One of the major problems in today’s public discourse is that an incompetent class of “experts” occupies much of the conversational space. These “experts” can be repeatedly wrong on just about everything, fail in every aspect of their jobs, and never come out the worse for it. They’ll keep their cushy sinecures, get publishing contracts, and push out white papers that other “experts” read and laud them for, regardless of the real-world consequences of their ideas. There are exceptions, but much of this class owes its power to an incestuous social circle jerk rather than any real-world accomplishments or track record of being correct.
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The unfortunate result of this phenomenon is that downright stupid narratives suck up attention, occupying our thoughts, and therefore, our actions, on nonsense, or even outright hoaxes. How many innocent men have been punished by “rape culture” hysteria? How many taxpayer dollars were wasted and lives destroyed because of the “Russian collusion” saga? How many people were killed in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath? All of these hoaxes, and many more disastrous decisions, have come from this self-appointed “elite” class.
Even more unfortunately, while voters on both sides of the aisle have rightly begun to reject this class (as evidenced by the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders), it still has power to drive narratives and whip mobs into froths and frenzies on social media.
This is not a political post, though.
This post is about you.
Tuning out chattering nincompoops is vital to your emotional health and therefore your ability to live a free, productive life. The hysterical talking heads and mobs on social media have done an incredible disservice to the country and world over the past decade. That the suicide rate has increased in the same time span is not a coincidence.[i]
With so much noise out there in today’s world of information overload, how do you know who to trust? Who should you listen to? Whose thoughts should you permit to enter your mind? Whose thoughts must you tune out?
There’s no easy answer, but through research, trial, and error, here’s what I’ve discovered about gauging trustworthiness in commentators, whether they be public figures or people you encounter on an everyday basis. Note that these questions apply to me just as much as to anyone else. Ask them and you’ll find yourself in the right direction.
1. How accurate were their predictions?
This is one of the first questions to ask, and the good thing is, there’s always objectivity to it, which solves a lot of problems. There is strong evidence to believe that humanity has not evolved to comprehend or act on objective reality. If you’ve read Stumped, you’re already familiar with this. It’s a truism known beyond neuro or social scientists, too.
One of the quirks of evolution is that it doesn’t necessarily mean we evolved to act on objective truths. This was the old train of thought. We were told that our senses evolved to comprehend and act on objective information. For example, if our smaller ancestors couldn’t see or hear a snake coming, there was a good chance they wouldn’t survive to pass on their genes, so from an evolutionary perspective, evolving to comprehend the objective reality of a nearby predator was a no-brainer, but this isn’t necessarily true, or at least not totally true.
Instead, according to some cognitive scientists like Donald Hoffman, we evolved to be biased for fitness. Whatever perception of the world is most conducive to reproductive success is the one we’ll adapt to. Comprehending objective reality isn’t a necessity to that success. It might help, but sometimes, it might not. It might even be counterproductive! The point is, the only “reality” that matters is the one that best helps us reproduce. Survival itself is only a reproduction strategy. It’s useful in that it gives us more time to pass our genes on.
Hoffman puts it this way:
Given an arbitrary world and arbitrary fitness functions, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but that is just tuned to fitness.
An organism tuned to fitness might see small and large quantities of some resource as, say, red, to indicate low fitness, whereas they might see intermediate quantities as green, to indicate high fitness. Its perceptions will be tuned to fitness, but not to truth. It won’t see any distinction between small and large — it only sees red — even though such a distinction exists in reality.[ii]
This isn’t meant to be a deep philosophical discourse, and to be sure, Hoffman and his school of thought have their critics. The point is, comprehending objective reality isn’t as easy as you think. It’s not as simple as looking and seeing. We need to realize our own limitations. Looking at the track record of predictions is one of the ways to come closer to reality and having a good “filter” on the world.
In Win Bigly, Scott Adams describes “filters” like this:
The key concept of a filter is that it is not intended to give you an accurate view of reality. All it is supposed to do is give you better results than other filters. And I propose that the best way to objectively determine the usefulness of a filter us by asking if it makes you happy and also does a good job of predicting the future.[iii]
To make a long story short, if you have a filter that’s good at predicting things, it’s probably going to give you better outcomes than a filter that has a history of missing things. I’ll also go further and say that it’s closer to the truth than a filter that’s bad at predicting things. For any theory to have authoritative credibility, it needs to predict. That’s a basic tenet of science.
The obvious result? If you see some “pundit” on the airwaves that has a history of getting things wrong, you should probably disregard what he or she is saying. I won’t name any particular names. You probably know who a lot of them are.
The opposite is also true. If there’s someone that has a history of getting things right, that person is more credible.
For example, this chapter was published in March of 2020, when the Democratic Party establishment is doing everything it can to stop Bernie Sanders. Many in the media say he would be a disaster and lose in a landslide, taking candidates further down the ticket with him in his implosion. The problem is that these are the very people that said the same things about Donald Trump. It might well be true that Bernie Sanders would lose like they said, but you should be skeptical of the claims these people are making because of their history of failed predictions. If people who have been more accurate are saying it, those are the claims you should take more seriously.
The two respective groups would probably give you different reasons for their predictions, too. Those reasons will reveal more about their worldview, and ultimately, how the world really works. They will also tell you about the overall direction of their predictions, which we’ll discuss shortly.
The “predictive filter” isn’t a one-size fits all approach. Somebody might have a history of getting things wrong on one subject but have a good track record elsewhere. In that case, listen to that person in that particular area, and tune him out in others.
Nobody has ever or will ever have a perfect track record of making predictions. The world simply moves too fast and has too many variables for that. Some will be more accurate than others, though, and those are the some that you should be taking more seriously. Because no one will ever have a perfect track record, you should also be paying attention to directional accuracy, another concept explored in Win Bigly. Adams talked about this in regard to persuasion, specifically, but it can be adapted elsewhere.
With regards to predictions, sometimes a person will give a prediction that isn’t wholly accurate, but gets the important parts and overall direction correct. For example, one of the few pollsters that I find trustworthy is Richard Baris at People’s Pundit Daily. In 2016, he was one of a scant few that predicted Donald Trump would win Wisconsin. In 2018, he was wrong on the Nevada and Arizona Senate races, but was right in Missouri, Indiana, and crucially, Florida.
So some predictions were wrong, certainly, but his direction was much more accurate than most of his peers, who had Florida’s then-Senator Bill Nelson winning comfortably, along with Andrew Gillum in the governor’s race, which he also called correctly for now-Governor Ron DeSantis.
On my own end, recently (March 4th, 2020), I might wind up having to eat crow on my prediction that Joe Biden wouldn’t be the Democratic nominee in 2020, but I have long said that he’s a fundamentally weak candidate. And indeed, that direction is proving accurate, despite his Super Tuesday results. His huge underperformance with Hispanic voters and the rapid, ad hoc establishment coalescence to help him limp through is a testament to that.[iv] It still probably wouldn’t be enough if Elizabeth Warren wasn’t dutifully playing the role of spoiler to Bernie Sanders.
My prediction from last year was that Joe Biden wouldn’t get the nomination because he’s such a weak candidate. He’s still a weak candidate, and there are many reasons to think so. He might get the nomination, but my prediction of his weaknesses remains fairly accurate beneath the façade of victory.
This isn’t me trying to make excuses, but rather, to give you another illustration of the direction, the underlying reasons, thought process, or modeling, for making a prediction.
On the other hand, I am happy to say that my prediction that Mike Bloomberg wouldn’t win a single state because he was a charisma vacuum with no natural constituency turned out to be entirely accurate!
This concept of directional accuracy applies to other subjects, of course. I just used politics to illustrate the concept because of my own history and because it’s a simple one to understand. I think you get the idea by now. The more accurate the predictions, the better, but no one will ever get every detail correct. Pay attention to the big picture, the underlying reasons, and the overall direction of a prediction along with the details.
Don’t waste your mental energy on the people that are constantly wrong on results and reasons/directions. Unfortunately, the latter infests the media. Be very careful of what they say.
If you can find people that have a history of making correct predictions, you’ll have better information to work with.
2. How emotionally attached are they to the subject?
People make most decisions emotionally and then rationalize it to themselves after the fact. There is ample evidence for this in the psychological literature, and I discussed it at length in Stumped. For this reason, there is no such thing as total emotional detachment from any subject.
Nevertheless, certain subjects are more emotional than others, both in general, and to specific people.
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[i] “Suicide Statistics.” American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/. Retrieved January 30th, 2020.
[ii] Frank, Adam. “What If Evolution Bred Reality Out Of Us?” NPR. September 6th, 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/09/06/492779594/what-if-evolution-bred-reality-out-of-us. Retrieved March 4th, 2020.
[iii] Adams, Scott. Win Bigly. Page 38. Portfolio/Penguin. New York, NY. 2017.