from The New Yorker, EVERYBODY’S AN EXPERT by Louis Menand

Also, people tend to see the future as indeterminate and the past as inevitable. If you look backward, the dots that lead up to Hitler or the fall of the Soviet Union or the attacks on September 11th all connect. If you look forward, it’s just a random scatter of dots, many potential chains of causation leading to many possible outcomes. We have no idea today how tomorrow’s invasion of a foreign land is going to go; after the invasion, we can actually persuade ourselves that we knew all along. The result seems inevitable, and therefore predictable. Tetlock found that, consistent with this asymmetry, experts routinely misremembered the degree of probability they had assigned to an event after it came to pass. They claimed to have predicted what happened with a higher degree of certainty than, according to the record, they really did. When this was pointed out to them, by Tetlock’s researchers, they sometimes became defensive.

And, like most of us, experts violate a fundamental rule of probabilities by tending to find scenarios with more variables more likely. If a prediction needs two independent things to happen in order for it to be true, its probability is the product of the probability of each of the things it depends on. If there is a one-in-three chance of x and a one-in-four chance of y, the probability of both x and y occurring is one in twelve. But we often feel instinctively that if the two events “fit together” in some scenario the chance of both is greater, not less. The classic “Linda problem” is an analogous case. In this experiment, subjects are told, “Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.” They are then asked to rank the probability of several possible descriptions of Linda today. Two of them are “bank teller” and “bank teller and active in the feminist movement.” People rank the second description higher than the first, even though, logically, its likelihood is smaller, because it requires two things to be true—that Linda is a bank teller and that Linda is an active feminist—rather than one.

Plausible detail makes us believers. When subjects were given a choice between an insurance policy that covered hospitalization for any reason and a policy that covered hospitalization for all accidents and diseases, they were willing to pay a higher premium for the second policy, because the added detail gave them a more vivid picture of the circumstances in which it might be needed. In 1982, an experiment was done with professional forecasters and planners. One group was asked to assess the probability of “a complete suspension of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, sometime in 1983,” and another group was asked to assess the probability of “a Russian invasion of Poland, and a complete suspension of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, sometime in 1983.” The experts judged the second scenario more likely than the first, even though it required two separate events to occur. They were seduced by the detail.