Judgement in a Changing World

According to Jonathan Freedland in Saturday’s Guardian Al Gore had it but Chris Huhne, David Cameron and Sir Philip Hampton all, sadly, lack it.  Indeed, Freedland continues, many others in positions of power over the years all want for this vital skill: Alan Greenspan, Peter Mandelsohn, Paddy Ashdown, Michael Gove. He’s talking, of course, of judgement and he uses as his evidence the fact that all of these people have at some point pinned their colours to a prophecy or prognosis which turned out to be untrue.

By this definition, of course, we can add pretty much most of the world’s politicians, financiers and, for that matter, columnists of the fourth estate, which is probably why all three of these professions are so wildly unpopular at the moment as people cry out in vain for some semblance of order in an increasingly unpredictable world.

The reality, however, is that if the yardstick by which we measure judgement is accurate prediction then we’re all going to fall short of the mark at one time or another. In my first submission to this publication six months ago I argued that the butterfly effect rendered any meaningful prediction of our future practically impossible because doing so required virtually complete knowledge of every tiny actor within incomprehensibly vast and complex systems.

Indeed, as the pace of change increases and the level of feedback between the different actors on our planet grows exponentially – barring monumental scientific progress in this area – effective prediction of the future is going to become less and less useful because our lives are simply more and more susceptible to the tiniest changes in anything and everything around us. Everyday, I am buffeted by the lives of the hundreds of people I come into contact with on a daily basis via the plethora of different media, all of us shuffling deadlines, changing plans and reallocating resources in response to the shifting sands of what we call reality.

It wasn’t always thus. A few thousand years ago, I would have had a role in my family unit and obviously some level of interaction with the hundred or so people in my community but broadly speaking a tsunami in Japan would not have changed the value of my pension pot and traffic jams on the other side of London would have had no effect on my ability to make my meeting on time and thus my daughter’s birthday party in the evening.

There are paintings on the walls of Lascaux in France which are separated by literally thousands of years which are – to all intents and purposes – stylistically the same. And yet a cursory study of the definition of “art” now reveals at least 35 different and distinct means of expression for the twentieth century alone!

The most successful music artist of the 50s and 60s, Elvis Presley probably had about three main “looks” culminating of course in the iconic Vegas jumpsuit of the 70s. In the 80s, Madonna became famous for restyling herself with every album – something I remember being a massive deal at the time. Now, the most successful artist on the planet, Lady Gaga, looks almost unrecognisable every time she leaves the front door, sometimes dressed in meat and other times as a man!

In business, behemoths of industry like Chrysler and Kodak founded on continuity go to the wall while new, agile, companies like Groupon and Google appear to create vast sums of capital value in periods of time too short to make any sense fifty years ago. Moreover, they appear to change their offering as the world changes around them in the most remarkable manner and in ways which appear to rip up the rulebooks. YouTube actually started off for a few weeks as a video dating site before finding a killer app as a place for people to upload homemade movies and subsequently morphing into a centralised repository for television and music video. Meanwhile I’ve lost track of the different ways that Twitter and Facebook choose to represent my information. I’m obviously getting old…

Society is changing, that is obvious. What is less obvious – until we take a time out and stare at it – is the extent to which change itself is changing and, therefore, that the way in which society deals with change needs to change as well!

This is not a new idea per se. Alvin Toffler predicted exactly this 40 years ago in his seminal book “Future Shock” which foretold of the social disorientation that would happen in the future as the pace of change accelerated to a point where there is no status quo. It is remarkably prescient for any book written about today’s society from the perspective of 1970 – particularly for one telling us how much everything’s going to change – coining terms like “information overload” and describing very accurately how we’ll all feel with things like Google News and Times for iPad at our fingertips. But where does all this leave the subject of judgement and how can anyone appear to have it in a world that is changing so rapidly and with accelerating speed?

In 1984 Philip Tetlock was a newly tenured academic in the National Research Council who had an idea that was derided by some as a kind of madness. He embarked on a study with 284 experts in their fields – spanning numerous disciplines – and collected a staggering 27,450 judgements from them all over the course of twenty years. Inspired as it was by the cold war, the study focussed on political events on the global stage before being written up as the book “Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” in 2005. Its conclusions were startling.

Overall, the experts fared less well than chance and only slightly better than basic computer algorithms but it was the nuances beneath this headline that made the most fascinating reading because obviously some experts did better than others. But probably not in the way that you’d think. Good judgement did not correlate with academic discipline, age or experience. It wasn’t concentrated in any particular area of the political spectrum. And it wasn’t a question of gender or any other trait of background or upbringing.

The single most significant factor that determined an expert’s powers of judgement was the degree of confidence to which they expressed their prediction. And the correlation was inverse, that is to say, the less confident they were – on average – the more accurate. In other words, the more convinced and convincing an expert’s prediction appeared to be the less accurate it actually was. And in an age where politicians, journalists and financiers get to the top by being convincing, that’s a problem.  It may mean that we have to re-write the rules on what makes good judgement and slowly but surely turn to new and better judges in the future.