The limits of expert judgment: Lessons from social science forecasting during the pandemic

Article by Cendri Hutcherson  Michael Varnum Imagine being a policymaker at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. You have to decide which actions to recommend, how much risk to tolerate and what sacrifices to ask your citizens to bear.

Who would you turn to for an accurate prediction about how people would react? Many would recommend going to the experts — social scientists. But we are here to tell you this would be bad advice.

As psychological scientists with decades of combined experience studying decision-makingwisdomexpert judgment and societal change, we hoped social scientists’ predictions would be accurate and useful. But we also had our doubts.

Our discipline has been undergoing a crisis due to failed study replications and questionable research practices. If basic findings can’t be reproduced in controlled experiments, how confident can we be that our theories can explain complex real-world outcomes?

To find out how well social scientists could predict societal change, we ran the largest forecasting initiative in our field’s history using predictions about change in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic as a test case….

Our findings, detailed in peer-reviewed papers in Nature Human Behaviour and in American Psychologist, paint a sobering picture. Despite the causal nature of most theories in the social sciences, and the fields’ emphasis on prediction in controlled settings, social scientists’ forecasts were generally not very good.

In both papers, we found that experts’ predictions were generally no more accurate than those made by samples of the general public. Further, their predictions were often worse than predictions generated by simple statistical models.

Our studies did still give us reasons to be optimistic. First, forecasts were more accurate when teams had specific expertise in the domain they were making predictions in. If someone was an expert in depression, for example, they were better at predicting societal trends in depression.

Second, when teams were made up of scientists from different fields working together, they tended to do better at forecasting. Finally, teams that used simpler models to generate their predictions and made use of past data generally outperformed those that didn’t.

These findings suggest that, despite the poor performance of the social scientists in our studies, there are steps scientists can take to improve their accuracy at this type of forecasting….(More)”.