What we can learn from 8 New York Times columnists saying they were wrong

Word Cloud from the New York Times “I was wrong” columns, 24 July 2022

As a person who once made his living making predictions, I’m fascinated by how public figures speak about what they were wrong about. The New York Times created a natural exercise in studying that when it published eight “I was wrong” columns by its regular columnists on Sunday. And we learned that like all humans, Times columnists are self-justifying predictors who have lots of reasonable excuses for being wrong . . . but may still be failing to see the big picture: that their biases and optimism make them more fallible than they ought to be.

How to be wrong

I’ve written before about how to be wrong.

First off, if you predict things that matter, you are going to be wrong. When you are, you should clearly state what you were wrong about and why you made the mistake, explain what has changed, and make a new prediction based on the new facts.

Analyzing the Times columnists’ regrets

You could read the Times columnists eight columns. But I’ll save you some time. Here’s a summary, concentrating on each columnist’s mistakes, justifications, and lessons learned.

  • Paul Krugman (Inflation). I said the $1.9 billion American Rescue Plan wouldn’t cause inflation. I was right about that, but inflation happened anyway. Pandemic disruptions and a flawed model of the economy were to blame. Our models suck.
  • Thomas L. Friedman (Chinese Censorship). I thought China would be forced to open up its information ecosystem to uncensored news. I was too optimistic. China’s economy has grown despite its censorship. I still think President Xi is making a mistake, since China can’t invent (or steal) everything it needs to grow. So I might still be right.
  • Michelle Goldberg (Al Franken). I said Al Franken should resign because a woman said he pretended to grope her. I told him to resign so he wouldn’t be humiliated by Republicans in a public hearing. He should have had a chance to defend himself.
  • Gail Collins (Mitt Romney). I repeatedly ridiculed Mitt Romney for strapping a dog in a carrier to the top of his car on a family trip. Why? Because the Romney presidential campaign was so boring. But having seen Trump, I now know there are things worse than boring.
  • David Brooks (Capitalism). I started as a socialist and then realized free-market conservatives like Ronald Reagan were right. But I underestimated the level of corruption. I failed to see how the free market system was creating income inequality. I was wrong to oppose Barack Obama’s efforts to stimulate the economy. I should have learned to change my worldview when the world changes.
  • Zeynep Tufekci (Power of Protest). I publicly protested George W. Bush’s response to 9/11. Protests used to create change, but in this case, they didn’t. Protests now are much easier to organize, but have less impact. My optimism blinded me to how much the rules had changed. It turns out hope and masses in the streets are not enough.
  • Bret Stephens (Trump Voters). I told voters who wanted to vote for Trump that they were moral ignoramuses. That didn’t change their minds. I was blind to Trump’s appeal to voters outside the protected social class. My blistering criticism actually contributed to the strength of their feelings towards Trump. Even after January 6, I need to better understand where they’re coming from.
  • Farhad Manjoo (Facebook). I told everyone to join Facebook in 2009. That was a mistake. I believed too much in the power of networks, was too carried away by excitement for new tech, didn’t realize how dangerous it could be, and should not have believed so credulously in the values of the techies who built it. It took me far too long to recognize the dangers.

To admit you were wrong, you must acknowledge why you were wrong (and whether you learned anything). Looking at this:

  • Krugman and Friedman are so arrogant that they haven’t changed their thinking.
  • Goldberg and Collins regret their behavior but have not shown that they will be different in the future.
  • Brooks, Tufecki, Stephens, and Manjoo acknowledged that the world had changed and their mental models of the world had not kept up, so they will think about the world differently in the future.

I admire the latter four, since their reflection will make them better analysts of the world in the future. I have no sympathy for the former four, since they have not actually come to grips with how they must be different.

There is a theme in all these regrets: bias and optimism

All of these columnists share qualities that led them to their errors.

They failed to see that their old models were changing. Krugman takes an unfailingly left-leaning view of everything and excuses his mistakes as modeling failures. Friedman has a worldview that freedom leads to success and closed societies to failure — but looking at America and China right now, it’s not clear that he’s right. Collins and Goldberg were too shortsighted, caught up in the moments and unable to see the broader changes that were happening. Brooks, Tufekci, Stephens, and Manjoo relied on outdated views of the world and were blindsided by changes that were happening even as they were writing about them.

All writers have biases. I commend the latter four columnists for recognizing that their biases had blinded them. But Krugman and Friedman seem as if they will never admit their biases have interfered with their ability to be true analysts of the world situation.

In each of these cases, the writers were too caught up in the present. Manjoo, analyst of technology, admitted that he failed to identify the problematic endpoint of the trend he was flogging. But all of the writers failed in imagining the future. Krugman failed to see how the fragility and interdependence of the world economy would allow inflation to spread broadly from a few sectors. Brooks failed to see the promise of national economic interventions. Stephens failed to see the rise of a new political movement.

All of these columnists were guilty of optimism. They thought things would become better. But in many cases, things didn’t get better, they got worse. Inflation spread, Romney Republicanism gave way to the alt-right, protests failed to create positive change, people held firm to their victimhood despite Trump’s obvious character flaws, and Facebook became a force for evil.

What this means for you

You are subject to the same biases as these columnists. Learn from their mistakes.

Ask if optimism is blinding you.

Make room for the possibility that the future may be very different from the present.

See the seeds of that change in what’s happening now.

And don’t let your desire to defend your ego get in the way of recognizing how your current views might turn out to be very wrong.

Learn from their mistakes. Or else you will be forced, painfully, to learn from your own.

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