Let me make clear: this column was filed before any polls closed in the U.S. midterm election. It would be, therefore, exceptionally obtuse for a pundit to predict the result. Some idea could anyway be had from the pollsters, and even more from the volume of advance voting: in some places, double what it had been in 2006. That the U.S. electorate (like the Ontario one, noted in our municipal elections last week) is in a mood—we may take as given. But this is an observation, not a prediction.
A piece in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend went right to the point, of pundits and their predictions. Jonah Lehrer cited a study done by a California psychologist, over a quarter century, of 284 pundits predicting political and economic trends. He did not concern himself with little things, only with big and simple ones, where the writer could be right or wrong, unambiguously—so that results could be quantified. It came down to scoring 82,361 yes/no propositions.
As a pundit myself, let me claim I could have guessed the result. When making predictions, pundits scored significantly below random. That is to say, they would have done much better had they just flipped a coin, in each case, instead of trying to reason their way to an answer.
The good news is, anyone who took the consensus of the pundits, and assumed the exact opposite of their prediction in each and every case, would have scored significantly better than a random result.
I could take this as a kind of vindication, since I am notorious for contradicting my colleagues, as well as for routinely invoking what I call the Iron Law of Paradox. This holds, among its many corollaries, that one should avoid making predictions generally, and especially avoid the so-called “no brainers.” For these almost always prove brainlessly wrong.
Behind the Iron Law, is a world in which more “causes” are in play than any individual can observe or surmise; so that real-world “effects” are in their nature humanly unpredictable.
People are fooled by science and scientism. Under controlled laboratory conditions, it is possible to restrict a field of possible causes to one only. And bravo!—by building cause by cause, and learning to calculate the interactions, we reach the point where we can construct rockets. We can predict their behaviour under various known stresses, or known combinations of stresses. We can, with such knowledge, float off into space.
But there is not, and cannot be, any science to predict human behaviour. All attempts at quantitative psychology, sociology, and economics are, in their nature, junk science. There are too many rats running in the maze. (This is incidentally why socialism, which depends on the omniscience of experts, enjoys a failure rate of 100 per cent.)
Our ancestors did not believe in junk science, but trusted God if they were going to trust anyone. (Note the antique American motto: “In God we trust.”) But we live in a superstitious age.
Sound psychology is anyway not predictive or “behavioural,” but prescriptive or “normative.” It is, like medicine, an art not a science. But unlike medicine, it is based directly on divine revelation; confirmed by many generations of human experience. It does not tell you how to become a success in life; only how to become a better person. The chips will still fall where they may; the rain still fall on the just and on the unjust. Which, in turn, is a very safe prediction.
The opposing error is revealed in the confident way the pundits utter their fatuous predictions. It originates in the basic human error. For want of a better term, let us call it “original sin.” There is, in this aspect of the matter, a scandalous confusion between what will happen and what we want to happen. This error goes deeper than Left and Right, since it is possible to want things that you can’t have, on either side.
As a pundit, I try to remain consistently pessimistic. I slip, sometimes, into momentary optimism, and almost invariably pay for it. Optimists are inclined to make predictions. Pessimists prepare for the worst. As we should all know (and studies have proved!—that the Danes are the world’s happiest people), the only possible route to human contentment is through worldly pessimism. Optimists are a destructive force.
So that is my topic for today. It pertains to elections generally; but with especial force to the election whose results my reader will now be perusing. The Iron Law of Paradox says, it is usually better to lose an election. It says, to win a war you must lose a lot of battles. It says, apparent victory is seldom real, real victory is seldom apparent. It says, with Kipling, that Triumph and Disaster are impostors, to be treated just the same.