Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Brother, Can You Spare a Dork Dollar?

In 1906 a British statistician named Francis Galton went to a country fair in Plymouth. While there he witnessed a contest where people wrote down their estimates of the weight of a slaughtered and dressed ox on display. 800 people wrote their guesses on slips of paper. Most of the people who guessed were not butchers, and so had very little first-hand knowledge to guide them. Some of the guesses were wildly high and others were wildly low.
Yet, when Galton totaled the guesses and divided by 800, he found that the statistical mean of the guesses was within one percent of the actual weight of the ox. Nobody in the crowd knew the weight of the ox, but the crowd as a whole was remarkably precise in their estimate. (The ox weighed 1198 pounds—the average guess was 1207 pounds.)

Journalist James Surowiecki wrote a book about this phenomenon called The Wisdom of Crowds and it is a good and fascinating read. Now that so many people have access to the Internet, researchers are designing studies to more clearly delineate just what sorts of questions are good ones to ask the crowd and what sorts of questions are answered better by an expert or two.

Social Psychologist Phil Tetlock from the University of Pennsylvania has started an online prediction study called The Good Judgment Project, in which he collects predictions about specific geopolitical questions. There were more than 7000 forecasters signed up for the Good Judgment Project last year. It is being run as part of the Aggregate Contingent Estimation program of the Office of Incisive Analysis at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency. One goal of the project is to find out if average people can make predictions about geopolitical affairs as well as, or better than, experts.

Here are a few sample questions from the many dozens forecasters are currently weighing in on:

At the start of the prediction season, each participant is given $50,000 to invest in various answers to the questions. Obviously, the dollars are not real. (My smartass daughter calls them Dork Dollars.) Some questions are simple yes/no propositions while others offer a range of answers that are often split by date or by quantity. It might not sound like it to you, but this project is totally addictive. 

I am, and always have been, a news junkie.  That is why I love listening to NPR’s WaitWait Don’t Tell Me and it is why I spend far too much of my down time researching obscure topics like the Antey-2500 anti-ballistic missile systems from Russia and the HSBC China Services Purchasing Managers’ Index. 

At least, I used to.
When the season began I was frequently in the Top 20 money-makers in the “league.” Sometimes, I would bounce up into the Top Ten. When I would crow to Isabel and Erica about an especially clever bet, Isabel would give me a withering look and ask how many Dork Dollars I had won.

This all came to an end in January. I came across a proposition that seemed like such a sure thing that I bet every single Dork Penny I had on it. At the time I was ranked in the Top 20 predictors in my league of 359.  The question is this:

When will France deliver a Mistral-class ship to Russia?
  • ·      Before 1 February 2015
  • ·      Between 1 February 2015 and 31 March 2015
  • ·      Between 1 April 2015 and 31 May 2015
  • ·      Not before 1 June 2015

Not to bore you with the details of my (so-far) faulty reasoning, but I bet heavily—as in, every stinking Dork Dollar I had—on the fact that the French would indeed deliver a ship before June 1st. But then all hell broke loose in Ukraine and the French decided to punishRussia and to put the delivery of the Mistral-class helicopter carriers on hold.

So, for well over two months I have been unable to withdraw my money from the bet I have made, since to do so would leave me with nothing left—not one single Dork Dollar to my name. And because all of money is tied up waiting for France to make up its mind about these boats, I don’t have any other Dork Dollars to bet on other questions. One of the greatest daily pleasures in my (admittedly-limited) life has been taken from me. This stupid question has been my Waterloo.

I have been reduced to setting up a Google Alert that sends me an e-mail any time a story appears anywhere in the world including the terms “Mistral, France, Russia.” You might not be surprised to learn that these alerts hardly ever come.

The question will not be resolved until either France delivers a ship or June first comes without a delivery.  Until then, I am stuck watching from the sidelines as softball questions come and go—things I KNOW I could nail if only I had some Dork Dollars available. As things stand, I am now in 359th place out of 359 predictors.

Yep—dead last. 

But my bet is so large, if the French do deliver a Mistral-class ship to Russia before June 1st, I will climb to #8.

If you want to help, you can write to Francois Hollande and tell him to let bygones be bygones and deliver that ship!  (To send him a note, click here.) I appreciate any help you can give. Maybe you could spare a few Dork Dollars…?

No comments:

Post a Comment