The Economist: Give Tetlock Final Cut
By Bryan Caplan
Roughly two-and-a-half years after the revolutions in the
Arab world, not a single country is yet plainly on course to become a
stable, peaceful democracy. The countries that were more
hopeful–Tunisia, Libya and Yemen–have been struggling. A chaotic
experiment with democracy in Egypt, the most populous of them, has
landed an elected president behind bars. Syria is awash with the blood
of civil war.
No wonder some have come to think the Arab spring is doomed.
The Middle East, they argue, is not ready to change. One reason is that
it does not have democratic institutions, so people power will decay
into anarchy or provoke the reimposition of dictatorship. The other is
that the region’s one cohesive force is Islam, which–it is argued–cannot
accommodate democracy. The Middle East, they conclude, would be better
off if the Arab spring had never happened at all.
That view is at best premature, at worst wrong. Democratic transitions
are often violent and lengthy. The worst consequences of the Arab
spring–in Libya initially, in Syria now–are dreadful. Yet as our special report argues, most Arabs do not want to turn the clock back.
What’s so bad about the editorial? It confidently predicts that the Arab Spring will ultimately have good consequences:
Egyptians, among others, are learning that democracy is neither just a
question of elections nor the ability to bring millions of protesters
onto the street. Getting there was always bound to be messy, even
bloody. The journey may take decades. But it is still welcome.
At the same time, however, the piece (a) proposes no clear measure for good consequences, and (b) makes no testable predictions. Does the rise of ISIS show The Economist was wrong a year ago? What if ISIS takes over Syria and Iraq and holds it for ten years?
The Economist is hardly the worst offender here. I pick on them because they’re awesome at fostering the illusion of wisdom. Indeed, The Economist exemplifies the “often wrong but never in doubt” experts that the great Tetlock exposed in his Expert Political Judgment. Which gives me an idea. The Economist – or any comparable publication – wants to turn over a new epistemic leaf, they should give Tetlock final cut. Hand him the penultimate version of the magazine, give him a red pen, and let him delete all the elastic punditry.
The only strong objection to this reorganization is that the Tetlock cut of The Economist would lose piles of money. Almost no one wants to read a magazine free of elastic punditry. But if you’re a fan – much less an editorialist – that’s an awkward argument to make.