The better judge in political prediction


ON Monday, I was reminded of this question when I had a WhatsApp conversation with a researcher of a political think tank on the Sandakan by-election.

The parliamentary seat in the east coast of Sabah fell vacant when its MP Datuk Stephen Wong died of a heart attack on March 28.

The researcher’s insight on the seat was A1 (confirmed information from a reliable source has rating A1). He has inside knowledge on who would likely be contesting the parliamentary seat.

We also discussed whether Pakatan Harapan, specifically DAP, could retain the seat.

He questioned whether there was enough unhappiness on the ground for the party to lose the seat which it won since GE13.

To get a second opinion, I WhatsApp-ed Felix Kah, a 40-something Sandakan voter. He usually gets it right.

I’ve also learnt that informed ordinary citizens sometimes make a better prediction than experts.

I learnt this when I lost a seafood bak kut teh bet with Kah when he predicted that a Sabah-based party would get telur (an egg or zero) in GE13.

Based on previous results and talking to political analysts, I thought that the party would at least win two seats.

The hotel manager got it right and when I was in his hometown I had to buy him the famous dish found in Sandakan.

For the record, Kah predicts that the Sandakan Chinese community, which is very close-knit, will remain loyal to DAP.

After GE13, I read Philip Tetlock’s book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?.

Tetlock argued that ordinary people who followed current events could predict as accurately as an expert.

In the psychologist’s study, he had a group of experts make about 28,000 predictions about economics, war, politics and other issues over a period of one to 10 years.

He found that the experts were as good in predicting as dart-throwing chimpanzees.“We reach the point of diminishing marginal predictive returns for knowledge disconcertingly quickly,” Tetlock wrote.

“In this age of academic hyper-specialisation, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals – distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on – are any better than journalists or attentive readers of the New York Times in ‘reading’ emerging situations.”

To get myself updated on Tetlock’s theory, I Googled him and saw a Washington Post article on How to predict the future better than anyone else.

The article started with saying history isn’t kind to those who go on the record making predictions.

“Albert Einstein once said that nuclear energy would never be a thing, while Margaret Thatcher predicted that a woman would never be prime minister in her lifetime.

“And remember the record executive who said the Beatles had no future in show business?” it said.

This reminds me of the experts who predicted the GE14 results.

Tun Daim Zainuddin did not rule out the possibility that PAS may lose the Kelantan government in GE14. He got it wrong.

Rafizi Ramli’s Invoke think tank predicted that PAS would not win a single parliamentary seat in GE14. It got it wrong – the Islamist party won 18 MP seats.

Many including Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad – who said Pakatan made too many election promises because it didn’t expect to win – got their GE14 forecast wrong.

But there’s a caveat.

What is not recorded is in the final 72 hours to polling there was the creeping uncertainty (or if you are a Pakatan supporter, the thrilling certainty) that the mighty Barisan Nasional might fall.

As May 9 polling drew closer, some of the political analysts, politicians and journalists who I was in contact with sensed that there was a change of voters’ mood on the ground.

For example, someone told me that his boss was in danger of losing.

If the MP retained his seat by a vote, he would be happy.

The Washington Post article discussed Tetlock’s new book, which he co-wrote with journalist Dan Gardner, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction.

They argued that “while experts on average didn’t make predictions that were much better than chance, there was a small subset of experts that were actually pretty good at making predictions”.

Tetlock calls them “superforecasters”.

The superforecasters, he said were “not necessarily geniuses, math whizzes or news junkies, though all are intelligent and aware”.

“What separates them from everyone else are certain ways of thinking and reasoning that anyone of decent intelligence can learn – if they’re willing to put in the work,” the report said.

One way, according to Tetlock was to use the power of probability.

The other way, according to him, was keeping your beliefs from clouding your perceptions.

Sometimes, the well-informed public is better in making a political prediction.

With that in mind, I was in Rantau town recently to tap on the political insight of Ali, Ah Wong and Muthu on who will win the by-election.

Most of them said orang lama (familiar face) is likely to win.