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Am I Good Enough to Compete In a Prediction Tournament?


Last spring, we posted on Phil Tetlock’s massive prediction tournament: Good Judgment.  You might remember Tetlock from our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, “The Folly of Prediction.”  (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or read the transcript here.)
Tetlock is a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, well-known for his book Expert Political Judgment, in which he tracked 80,000 predictions over the course of 20 years. Turns out that humans are not great at predicting the future, and experts do just a bit better than a random guessing strategy.
Good Judgment is Tetlock’s latest project, an ambitious plan to put 2,500 volunteers to the test in a forecasting tournament sponsored by the U.S. government. The Good Judgment  research team includes Barb Mellers and Don Moore, with an advisory board of Daniel Kahneman, Robert Jervis, Scott Armstrong, Michael Mauboussin, Carl Spetzler and Justin Wolfers. The criteria for selection is for those “who have a serious interest in and knowledge about world affairs, politics, and global economic matters and are interested in testing their own forecasting and reasoning skills.”
Considering myself someone who fits this description, I signed up to represent Team Freakonomics in the tournament. I have an econ degree from the University of Chicago (and consider myself a decent tarot card reader) so, why not? Plus it pays $150 a year to answer some questions online, and at worst I could use a “random guessing strategy” that would give me pretty good odds in this game.
The entry process started innocently enough, with a survey designed to gauge one’s interest in forecasting. Then came a test of world knowledge, which was hard for a couple of reasons. First, Google searching isn’t allowed; additionally, the test is timed, so you’d barely have time for Google in any case. Second, the test questions asked for a range of how true a given statement might be. For instance: a certain country’s GDP is $X in a given year; how true is that claim? This made the exercise incredibly difficult, as I have enough knowledge to give an extreme answer – true or false – but not enough to give a more subtle one.
I also knew about “anchoring” (which Richard Thaler speaks about in our “Mouse in the Salad” podcast). My mind was probably playing tricks on me with answers that seemed right, but probably weren’t.
This whole process did a number on my self-esteem: if I didn’t know about the world here and now, how could I possibly predict the future? I ended up completing the survey in segments; luckily there were some LSAT-type logic questions at the end and a fun IQ-shapes game.
I know what I was thinking by the end: boy, this should definitely pay more than $150! And I’m not even in the tournament yet!
Thankfully, I got notice yesterday that I’ve been accepted into the tournament (phew!). So let the games begin! Now all that’s left is for me to decide on a strategy: random guessing or actually trying to predict the future. Given what Tetlock’s research shows, that’s a tough call.