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Monday, January 03, 2011

Smashing the Punditry's Crystal Ball

Fortune teller with crystal ball
It's 2011, so throw out your old calendar. Scratch that; recycle your old calendar. It's paper, so start off the new year on the right foot. There's no reason for us to be killing trees just to know what day it is. We've got a world to save and all.

Along with the literal take on "out with the old, in with the new" regarding our calendars, there are several traditions that you can count on during this transition. In the media, these include "listicles" of the top ten worst, top ten best, top ten most important, and top ten most embarrassing whatevers of 2010. These are sometimes good, mostly stupid, and not especially informative.

But another tradition in the media are year-end predictions. What's going to happen in the new year? This is an activity that you should never be talked into engaging in, because it's a surefire embarrassment down the road. If you want measure the worth of a pundit, look at how glibly they toss off predictions and how inaccurate those predictions are. Worse, look at the ways in which they often come true.

For example, at the end of 2009, Daniel Stone wrote a political prediction piece for Newsweek. Looking back, it's pretty awful -- and part of that is Stone's own fault. At one point, he predicts that "Reeling from battling cancer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg will retire from the Supreme Court," call that would require psychic powers. Also, Democrat Bill White was going to win the Texas Governor's race, President Obama wouldn't do anything to help gays and lesbians, Charlie Crist would win his senatorial race, Harry Reid would lose reelection, and Democrats would retain the House.

This is why you don't want to write these things. And it's just as good a reason not bother with caring about them.

At the rightwing National Review, the editors asked various in-house pundits what they thought was going to happen in 2010. It's actually worst than most, since several of the columnists -- John Derbyshire and Jonah Goldberg taking the lead -- make some tongue-in-cheek predictions in order to provide cover for the bad, but serious, predictions they knew they'd be making. Derbyshire predicts his latest book would be a runaway bestseller and Goldberg says, "A new reality show about the makers of a reality show will cause the cultural commentariat to implode in on itself."

On the serious side, Derbyshire predicts "good, though not great, gains in the midterms" for Republicans and Goldberg says, "Iran will get the bomb even as the democracy movement gains steam."

There's more, but you get the idea -- these things are dumb and, even for the most astute observer of politics, not extremely accurate. I bring this up not because I want to demonstrate the worth of year-end predictions, but to point out that this never actually stops throughout the year. Pundits predict, it's what they do, and they don't save that for one special season of the year.

Granted, those prediction are mostly shorter in term and of the more immediate future, but this means they're only slightly more accurate. Other predictions are so obvious you can make them by omitting key words; i.e., "Republicans will be dicks," as opposed to "Republicans will continue to be jerks." But, by and large, they're just as useless. And the drive our politics to an alarming extent.

Let me take you back to the Bush v. Kerry race of 2004 to give you a for-instance. During a campaign stop in Philadelphia, Kerry ordered a Philly cheesesteak with Swiss cheese. Apparently, this is the worst thing ever. You're supposed to order it with Cheeze Whiz. As a lifelong Wisconsinite, I can tell you with some authority that Cheeze Whiz is a human rights abuse and -- in my expert opinion -- John Kerry made the right decision. Not that it should matter either way.

But the pundits got hold of the story and suddenly Kerry had made a major gaffe. Philadelphians were supposedly outraged, despite the fact that a cheesesteak with swiss was right there on the menu and people ordered them every day without riots in the streets over it. Kerry's sandwich selection was predicted to become a "major gaffe" and, in an example of self-fulfilling prophecy, it actually did. It was as if there existed some very likely scenario where the fate of the world would rest in the president's decision to order the right sandwich. Clearly, John Kerry could not be trusted with that awesome responsibility. He was too gentile to pollute his sandwich with mere Cheeze Whiz. An out of touch elitist, he'd order it with hollandaise and grated dove hearts and we'd all die.

The prediction drove the story, despite the fact it was a stupid thing to get hung up on. It was simpleminded and trivial and should have insulted the intelligence of voters, but it didn't -- because we all think pundits know what the hell they're talking about.

But they don't, because all their punditry is based on the opinion that you, the voter, are a mentally handicapped sheep. No one would've cared about that damned sandwich if the pundits hadn't made a big deal out of it. They rode the story -- as absurd and mindless as it was -- until they finally managed to make it an issue. Again, a freakin' sandwich became an issue in a presidential campaign.

And why? Because you're too stupid to understand policy, so you vote based on who you'd rather have a beer with. Never mind that the only people who ever said that were pundits. You weren't smart enough to get foreign policy or economic theory, so you were going to make your decision based on stupid crap like sandwiches. And so we wound up talking about the damned sandwich and Cheeze Whiz and what an elitist John Kerry was, because that was predicted to be the most important thing in the whole goddam world.

So, if you haven't made a New Year's resolution yet, let me offer a suggestion -- swear off pundits making predictions, all they do is make things worse. In fact, just swear off pundits altogether. You're probably pretty good at thinking for yourself.


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