if she believed that all my classmates treated men and women the same.  She scoffed at the idea.  Then I asked “are they stupid, or are they all liars?”

She declined to speculate.

It’s a question which has consumed me since.  Are people who are unable to see the blindingly obvious stupid or are they liars?  Of course, there are more possible answers, and the simplest is just that people can make themselves believe whatever they want, and that belief is often real.  Sometimes it isn’t, sometimes they’re liars, which we normally call being a hypocrite.

And the smarter someone is the easier it is to convince themselves of whatever they want to believe.  Being really smart means always being able to come up with a reason why you’re right.

Most of my analytical and predictive successes have been of the “this is bloody obvious” variety.  A commenter said the other day that predicting that Dems would take losses in 2010 was an obvious prediction, but in early 2009 most of the rest of the progressive blogosphere was busy telling themselves and everyone else that the Republicans were such a disaster that at worst losses would be mild and Dems might even make gains.

Likewise, the housing bubble was obvious way out.  All you had to do was look at a chart.  It didn’t take being a genius economist (which I’m not).  It didn’t take fancy math.  All it took was the ability to say “hey, that looks exactly like a bubble, and all bubbles burst”.  All you had to do was listen for the fools saying “it’s different this time”.

It’s almost never different this time.  Human nature does not change.  Things which didn’t work in the past are unlikely to work now.  Incompetent people, which is to say people with a track record of screwing up, are not likely to suddenly become competent.  And if you can’t imagine what it’s like to be someone you despise, you can’t predict what they’ll do.

Most of my predictions are pretty close to “virtually everyone comes to regret trying to occupy Afghanistan” or “if Obama fucks up the economy and pisses off the base, and he’s going to do both because he just fucked up the stimulus on both ideological and practical axes, Democrats won’t do well in 2010″.  And most of my analysis is of the order of “people treat men and women differently.”

The sad thing is, apparently the vast majority of pundits can’t figure out either of these things.  Or if they can, they’re too compromised, and too chicken-hearted, to dare say them.

Analysis isn’t complicated.  It’s not even hard.

Well, it’s not hard as long as you don’t give a fuck if, like every mainstream pundit who opposed the Iraq war due to either realizing there were no WMD or because they knew it would turn into a clusterfuck, you’re ok with losing your job or being demoted, while those who get it wrong are promoted and rewarded.

As long as you don’t mind, like my younger self, being told you’re a bad person for saying the truth that others don’t want to hear.

Perhaps the strange thing is that anyone is fool enough to even try.  Perhaps my classmates were the wise ones and I the fool.

34 Responses
  1. Formerly T-Bear permalink
    June 23, 2010

    Much empathy for Cassandra? whispered warnings are seldom heard.

    Gresham’s Law applies to commentators as well.

  2. someofparts permalink
    June 23, 2010

    Wish people who speak up didn’t get mistreated. Put out a tip jar and let your readers send you on a vacation. Just a temporary respite, if that, but it’s the best idea I’ve got.

    FWIW, heeding the information you put out there so clearly has helped me substantially in real life. It’s given me the confidence to make choices that may really enhance my chances of surviving the next decade.

  3. rumor permalink
    June 23, 2010

    I suppose wisdom is in the eye of the beholder and depends on your value set. But I’m quite confident to say that you couldn’t stop banging your drum even if you wanted to, Ian, and for that I’m thankful. To every one of your posts I’m always tempted to comment “Keep banging that drum!” Somebody has to speak simple truth, and you do, and don’t bloody stop, please.

    You’re right, by the way. The kind of analysis you do, which is the kind that speaks to me, being a qualitative analytic (for good or for ill), is simple. But that old axiom that there is a difference between easy and simple, and between hard and complex, applies. It’s simple to lose weight, but it’s hard. It’s simple to apply logic and history, but it’s apparently really damn hard. I think we’re fighting our own nature to do it.

    What it comes down is that if most people aren’t seeing the obvious, it should be said, repeatedly, by those who are. Probably won’t make a difference, but at least you can live with yourself then.

  4. marku permalink
    June 23, 2010

    thanks again for the site (and the insight).

    Housing Bubble: Reminds me of a comment made by the State Economist of Oregon early in the Bubble “I see stupid people getting rich—and that concerns me”

  5. June 23, 2010

    Reality is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

    I don’t see the wisdom of fools. All I see is marginal lives in the slop, mistaking the latency in the feedback loop for immortality. Unfortunately for our descendants, that latency is measured in generations.

  6. June 23, 2010

    There are so few of us who think it’s important to look at the world the way it really is, rather than the way we want it to be.

    Carolyn Kay
    MakeThemAccountable.com

  7. Lori permalink
    June 23, 2010

    I had a lesson in the male/female thing years ago. I worked with a guy that I liked a lot that had been happily married for 30 years. He was incredibly agreeable, smart and talented guy that could always make you laugh. I was an account executive and shared the office with other female account executives.

    One day, he walked through the office and pronounced his wife, whom he was rarely, a “real fuckin’ bitch” and came up with some oddball threat. I was incredibly upset. I was mad. I was outraged as a feminist.

    And then it dawned on me that had one of the women said that her husband was a real dick and she wanted to slug him, I wouldn’t have heard that the same way. I would have heard that as her blowing off steam and probably would have laughed – and no, I don’t think violence against men is any funnier than violence against women. I would have understood that she wasn’t beginning a campaign that would lead to violence but that she was expressing her frustration in a safe environment.

    We don’t treat men and women alike. None of us do. We all understand our own gender more clearly. We read the signals faster. We process the interactions more clearly.

    And yes, everyone tells me that what I’m saying is incredibly obvious but I’ve never actually heard anyone else talk about coming to that realization.

    Processing information with a minimum of bias is an under-rated skill.

  8. June 23, 2010

    Croak!

    But it’s unawareness–thinking just closes in over the errors. & what is obvious to you is not necessarily so to anyone else. This doesn’t make you smart (except in an area where your intuitions are good), or them stupid. Also, for heaven’s sake, “pundits” are cheerleaders. They aren’t mostly expert in what they’re writing about, except for Paul Krugman. So it’s not surprising they get things wrong.

  9. June 23, 2010

    Most of my analytical and predictive successes have been of the “this is bloody obvious” variety. A commenter said the other day that predicting that Dems would take losses in 2010 was an obvious prediction, but in early 2009 most of the rest of the progressive blogosphere was busy telling themselves and everyone else that the Republicans were such a disaster that at worst losses would be mild and Dems might even make gains.

    So you’re convicting people’s judgement due to post-victory exuberance?

  10. B Schram permalink
    June 23, 2010

    Thanks again Ian, for telling the simple truth, not that it is easy.

    In general people want to to hear what make them happy no matter how preposterous it seems to be. One can see how this relates to politics – our current president and Reagan were masters at telling us what we wanted to hear. With Reagan we have some distance to see what was really going on, and it wasn’t what came out of his mouth.

    I am often amazed at how people can live with huge glaring conflicts. For example, my grandfather hated Italians with a passion, I later learned that he was at least 50% Italian himself. Ian, how dare you illuminate their conflicting ideals!

    We live in a world where there is too much information and most people are unwilling to think critically. I have come to find that most will avoid critical thinking at nearly all costs – it is too much work. When I read posts here, I see the noise filtered out and a keen observation made. The information is processed to make some logical conclusions. These are rare things, but not always appreciated by the electorate.

  11. beowulf permalink
    June 23, 2010

    Much empathy for Cassandra? whispered warnings are seldom heard.

    Which reminds me, anyone who hasn’t read Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly should go down to the library today and pick it up. Tuchman talks about Cassandra and provides some sad examples of leaders who really should have listened to their own Cassandras.
    http://www.stoneschool.com/Reviews/MarchOfFolly.html

  12. Tom Hickey permalink
    June 23, 2010

    Excellent post, Ian. It brings up some deep issues in simple terms.

    Cognitive science is addressing this. Most people are unaware of how their brains are wired, and so they are blind-sided to much of their lives. Psychologists, psychotherapists, and psychiatrist deal with the aberrations that get in the way of coping, but most people suffer from a milder form of this syndrome. Moreover, if enough people have a particular aberration, it does not get classified as an aberration, even though it should be, given a reality-based standard.

    1. In a broad sense the brain is divided into hemispheres, and left responsible linear, analytic, discursive thinking, and the right for non-linear, synthetic, intuitive thinking (yes, I am aware that this is over-simplification, but useful nonetheless). People who are left-brain thinkers primarily rely on conceptual models and are interested in details, while those who are right-brain thinkers are guided by gut feelings and are chiefly interested in the big picture. Both styles of thinking are necessary for holistic thinking.

    2. Memes are conceptual frames through which we generalize and organize what we take to be “reality.” These memes are the psychological result of electrical impulses flowing through neural pathways (I know, another oversimplification). We don’t all have the same neural pathways opened, even though we use the same words. Therefore, words have different subjective meaning for different people.

    3. Norms are different from facts. Putative facts can be checked for truth against evidence. Norms cannot. It is not even possible to know consciously all the norms that one is imposing on oneself, anymore than it is possible to enumerate all the facts that one knows or thinks one knows. It is also possible that some pathways are deeper and stronger than others, so that they are dominant. Norms tend to run deep and are difficult to change. One can therefore believe it is a fact that one is not racist, homophobic, or gender-biased, but in reality just about everyone that grows up in such a culture is deeply infected with these norms. All one can do is one’s best to overcome them. Can one be completely successful in doing this? If these norms are deeply impressed, probably not. Ian was being honest. The others politically correct in their response, although some may have convinced themselves that it was true.

    4. On one hand, some people are bi-conceptual, that is, hold different incompatible sets of norms. This result in internal confusion, conflict, and denial. On the other hand, people that are uni-conceptual, tend to be fanatical. Very few people are multi-conceptual and can hold a number of viewpoints in their minds at the same time while evaluating them objectively dispassionately. And of this group, a lot of them are fooling themselves about the degree to which they can do this.

  13. beowulf permalink
    June 23, 2010

    Good story Ian, reminds me of a class exercise I had in college where we were told there were 10 passengers (equally divided by gender) on a sinking ship and only 5 seats on the lifeboat and we had to pick who got a seat— we were then given a sheet with biographical data, ages (all were adults if I recall) and what not. Everyone else in the class came up with either drawing straws or using some sort of ranking system, favoring the young over the old, the teacher over the felon, etc.

    I was the only who noted that since it was 5 men and 5 women, why overthink this when everyone knew the rule “women and children first”. After I said that, many classmates looked like they’d had an epiphany, “oh yeah”… :o )

  14. John permalink
    June 23, 2010

    Actually, the gender question seems like it should have been one of those negative teaching logic exercises where everyone gets the wrong answer except for a few smartie pants like you. And that is used for a springboard for a discussion of logical thinking. Too bad it didn’t happen like that.
    As to the question of being stupid or liars, I would add a third category. Ignorant.
    For all the information that is out there, I think most people are so overwhelmed by it all that they block it out, remain ignorant and just grab simplistic answers.
    In my own situation, I would say the 5 years ago, I was incredibly ignorant about a lot of economic things. I realized that I did not want to repeat the 2000 crash personally as that would have guaranteed a catfood and refigerator box retirement.
    I ended up following your blog for it’s clarity and simplicity. And for that I thank you profoundly. What you are doing is absolutely not foolish, has been of benefit for other humans and that has positive repercussions far beyond what any of us could imagine.

  15. June 23, 2010

    I often refer to what I do as belaboring the obvious, for similar reasons to the ones you wrote about. I’ve found that it’s often necessary to belabor the obvious, because people will overlook it otherwise. They’ll even pretend it’s not there. Mentioning makes it an explicit part of the discussion.

    So please, keep belaboring the obvious as long as you can stand it.

  16. June 23, 2010

    I’d like to second beowulf’s recommendation of The March Of Folly. It should be required reading for any prospective politician, with The Third Chimpanzee as a chaser.

  17. Suspenders permalink
    June 23, 2010

    I’ve always thought that the popularity of a belief has just as much to do with the truth of that belief when it comes down to whether people choose to believe or not. It must be some sort of evolutionary thing. Imagine we both lived in a tribe 25 000 years ago in the wild someplace; would it be smart to disagree with the rest of your tribe, or risk being unpopular? Probably not. We humans are built able to adjust our thinking to suit our social surroundings. Groupthink, in other words. Conforming is usually more important than being right. So does that make us fools or liars? I’d have to go with fools, because the way we think really can “blind us to the obvious”, but a good case could be made either way.

    And Cujo, I have to agree with you, never forget the obvious :)

  18. Bolo permalink
    June 23, 2010

    Suspenders: “We humans are built able to adjust our thinking to suit our social surroundings. Groupthink, in other words. Conforming is usually more important than being right.”

    Definitely agree here. I would also add that you tend to think near the level of others around you. If you read stupid things with little logic or analysis, you’ll tend to think at that level over time–but if you read well-constructed arguments and prose, you’ll tend to think at that more complicated level. It’s almost a sports analogy. Most people compete at the level of their opponents, while only a select few are able (for whatever reason) to excel. Those who excel can drive up the general level of competition (or discourse) and bring others up with them.

  19. anon2525 permalink
    June 23, 2010


    The bloody obviousness of most good predictions

    First, I’ll say that I have been reading Ian Welsh’s writings for
    several years, going back to his days at agonist. I wouldn’t be doing
    that if I thought that it was a waste of my time.

    Second, many things that are obvious to him (or to anyone) are plainly
    not obvious to everyone. Krugman*, for example, has written a series
    of posts the past several weeks pointing out the “obvious”, that is,
    macroeconomics that has been learned and applies to the current world
    economy, and yet he finds that many intelligent, educated people think
    he is completely wrong.

    Are all of them conflicted? No. Many of them have no financial gain
    to be made if they don’t follow Krugman’s (and Baker’s and
    Galbraith’s, …) prescriptions, and, in fact, will hurt their own
    country’s growth (see, Latvia, Estonia, Ireland…). So, they are
    incompetent? Well, yes, in that they have learned the wrong ideas
    from economics and history. But why don’t they just do as Ian Welsh’s
    suggests and look at the “obvious” truth?

    What makes Ian Welsh’s some of observations “obvious” is that 1) they
    have come after years of education and experience that have shaped his
    understanding and (now) assumptions about how the world works and 2)
    he finds that his predictions very often come true. But this is an
    indication of good judgment and intelligence, not of “obviousness.”
    Keynesian economics, for example, is not obvious. But once
    you have studied it and internalized it, you can look at neo-liberal
    economics and say that it is “obviously” false.

    For a given observation/prediction, I think it is both more useful and
    more accurate to instead say:

    1) here is my reasoning (economic, historical, political, etc.)
    that leads to this observation

    2) here is my observation of the flaw in the reasoning that leads
    some people to think otherwise

    For an example of someone whose observations have these two qualities,
    I recommend Dean Baker’s “Beat the Press” writings.

    *I pay attention to Krugman for his macroeconomic analysis and
    observations. I’ve learned that I disagree with him on his posts
    that support the democratic party, for example, his observation that
    “Impeachment is off the table” Pelosi is the greatest speaker of the
    house ever.

  20. zot23 permalink
    June 23, 2010

    Ian,

    There is no place in hellset aside for the tellers of truth, they get enough of it here on Earth.

    Stay strong brother, there are those of us right here with you (and have been for some time.). Keep fighting the good fight.

  21. anon2525 permalink
    June 23, 2010

    From Ian Welsh’s recent post:


    1) the stimulus bill was neither big enough, nor well enough put together to do the job. However many jobs it “saved and created” they weren’t enough.

    Was this an obvious prediction? To Ian Welsh it was when he made it in 2009. It was also obvious to Keynesians at the time, too, and many of those economists said so. But should everyone have seen it? Apparently not:


    The case for expansionary policies in the face of a slump is
    intellectually difficult; Keynes described the writing of the General Theory as a painful process of discovery, and so it is. The natural instinct of almost everyone is to think that tough times require tough measures, and that if the economy is suffering, the government should tighten its own belt. It would take a clear consensus from economists to overcome that natural bias.

    (emphasis added)

    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/23/against-the-super-asinine-the-gods-themselves-contend-in-vain/

  22. June 23, 2010

    Objectivity is a rare virtue in a me-first society.

    Z

  23. nihil obstet permalink
    June 23, 2010

    Yes/no questions on issues with a moral dimension that are embedded in society don’t strike me as a good intelligence or morality test. I’ll be damned if I’d answer “yes” to “Are you a racist?” in a public milieu where I don’t know the other people very well and don’t know how the answer would be taken. And yet, I do not believe it’s possible to have lived most of your life in the U.S. without classifying people as black or white and occasionally considering that classification in situations where it should be irrelevant. And that’s the definition of racist.

    You take “I don’t treat men and women the same” as a simple description neutral on moral and emotional fronts and bearing no relationship to intention. I think that’s maybe ingenuous, and as a starting point for analysis of how people think and communicate, maybe less enlightening than recognizing the total frame of communication. And, of course, I wonder what came before the question. If preceded by a description of the sufferings inflicted worldwide on women, exactly the same question will get a different answer than if preceded by a discussion of the structural barriers to equality in U.S. society. There’s a reason why we know that “How did you find the U.S.?” is not adequately answered by “I went south from Ottawa.” It is always necessary to make assumptions about the meaning of a question, and that keeps things from being simple.

    Reasoning is a roadmap. It helps you get where you want to go, but doesn’t influence what goal you choose. The obviousness of the grand failure of the great U.S. military project is not going to convince the “Suck-on-this” “Bring-it-on” home front heroes or the military contractors to stop looking for more places to bomb. But then, they think it’s blindingly obvious that the world is full of villains who want to come and kill us all. And if you disagree, you’re a bad person who’s helping the villains.

    It’s a pity that we can’t find the right simple reasoning that will convince everybody to agree with us.

  24. Ruth permalink
    June 23, 2010

    The realisation of how differently we treat men and women hit me during a short encounter with a male-to-female transexual who was in transition. I wanted to put the person at ease, but found myself grappling with the question, “Do I use male-wards or female-wards body language, tone of voice, attitude, choice of subject.”

    You’d think it wouldn’t matter when chatting informally about nothing in particular, but it was suddenly glaringly obvious that, although the person wanted to “be a woman”, he still had many of the mindsets and mannerisms of a man – and thus might actually feel MORE uncomfortable if I truly behaved as I would towards another woman.

  25. Ian Welsh permalink*
    June 23, 2010

    Tom,

    I call what you call memes “world views” or ideology. No fact speaks by itself, every fact is not just viewed through a world view, but used or discarded depending on the world view. Its importance and meaning is entirely mediated. I’m not a hardcore Kantian “there’s a world out there, but we have no idea what it is”, but I tend that way to a certain degree: our understanding of the world is mediated by our biology and our ideas to an incredible degree. Under the right circumstances you can get the vast majority of people to believe or do almost anything.

    I see world views as tools. A world view may be great for something (say Marxism being great for class analysis) and lousy for other things (historical dynamic is not driven entirely by class conflict). Each world view should be used for what it’s good for, and not used for what it’s bad for, but the bigger and more powerful a world view is, the more its adherents tend to try and fit everything in this. In its heyday you could see this with Marxism. Same with Freudianism. Neoliberalism for that matter, and I’ve known feminists who saw everything through a feminist framework.

    When I was younger I used to say “any ism that explains everything explains nothing.” That’s not true, but it is true that anyone who has an -ism that explains everything or way more than its purview no longer understand their own ism, no longer understands their own worldview, and can’t use it effectively any more.

    Love your hammer, but don’t become so infatuated with it that you use it as a screwdriver. Many modern economists fall into this trap, thinking that they can somehow twist economics and rational choice to make it explain everything. They can’t, because humans are much more than economic actors, let alone even close to rational

  26. Ian Welsh permalink*
    June 23, 2010

    Mandos: yes, I blame them for irrational exuberance. It wasn’t just propaganda, I know because I talk to these people offstage. They actually believed it.

  27. Ian Welsh permalink*
    June 23, 2010

    Good point on Keynesian thinking.

    Nixon once said “we’re all Keynesians now”. Keynesian economic thinking is really basic, and should be understood by everyone in public life.

    However:

    1) there was a concerted 40 year, heavily financed propaganda and lobbying campaign to discredit it.

    2) the people who believed it to the core, because they lived through the Great Depression, are dead or out of power.

    Which leads to one of my standard rules: “most people can’t learn anything from anyone else’s experience. It has to happen to them, personally, for them to learn from it. So once a generation dies off that experienced a major historical event, the lessons of that even are swiftly lost.”

  28. Fester permalink
    June 23, 2010

    I think you are all overanalyzing this. There is already two perfectly good terms for what Ian described, “doublethink” and “crimestop”. And we are getting more occasions to use them.

  29. anon2525 permalink
    June 24, 2010


    It wasn’t just propaganda, I know because I talk to these people offstage. They actually believed it.

    Happily, “coincidentally” want they predicted would happen aligned with what they wanted to happen and with what would benefit them.

    All predictions should come with three parts:

    1) what the predictor wants to happen
    2) what the predictor will benefit from happening
    3) what the predictor thinks will happen, AKA, the prediction

    Strangely, these three often coincide at the time the prediction is made.

  30. anon2525 permalink
    June 24, 2010

    P.S., I’m guessing that the people you met backstage were not at a Republican rally, predicting their own demise.

  31. June 24, 2010

    Mandos: yes, I blame them for irrational exuberance. It wasn’t just propaganda, I know because I talk to these people offstage. They actually believed it.

    I don’t doubt that at all. But they were basically a few weeks from an overwhelming victory in US terms. Extracting Great Truths from post-victory exuberance seems to me to be a bit of a stretch.

    I’d still be surprised if the Dems lost the House. Actually I’d be more surprised if they lost the House than if they gained seats. But chances are, they’ll lose some seats.

  32. Solar Hero permalink
    June 24, 2010

    “The kindest thing in the universe is the inability of the human mind to correlate its contents.”

    — H.P. Lovecraft

  33. Jack Parsons permalink
    June 26, 2010

    As to your classmates: they failed to understand the gap between wanting and doing. Of course we don’t do what we think we should; we reach high and we fail. Without hypocrisy we are not reaching high.

  34. June 28, 2010

    You bastard. You cruel, heartless, unfeeling bastard. Don’t you have any feelings for those we all know you are so cruelly mocking?

    …welcome to my blogroll. :>

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