Saturday, November 10, 2012

Seeing the future

Here's my favorite story about journalists and predictions. It dates back to the spring of 1984.

The Buffalo Sabres were getting ready for a first-round playoff series with the Quebec Nordiques. The Sabres did a postgame show on television after a late-season game to talk about the playoffs, and my friend Dave was asked to be a guest.

At some point Dave was asked to give a prediction about the series. He explained that while the Sabres had the better regular-season record, the Nordiques had won the season series between the teams in convincing fashion. Dave said he thought it was a bad matchup for the Sabres, and thus picked the Nordiques.

When the red light went off and the show was over, veteran sportscaster Ralph Hubbell immediately "yelled" at Dave. His speech went something along the lines of "never pick against the home team in public. If you do and you are wrong, people will gloat and hold it against you. If you do and you are right, you won't get any credit."

Dave, to his credit, said he was just being honest. And, the Nordiques did beat the Sabres. It hadn't occurred to me to do anything but give an honest opinion, but I've been thinking about it lately.

Journalists are often asked to give predictions, especially in sports. Most of them are quickly forgotten. Do you remember what anyone said about the current Bills' season? About what the World Series matchup was supposed to be from an April standpoint? Me either.

The News has been running predictions on each week's NFL games. Some years the winner does pretty well. Most years the losers are behind a coin toss. It's not easy to outguess the pros in Las Vegas who set the point spreads; they make their living on establishing a line that is a 50-50 proposition.

News reporters also are asked to make predictions. The economic analysts - in journalism or on Wall Street - are famous for being wrong. But it's the political journalists who have to see the future more than most. This usually is easier than it sounds in their line of work. Most races are determined the day the ballot is finalized. There are surprises, particularly in primary season when data is difficult to find and turnout tough to estimate, but not too many.

That brings us to the recent Presidential election, which set up a very unusual set of circumstances. We had a election that was judged a virtual tie the morning of the election by some pollsters. Even so, the demands on the "experts" were such that they were asked to predict a winner in the electoral college. There were indications that President Obama was favored to win reelection, but it was hardly certain.

However, the predictions fell almost completely by party lines. All of the Democrats picked Obama to win rather handily in the electoral college. Many of the Republicans thought Mitt Romney would take a narrow win. Some of the conservative pundits, including Dick Morris and George Will, had Romney winning with more than 300 electoral votes. Others were quick to think of reasons why Romney was going to win, such as "undecideds always break toward the challenger" (let's forget about Bush-Kerry in 2004, shall we?).

The odd part was that a lot of people who should know better used less-than-scientific reasoning to make their picks. Peggy Noonan, who is as smart as they come and who should know better, talked about the big crowds and enthusiasm Romney was generating at the end as the reason why he'd win. Heck, Walter Mondale felt that way when he ran in 1984, as people pay attention in the final days and turn out. But Mondale still got crushed. Joe Scarborough rejected Nate Silver's analysis by saying he had talked to the campaign staffers on both sides, and Silver was wrong. Guess the old ways of determining the outcome had magically become a little less valid. As I wrote before, we may have hit a new age in such matters.

A lot of people seemed crushed by the outcome of the election, and I just wonder if those Republican predictions set people up for a fall by mistake. In other words, how many were making predictions in a certain way because that's what their audience was expecting? How many were following Ralph Hubbell's advice. Hard to tell, but it's probably a few. And if they were lying to make their audience happy, how can we trust their judgment on other matters? When will we know if they are giving an honest answer about anything? That question hangs over the results.

As for me, while I try to be honest, I usually take the coward's way out. If people ask for predictions, I'll answer by saying that if I knew the future, I'd be buying lottery tickets.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

No comments: