Book Review: Superforecasting

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I’ve been reading about Philip Tetlock’s work on forecasting for years and I was impressed. But somehow Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction kept slipping down my “next read” list. That was my loss. I wish I’d read this book years ago.

Superforecasting will give you insight into much more than forecasting. You’ll learn a lot about how we make decisions and the role that cognitive biases play. You’ll discover how to lead more effectively. You’ll also discover how we’re improving the way we make forecasts and decisions.

Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner compare the current state of forecasting and decision-making to the state of medicine in the 19th century. Here’s how they phrase it.

“All too often, forecasting in the twenty-first century looks too much like nineteenth-century medicine. There are theories, assertions, and arguments. There are famous figures, as confident as they are well compensated. But there is little experimentation, or anything that could be called science, so we know much less than most people realize. And we pay the price. Although bad forecasting rarely leads as obviously to harm as does bad medicine, it steers us subtly toward bad decisions and all that flows from them—including monetary losses, missed opportunities, unnecessary suffering, even war and death.”

That sounds dreadful. But the authors think you can improve your forecasting and decision-making. You can learn from what superforecasters do. That’s what Superforecasting is about.

Start by paying attention to the process. Increase the number of your information inputs. Learn how to ask pointed questions. Watch out for cognitive biases and what the authors called “bait and switch.” Here’s Philip Tetlock’s description of “bait and switch.”

“Formally, it’s called attribute substitution, but I call it bait and switch: when faced with a hard question, we often surreptitiously replace it with an easy one.”

Personally, that was one of my powerful takeaways from this book. I’ve become acutely aware of how often I do a bait and switch when I’m analyzing information.

Make precise forecasts. Replace the equivalent of, “I think it might rain” with “I think there’s a 70% possibility of rain before 5:00 PM.”

Once you’ve done the hard work of developing a preliminary forecast adjust it as you gather more data and insight. Superforecasters adjust their forecasts frequently and in small increments.

There’s one more thing you need to do. You need to review your forecasting performance. As with learning and mastering any other skill, you need good feedback and reflection.

There’s one more big insight in this book. You’ll make better forecasts if you combine the practices of superforecasters with the practices of people the authors call “super questioners.”

That covers the basics of the book, but it doesn’t give you an idea of how rich the material is. Several things in Superforecasting are worth the price of the book all by themselves.

The leadership chapter is excellent. There’s a lot of good material about both making good leadership decisions and conveying those decisions to others.

The book gives you an excellent discussion of Daniel Kahneman’s systems 1 and 2. As you read the book, you’re also reading an excellent review of cognitive biases.

I loved the many historical examples. I learned a lot from analyses of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crises, even though I’ve read a lot about both. The authors tell the story of the CIA analysis of the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

In a Nutshell

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction will give you insight into much more than forecasting. If you apply what you learn from this book, you will make better forecasts and better decisions. You’ll also be able to improve your leadership and help create more effective teams.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on GoodReads.


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