Rules For Pundits

Many, many people are trying to figure out what happened in the election.  Almost everyone’s predictions were so off base they were bad jokes.  I want to help.  Let’s put together some rules that will help us figure out what’s going to happen next.  Fortunately, smarter people than me have already figured out a great way of getting to the truth.  It’s called science.

Scientific method is the only way we have of really figuring out if something is true.  And it has discrete steps.  Make observations, come up with a hypothesis, make a prediction, test it, then accept the results or refine the hypothesis.  The problem is that most pundits stop at step two.  We come up with hypotheses, then state them as truth.  That’s an easy way to spread a lot of bad information.

In order to prevent such wildly bad hypotheses from being stated as truth, here are some rules that pundits can follow that will help refine what we know.

Rule 1) Experiment.  Obviously in the case of an election we can’t run it over again with different information.  But we can do thought experiments.  For example, what would have happened if Trump had run as a democrat?  What if his policies had been different?  What if he hadn’t run at all?  I’m not seeing these questions posed in mainstream media, and that’s a shame.  These are all very plausible circumstances, and if we can come to a consensus on what would have happened then, it will illuminate what actually happened.

Rule 2)  Assume you’re wrong.  Whenever you make any statement, regardless of the confidence you have, assume someone else with prove you wrong.  Be ready for that.  That leads to the next rule.

Rule 3) Change your mind.  If you’re proven wrong then use that new information to change your hypothesis.  No one is infallible.  It’s only by constantly changing can we improve.

Rule 4) Acknowledge your biases, and assume they have a far bigger impact on your thinking than you think.  We are not logical, rational creatures.  We’re ruled by emotion, whim, and forces beyond our normal perception.  If you realize you have a bias, even if you believe it’s a small one, assume it’s having a much bigger impact on your thoughts, and use that to come up with new hypotheses.

That’s it.  Four rules.  They’re not complicated.  But they’re damn near impossible to implement.  Pundits and commentators were, for the most part, so bad this election season that it’s worth a try.  There’s no where to go but up.  Let’s try an example to see what I mean.

So the president of Taiwan called Trump and they chatted, apparently breaking more than 30 years of diplomatic trends.  So that’s our anomaly, now we need to formulate a question we can answer.  Why on earth would he do so?  Ok, we have a question, now we need hypotheses to test.  Possibility one, he didn’t know any better.  Unless you life and breathe foreign policy, you probably don’t know the minutiae of diplomatic relations with every single country and quasi-country.  Possibility two, he was trying to stick it to China.  His campaign rhetoric about China was pretty rough, he could be trying to follow through.  Possibility three, he’s playing the long game with China.  He could be letting them know that he’s changing the terms on which we negotiate by developing new diplomatic ties that he could later cut as a concession.  There are other possibilities as well, but these will do as a starting point.

So now we have some hypotheses, we can design experiments.  Obviously these aren’t going to be double-blind, control grouped, peer reviewed experiments, but even real world experiments can be illuminating.  So with hypothesis one, that’s he’s just dumb, what would a dumb guy do next?  Well, he might refuse to acknowledge his mistake and build a stronger relationship with Taiwan.  Or he might apologize.  He hasn’t done that yet, and it’s implausible to me that really rich guy would simply be stupid, so I would say that hypothesis is unlikely.  And even if it is true, Trump’s mistakes generally aren’t crippling.  He changes course quickly, so this probably won’t have lasting impacts.  What about hypothesis two?  He just wants to screw China.  If that’s the case, we should see some other way that he is screwing with China.  Harsher rhetoric. Concrete plans to implement tariffs.  Maybe leaked information that he wants to send aircraft carriers to the Chinese coast.  We’ll keep an eye out, but I doubt it.  So that leaves possibility three, that he’s playing the long game.  That’s the hardest to figure out, because by it’s nature we won’t know for awhile.  But if that is the case we should see more normal negotiating and diplomacy as he maneuvers into a stronger negotiating position.  Now we have some experiments, as we monitor Trump’s behavior, we can get a better idea of how his mind works.  This is how you learn things.

Pundits, pay attention.  I’ve got a better chance than you at being right, and I’m just a blogger.

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