the White Swan Consultants

Media | Familiarity
A year ago I had theorized that if you shrunk the blogosphere to a much more compact pundisphere, the majority of people who use the Internet for something like getting political information wouldn’t notice. That was a useless prediction to make as it can’t be test. But what would be useful for the lesser pundisphere to do is to actually track predictions that the greater pundits make. It doesn’t take many people to make predictions, so it’s probably more of a noble calling for the rest of us to keep score. With the A-List, if you can’t join ’em, beat ’em.

In thinking about how to write up a Civilities-style proposal, I started mining the old Brill’s Content magazine– which for a few years at the turn of the millenium was a handy gloss of the information age. Its hundred-and-fifty pages,were news about the news, reviews of the news, and just about everything would look for in a magazine if one weren’t lookinf for advertisements. It had a running gag which took the trouble to actually rate how many of the predictions made by the Sunday pundits came true. For kicks, the magazine also compared them to a prognosticator on loan from a local zoo, Chippy the Chimp. (In his debut in the August 1999 issue, Chippy went 3 for 6 , “good enough to beat George Will and John McLaughlin”).

Some good clean, fun, no? But Louis Menand’s article in the New Yorker serveral weeks back informed me that I’d already been scooped. Philip Tetlock, a psychology professor at UC-Berkeley, has just published Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Over the last two decades, he’s collected the opinions of 284 experts over two decades, amassing 82,361 predictions in their own fields and others. The conclusion was that the experts fared no better in their field than non-experts. They didn’t even fare better than probability. Is Chippy the Chimp still available?

Menand also noted that the study relayed the observation that the experts proved no better at learned from their errors and accepting the new evidence. Their problem was not following Karl Popper’s reliable advice: when every swan you see is white, in order to prove that all swans are white, you need to search for a black one. Then again, not everybody has to be so academic. It pays much better to organize oneself as White Swan Consultants or initiate a White Swan Investment Fund. Should black swans ultimately be discovered, you can well predict that the white swan boosters will say, “No problem! We do black swans as well!”

(Yes, some hyperlinks would have been nice above to explain to the world outside of my irregular associates, but I don’t have the dangling metaphors for that right now.)

I have nothing against consulting; in fact, over the last few weeks, I’ve been practicing giving advice based on the work here. Unfortunately, I am too honest to be good at all at this game. When I discuss Drupal, I discuss some of the fantastic things that it does, but I also am able to drop some reservations about the architecture from certain experts. I also explain that while I know about blogs, I study them from the outside. The full breadth of my research online communications that is open and structured– which I call constructive media, and which blogs are a part of.

Why post this silly little half-essay at all? Simply put, I rattled off the variations on a swan in an email, and want to be able to quote it later, and now tried to dress it in some semblance of context. And in a larger sense, most of what I’ve been doing here is looking for black swans. I look for other people’s black swans– evidence to counter the conventional wisdom. But I also should be on the lookout for my own.

Postscript, December 27th: I struggle to imagine that this makes any sense for most readers, though I’ve discovered that Sour Duck linked to it— one of 63 she linked to last week. A better way of summarizing this is that once you get in the frame of mind of a White Swan Consultant, all of the quotes that I’ve tagged as blogbunk make sense. And I guess what I’m really after is the fault of our business languag: normally there isn’t a polite way to distinguish a consultant who gives reasoned advice from one whose advice is merely seasoned. Hence: the White Swan Consultants. Find them for sale at your neighborhood media conference.