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Pundits predict no more accurately than a coin toss, students find

Date:
May 6, 2011
Source:
Hamilton College
Summary:
Op-ed columnists and TV's talking heads build followings by making bold, confident predictions about politics and the economy. But rarely are their predictions analyzed for accuracy. Now, a public policy class has analyzed the predictions of 26 prognosticators between September 2007 and December 2008. Their findings? Anyone can make as accurate a prediction as most of them if just by flipping a coin.
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Op-ed columnists and TV's talking heads build followings by making bold, confident predictions about politics and the economy. But rarely are their predictions analyzed for accuracy.

Now, a class at Hamilton College led by public policy professor P. Gary Wyckoff has analyzed the predictions of 26 prognosticators between September 2007 and December 2008. Their findings? Anyone can make as accurate a prediction as most of them if just by flipping a coin.

Their research paper, "Are Talking Heads Blowing Hot Air? An Analysis of the Accuracy of Forecasts in the Political Media" was presented via webcast May 2 at www.hamilton.edu/pundit.

The Hamilton students sampled the predictions of 26 individuals who wrote columns in major print media and who appeared on the three major Sunday news shows -- Face the Nation, Meet the Press, and This Week -- and evaluated the accuracy of 472 predictions made during the 16-month period. They used a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being "will not happen, 5 being "will absolutely happen") to rate the accuracy of each, and then divided them into three categories: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The students found that only nine of the prognosticators they studied could predict more accurately than a coin flip. Two were significantly less accurate, and the remaining 14 were not statistically any better or worse than a coin flip.

The top prognosticators -- led by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman -- scored above five points and were labeled "Good," while those scoring between zero and five were "Bad." Anyone scoring less than zero (which was possible because prognosticators lost points for inaccurate predictions) were put into "The Ugly" category. Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas came up short and scored the lowest of the 26.

Even when the students eliminated political predictions and looked only at predictions for the economy and social issues, they found that liberals still do better than conservatives at prediction. After Krugman, the most accurate pundits were Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- all Democrats and/or liberals. Also landing in the "Good" category, however, were conservative columnists Kathleen Parker and David Brooks, along with Bush Administration Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. Left-leaning columnist Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post rounded out the "good" list.

Those scoring lowest -- "The Ugly" -- with negative tallies were conservative columnist Cal Thomas; U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC); U.S. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI); U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, a McCain supporter and Democrat-turned-Independent from Connecticut; Sam Donaldson of ABC; and conservative columnist George Will.

Landing between the two extremes -- "The Bad" -- were Howard Wolfson, communications director for Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign; former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a hopeful in the 2008 Republican primary; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican; Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic nominee for president in 2004; liberal columnist Bob Herbert of The New York Times; Andrea Mitchell of NBC; New York Times columnist Tom Friedman; the late David Broder, former columnist for The Washington Post; Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page; New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof; and Hillary Clinton.

The group also found a link between conditional predictions and accuracy, that is, a prediction that was conditional ("If A, then B") was less likely to be accurate. Finally, those prognosticators with a law degree were more likely to be wrong.

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Materials provided by Hamilton College. Original written by Vige Barrie. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.