On the Wisdom of Crowds and The Good Judgment Project

This is a very interesting NPR piece on The Good Judgment Project, whereby 3,000 ordinary citizens are making incredible predictions about world events/current affairs.

In fact, Tetlock and his team have even engineered ways to significantly improve the wisdom of the crowd — all of which greatly surprised Jason Matheny, one of the people in the intelligence community who got the experiment started.

“They’ve shown that you can significantly improve the accuracy of geopolitical forecasts, compared to methods that had been the state of the art before this project started,” he said.

What’s so challenging about all of this is the idea that you can get very accurate predictions about geopolitical events without access to secret information. In addition, access to classified information doesn’t automatically and necessarily give you an edge over a smart group of average citizens doing Google searches from their kitchen tables.

The story focuses on Elaine Rich, a so-called superforecaster:

In fact, she’s so good she’s been put on a special team with other superforecasters whose predictions are reportedly 30 percent better than intelligence officers with access to actual classified information.

Rich and her teammates are that good even though all the information they use to make their predictions is available to anyone with access to the Internet.

When I asked if she goes to obscure Internet sources, she shook her head no.

“Usually I just do a Google search,” she said.

Google FTW.

Predictions of the Year 2000 by John Watkins in 1900

In 1900, an American civil engineer called John Elfreth Watkins made a number of predictions about what the world would be like in 2000. He was surprisingly prescient, but also made a few wacky predictions…

In December of that year, at the start of the 20th Century, John Elfreth Watkins wrote a piece published on page eight of an American women’s magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, entitled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years.” Below are his predictions:

1) Digital Photography. He wrote:

“Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence, snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later…. photographs will reproduce all of nature’s colours.”

2) The rising height of Americans. He wrote: “Americans will be taller by from one to two inches.” The average American man in 1900 was about 66-67 inches (1.68-1.70m) tall and by 2000, the average American was 69 inches  (1.75m).

3) Mobile phones. He wrote: “Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn.”

4) Pre-prepared meals“Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishment similar to our bakeries of today.”

5) High Speed Trains. Watkins wrote: “Trains will run two miles a minute normally. Express trains one hundred and fifty miles per hour.” Exactly 100 years after writing those words, Amtrak’s flagship high-speed rail line, the Acela Express, opened between Boston and Washington, DC. It reaches top speeds of 150mph.

6)  Television“Man will see around the world. Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span.”

But Watkins also made some puzzling predictions that proved to be wrong:

1) No more C, X or Q. Watkins wrote: “There will be no C, X or Q in our everyday alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary.” Obviously way off.

2) No cars in large cities“All hurry traffic will be below or above ground when brought within city limits.”

3) No mosquitoes or flies“Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been exterminated.” We’re not even close in eradicating these pests.

For a full list of Watkins’s predictions, see here.

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(via BBC)