Witches to Be Held Accountable for Bad Predictions; Why Only Them?

In Romania, life has gotten even harder for practicing witches, as spelled out in a recent A.P. article:

A month after Romanian authorities began taxing them for their trade, the country’s soothsayers and fortune tellers are cursing a new bill that threatens fines or even prison if their predictions don’t come true.

Fines or prison if a prediction fails to come true?

Witches argue they shouldn’t be blamed for the failure of their tools. “They can’t condemn witches, they should condemn the cards,” Queen Witch Bratara Buzea told The Associated Press by telephone. … Sometimes, she argued, people don’t provide their real identities, dates of birth or other personal details, which could skew a seer’s predictions. “What about when the client gives false details about themselves? We can’t be blamed for that.”


Seems like a sensible argument. But if I were Queen Witch (for a day), I might frame my argument a bit differently: As soon as the government starts to punish all fortune-tellers — including macroeconomists, financial analysts, government officials, sports pundits and the like — for their wayward predictions, I will gladly join the throng. Until then: no deal.

InTrade is an example of a prediction market that punishes bad predictions. Unfortunately, participation is voluntary. Wouldn’t it be nifty if anyone who made a prediction that other people use to make important decisions about their lives could be held accountable when their predictions turn out to be wrong? Should there maybe be a “prediction tax” for macroeconomists, financial analysts, sports pundits and the rest?

(Let’s do give credit, meanwhile, where credit is due: at the start of the most recent NFL season, Peter King of Sports Illustrated predicted that Green Bay would meet Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. Sadly for me, his prediction of a Pittsburgh victory didn’t work out.)

And no, it is of course not a new thing to punish “witches” during tough times. Here’s a pair of related graphics from SuperFreakonomics Illustrated:

Below, a 16th-century account of a witch burning in Schiltach, Germany. The woman in question “was burned and thirty-six items were read out loud that she confessed to. Most shameful, horrible, and damaging things, how she caused mischief and harm to animals and people. For eighteen years she was working with the Devil, and her own mother herself had taught her”:

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  1. Claudia Hall Christian says:

    I wish we could tax the weather speculators as their predictions, here in Denver, are more wrong than right. Take, for example, the last snowstorm that only had a 10% chance of hitting Denver. That 10% didn’t change until 2 hours into dumping snow…

    A hell, let’s burn them at the stake instead… ;)

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  2. Eileen M Wyatt says:

    What I’d like is for everybody who claims to be highly intuitive and “just has feelings about things” to keep a nice spreadsheet of these intuitions for a month or two and see how many pan out.

    I’ve tried it, and the most interesting results involved there being categories of situations in which my “intuition” gets results markedly worse than chance: that is, my gut feelings should simply be ignored.

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  3. Matt says:

    This stokes an abiding fear that torments me concerning the “legalization” of drugs, which I strongly favor (legalization, that is, not drugs, per se). Allowing contraband to go legit seems only to subject it to the torment of regulation. litigation and taxation. A different set of feds in a different set of windbreakers will be sure to spoil the fun.

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  4. AaronS says:

    Reminds me of something from “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator”…. Two guys got so tired of a CEO giving them stock tips that, time after time, turned out the exact opposite, that one of the guys decided to give him what for. “Wait! Don’t do that!” the other guy exclaimed. “He’ll never give us any more tips if you do!”

    Same with economists. Hope springs eternal that they will finally get one right. And the truth is, that since economists are all over the board, it’s almost certain that SOMEONE will get the right answer–even if by complete accident.

    Then we hitch our wagon to that school of thought for a while…until another school of thought accidentally gets one right.

    Further, if televangelists are any indication, people remember only the right “prophecies,” and will overlook and forget a hundred wrong ones if you just get on right.

    Then, of course, there is the conspiracy theorist. He claims the market will crash in, say, 2012. If it doesn’t, he finds, lo and behold, that he missed some important data, and instead it will happen in 2015.

    If it happens before or after that date, he gets to say, “Well, my prediction was right, but my timing was off.”

    It’s a scam. And economists are part of it. They are GUESSERS, just like everyone else when it comes to the future (though, in all fairness, they do try to reason their way to their conclusions).

    The difference is that economists are part of the accepted power structure of our nation. Besides, if we give them what for, they might not give us any more tips!

    (Said with all due respect to Steven Levitt, whom I admire. Of course, Freakonomics, as much as I love it, is the science of hindsight: When this or that was done, look at this unexpected thing that happened. It doesn’t prove or tell us anything much about the future–so hurrah for them!)

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  5. Clancy says:

    Holding predictors accountable would probably cause the simple result of their being almost no concrete, non-obvious predictions. Any predictions would be loaded down with vagueness, hedges and weasel words so as to render them unprovable.

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  6. Alberto Ferrer says:

    Let’s not forget weather forecasters.

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  7. Caitlyn says:

    I wonder if there’s a correlation between lower temperatures and lower libido in women, and if that has anything to do with it. Probably not, it’s just a thought that occurred to me.

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  8. Eric M. Jones says:

    The Holy Bible tells us to kill and burn witches. Don’t you believe God’s Word?

    Exodus 22:18 says, “Suffer not (Don’t allow) a witch to live.” Deuteronomy 18:10 says, “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch.”

    I predict all our fortunes would improve if we examined the live entrails of hedge-fund managers and big bankers.

    Jus’ sayin’…. now back to my Wiccan morning alectromancy.

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