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04.01.2009

Wrong Tomorrow

At the start of March, an economist named Robert Barro gazed deep into historical data and announced in a Wall Street Journal article that we had a 20% chance of falling into economic depression.

I found myself mesmerized by this prediction, a shining diamond of unfalsifiability. In August 2008, Barro had made a similar prediction, citing a 5-10% chance of a severe financial crisis—and this low-probability event had come true! It was an impressive feat of prognostication, especially considering that the opposite outcome would have made Barro equally right.

I got a similar jolt when I saw a book by a former Wall Street Journal editor named Dave Kansas, with the confident title What You Need to Know About the Greatest Financial Crisis of Our Time--and How to Survive It. Kansas had not, to my knowledge, published an earlier work titled "Getting Out Of This Unsustainable Bubble", but he feels enough confidence in his understanding of the crisis, its causes, and its inevitable effects to release this ray of clarity and reason into an inky world.

Many other authoritative people who completely failed to foresee the collapse of our economy are now earning a comfortable living by dispensing advice and handicapping the future. None to my knowledge has said "wow, I really got blindsided by this thing - maybe I should STFU". This strikes me as somewhat distasteful.

What put me over the top, though, was watching the astonishing exchange on CNBC between Nassim Taleb and a panel of professional idiots, in which Taleb tries to explain our epistemological helplessness in the face of radical uncertainty while his interrogators demand stock picks.

It got me to wondering whether there was any kind of website that actually tracked expert predictions in the interest of accountability. While there are individual prognosticators who make a habit of (generously) grading themselves on annual predictions, usually made around the New Year, I couldn't really find a site that did this across the board. There were some near misses, though:

CXO Advisory Group runs an excellent project called Guru Grades, which tracks stock picks by various financial entertainers, as well as evaluating certain technical strategies (this is a euphemism for a kind of financial astrology based on patterns in price charts). This is excellent, empirical data, but with a narrow financial focus.

Hubdub had a site called Punditwatch, which targeted a short list of popular pundits. Their experiment unfortunately died a quiet death in September. Hubdub itself is a kind of predictions market, where you can vote on predictions and impress the Internet with your foresight.

Visionaries who want to make their own predictions can also visit a site called Prediction Checker.

And on a longer timescale, the Long Now Foundation runs LongBets, which pays money to charity based on certain outcomes. This site is geared to longer-term predictions (up to hundreds of years) by famous names.

None of these really matched what I was looking for - a simple list of predictions and outcomes maintained in order to hold pundits accountable, and perhaps pressure the media into no longer reporting expert predictions as news.

So I've set up a predictions tracker called Wrong Tomorrow, to try to fill this gap. It is still rudimentary, but I invite everyone to submit predictions and feature ideas while I try to spruce the site up and make it borderline usable. Please send any bug reports or comments to me at maciej@ceglowski.com.

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