The Hindsight Institute

Here’s the idea: a think-tank dedicated to looking back at major decisions, moral panics, and policy choices that affect society years after the fact.

In my head, they would cover a few different things: major federal policy decisions, “trending” news stories with a lot of panic attached (remember “kids eating Tide Pods?”), and big industry predictions, specifically around the idea of corporate influence (remember the Microsoft anti-trust case?).

In all instances, the Institute would collect data, interview primary sources, and chronicle predictions. As much as possible, they’d get people to commit to a specific prediction or admit they didn’t have one. And over time, they’d circle back to each prediction and compare it to how things actually shake out.

I would also imagine a great project of the Institute could be a betting market for such predictions. Nothing holds people to making concrete claims like putting money on them!

Over time, the goal of the institute would be to illustrate several things:

  1. Most people are full of baloney.
  2. Conviction regarding a claim has zero correlation to ability to predict accurately.
  3. Most things don’t turn out as bad as you think they will – the future is generally better than the present.
  4. Multiple claims about the future from a single source are more likely to follow a pattern related to that source’s views about the present, rather than their ability to forecast accurately. (Shocking!)

The problem isn’t just that most people can’t predict the future. The problem is that most people aren’t trying – they’re using “predictions” about the future to push a present agenda – and won’t be held accountable for mistakes. Bad news headlines run on the first page – the retraction runs on page 16 three weeks later and no one reads it. No one ever lost a re-election because they didn’t fulfill the promises from their first election. Laws don’t get repealed just because they didn’t do anything close to what it was promised they would do.

I think it would be neat to have a central location to point this stuff out, categorize who actually is good at predictions (hence the Superforecasting-style betting market), and chronicle just how little you should put stock in promises about the future.

Would it help? How should I know – I can’t predict the future, either.

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