Superforecasting: A book review by Bob Morris

Superforecasting:The Art and Science of Prediction
Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner
Broadway Books (September 2016)

How and why the best decisions are based on the best information

The best decisions really are based on the best information. That is, information that is relevant, accurate, and sufficient. For example, when answering questions such as these:

“What should be done?”
“How do we know?”
“Why? By whom? When?

Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner wrote this book for those who need to master the art and science of prediction so that they can obtain the best information and then make the most effective use of it. Elements of prediction come into play because decision-makers must determine what the probable implications and consequences are for each option considered, as when a serious question arises or a serious problem develops.

In this context, I am again reminded of what Tom Davenport and Brooke Manville observe in Judgment Calls: Twelve Stories of Big Decisions and the Teams That Got Them Right: decisions made by a Great Organization tend to be much better than those made by a Great Leader. That is, “the workings of what we term [begin italics] organizational judgment [end italics] – the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.”

According to Tetlock, “So what is it that elevates forecasting to superforecasting? As with the experts who had real foresight in my earliest research, what matters most is [begin italics] how [end italics] the forecaster thinks…The kind of thinking that produces superior judgment does not come effortlessly. Only the determined can deliver it it reasonably consistently, which is why our analyses have consistently found commitment to self-improvement to be the strongest predictor of performance.”

These are among the subjects discussed in the book that are of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Tetlock and Gardner’s coverage:

o Optimistic skepticism
o The unique power and appeal of illusions (delusions) of knowledge
o Keeping score of what is most significant
o Defining characteristics of superforecasters

o Of superquants
o Of supernewsjunkies
o A “personal beta”: Why? Why not?
o Defining characteristics of superteams

o “The leader’s dilemma”
o “Are we really super?”
o “What’s next?” Why do we think so?
o “Ten Commandments for Aspiring Superforcasters”

The best decisions really are based on the best information. They also require clear thinking, especially in a world today that is more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I recall.

Every day, each of us must make hundreds of decisions. Most are habitual, almost unconscious, choices because they are obvious and repetitious; others pose minor difficulty; but there are others that pose a serious challenge, as when — as Hegel suggests — we must decide,  not between good and evil but between good and good. That’s why many people rely on determining pros and cons, then considering their probable implications and consequences.

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can do full justice to the value of the information, insights, and counsel that Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner provide but I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of their work. I also strongly recommend four other sources:

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’ Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow

Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don’t

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

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