JEFF JACOBY: The Experts Got 2016 Wrong. They’ll Get 2017 Wrong, Too.
2016! Was there ever such a year for making donkeys out of seers? A whole column could be filled with nothing but the names of sages and savants, supposedly adept in the ways of politics, who confidently assured everyone that Donald J. Trump couldn’t possibly win the Republican presidential nomination, let alone be elected president of the United States.
“If Trump is nominated, then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong,” wrote Larry Sabato, whose highly regarded website at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics is called Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Peering into his crystal ball on Nov. 7, he saw Hillary Clinton poised to harvest 322 votes in the Electoral College, handily defeating Trump in the next day’s election.
Countless experts made similar predictions. “GOP insiders: Trump can’t win,” read a Politico headline last summer. Atop the story was the cocksure analysis of one of those insiders that nothing could keep Trump from losing short of “video evidence of a smiling Hillary drowning a litter of puppies while terrorists surrounded her with chants of ‘Death to America.’ ” Pollsters, politicians, and even the incumbent POTUS announced with perfect certitude that a Trump victory was off the table. Indeed, prophesied Damon Linker, senior correspondent at The Week, not only would Trump lose, he would “lose in the biggest landslide in modern American history.”
By no means was it only in the realm of US presidential politics that experts blew it.
At Fox Sports, Sam Gardner insisted on Opening Day that the Chicago Cubs “weren’t ready to make the leap” to the World Series. He was still insisting six months later that the Cubs’ World Series drought would persist.
Climate experts predicted that in the summer of 2016, for the first time in 100,000 years, the Arctic Ocean would be essentially ice-free. Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge University, said the decline in sea ice was unstoppable. But when satellite images for September were released, they showed ice levels greater than they were in 2012.
Fortune magazine played up the doomsaying of Wall Street strategist Albert Edwards, who warned that 2016 would bring the biggest stock market crash in a generation. “The illusion of prosperity is shattered as boom now turns to bust,” Edwards wrote in January, amid a market swoon. Bust? By year’s end, the Dow was flirting with an all-time record high.
British experts of every description made the case for keeping the United Kingdom inside the European Union, and pollsters were sure Brexit would go down to defeat. But on the day of the election, voters tore up the script, handing the “Leave” campaign a victory margin of more than a million votes. Michael Gove, the UK’s justice minister and a leading Brexiteer, had been laughed at when he contended: “People in this country have had enough of experts.” Maybe the experts should have listened.
Maybe all of us should be more skeptical when experts are telling us what to think.
Experts and expertise have their place, but it is smaller than they imagine. And many “experts” fall into the credentialed but not educated category.