Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 Ehrlich Awards For Wrong Predictions

Welcome to the sixth annual Ehrlich Awards for Wrong Predictions.  I have to say from the outset, what a right bunch of wallies we have lined up this year for your amusement.   Around the start of each year here I obtain and provide cheap gratification by outing the most amusingly, instructively or staggeringly foolish calls that I observe in or relating to the previous twelve months, in any field of interest to this site.  The Ehrlichs are named for Paul Ehrlich, who not only lightened his bank balance when losing his famous bet with Julian Simon, but also lightened his credibility by making poor excuses for his defeat.  For the groundrules see the first edition and for previous years click the Ehrlich Awards tab.  A fairly common theme this year involves statements that can be taken literally as simply false claims of fact, but that also imply certain predictions about what will or won't happen down the track (in an election post-count for example).

The best things about this article (apart from the sterling quality of this year's field) are that I'm still here to write it and that you're still here to read it.  That's in small part because there were no global nuclear wars in 2017, and in fact there were no nuclear wars at all.  But in April, a group called Beyond Parallel in league with a group called Predata, was reported as saying there was an 84% chance of a war (of some kind) between the USA and North Korea breaking out within the next 30 days, barring any unusual stalemate-breaker.  This was supposedly calculated based on the bellicose rhetorical exchanges between the sides after missile tests.  This qualifies for a nomination not just because the estimate of only a 16% chance of non-war within 30 days is absurdly low, but also because it is so weirdly specific.  There has never been a war of such a kind between involving a leading nuclear power and another nuclear-armed nation, so how one could model any credible non-zero estimate of the probability of it based on any kind of empirical evidence at this stage - let alone one to the nearest 1% - is very hard to see.

Misinterpretation of election results on the night was a common source of Ehrlich nominations for this year.  It's one thing to describe so-and-so ambitiously as "the next member for such-and-such" on the campaign trail, and this might be just dismissed as puffery, but getting things wrong on election night with quite a few votes counted is quite a skill.  So in this regard I salute the New South Wales Young Liberals for this sterling effort on Sep 24th:  "Congratulations to New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English and all our friends at the NZ Young Nats on a stunning election victory!  They've won a mandate to govern for a fourth term".  At the time of this premature message, it was already clear National had not won a majority, and also it was well known they were likely to shed a seat or two in late counting (they shed two).  National were then dislodged from office by arrangements between Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First, and therefore lost the election, falsifying the prediction they would govern for a fourth term.

Defeated Queensland Opposition Leader Tim Nicholls also scored highly with this one on election night: "What is abundantly clear is Queenslanders have voted to shake things up, and it’s clear that the Premier has not won a majority in her own right [..] But let’s be realistic, neither have we".  Aside from the remarkable shortage of shake-up in a just-about status-quo result, the election in fact did deliver Labor a majority (and with a seat to spare) and this was clearly a possible outcome of post-counting and preference distributions based on numbers on the night.  The Premier did go on to win a narrow majority in her own right; it was just that not all the results confirming that were clear yet.

Continuing the post-election theme, about five days after the 2016 election Bill Shorten apparently told the Labor caucus "But the combination of a PM with no authority, a government with no direction and a Liberal Party at war with itself will see Australians back at the polls within the year". It didn't, and quite why the first two were supposed to cause a new election is a tad mysterious.  Predictions that Turnbull wouldn't make it to the end of 2017 were dime a dozen, and while they too were wrong, at times it seemed a close-run thing.

The same-sex marriage survey attracted its fair share of foolhardy souls keen to declare that the people not just might, but in fact would, vote against same-sex marriage although every remotely credible poll conducted over the past decade except one suggested otherwise.  This one from the HuffPost's Paul Dunne is a fine example of the genre.  In this genre, lazy references to Trump and Brexit are compulsory and noticing the comparatively narrow polling misses in both cases (or the fact that Trump lost the popular vote) is all too hard.  I should also yet again mention the Tuffley and Stantic rubbish in which Twitter was supposed to be showing a close contest leaning slightly towards No, if only for the claim (pre-posted evidence for which is difficult to find) that such experimental methods had proved "uncannily accurate" and the authors' bizarre post-result rescue attempt.  In this they claimed their method would have been better had they ditched one of its most reasonable assumptions (that 1,000 tweets by one person isn't as significant as 1,000 people tweeting once each), basically showing they don't have a clue why their method failed.

Then there was the ongoing dual citizenship fiasco, another rich source of preposterous mistakes.  Bill Shorten scored his second mention for the year with "We [Labor] have a strict vetting process. There is no cloud over any of our people, let's be straight here..." It's not really clear what that entails in a predictive sense, but David Feeney being referred to the High Court because he couldn't establish that he had evidence of renunciation certainly isn't it.  A more clear-cut howler came from Pauline Hanson, who gets this year's bronze medal: "One Nation can confirm none of its Senators have dual citizenships. After Heather Hill steps were taken to ensure there would be no repeats."  The first sentence might well have been true by the time it was said, but Malcolm Roberts' case certainly falsified the prediction implied in the second, and embarrassingly so.

I also think mention should be made of the Abbott Birther Movement.  (Literally they weren't really birthers, but the thought process involved was rather similar.)  This movement peaked in 2014 with nonsense like that from Independent Australia's David Donovan, maintaining that Tony Abbott was almost certainly a dual citizen.  The evidence for this was basically no more than (i) when a bunch of fringe conspiracy theorists hounded Abbott for evidence he had ignored them and (ii) Abbott remained politically very pro-British.  But one of the things we are learning fast from Section 44 is that a feeling of allegiance and actual status are two very different things (as in the example of Sam Dastyari, who made remarkable efforts to renounce his Iranian citizenship but then acted on behalf of Chinese interests with which he had never had any citizenship connection.)  One cannot hold the Abbott Birthers to a prediction that Tony Abbott would someday be shown to be a dual citizen, but several of them did believe that he was either still a dual citizen or else had been one during his political career, which implies a prediction that evidence of renunciation before Abbott entered parliament would never appear (of course, some of them in true birther fashion still consider that evidence to have been faked).  They then pursued this relentlessly out of their hatred of Abbott when, as it has turned out, they would have been way ahead of the curve predictively had they devoted the same amount of energy to other MPs.

The silver medal - and it's a pretty close second; in many years this would have won - goes to former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman. Newman wrote "So the next government in Queensland will have to be a coalition government with One Nation".  This prediction was based off a belief that voters were lying to pollsters about the level of One Nation support, although anyone familiar with recent elections globally would know that the idea of shy voters for populist right parties or positions is overrated.  Moreover, even assuming Newman's expectation of around 20% support for One Nation was valid, the assumption that the election would have to produce a hung parliament was still bad psephology.  There was still plenty of room for either party to build enough of a 2PP lead or get lucky in enough seats to win a majority even if One Nation snared, say, a dozen seats.  What clinches the medal for Newman is that his prediction was not only wrong by quite a margin even without any mid-campaign 2PP swing or polling error to speak of (Labor not only won a majority, but Labor plus non-One Nation crossbenchers won 53 out of 93 seats) but it was also very damaging to his own party's push for majority government.  Labor could have hardly got a bigger freebie - the only politician to lead the blue team to a majority in decades said it wasn't happening again.  Then, post-election, when the party tried to point to the problem with Newman continuing to churn out this clueless and damaging stuff as a commentator, he had the hide to claim he had predicted the defeat his comments and his legacy helped cause.

And there were so many more.  George Christensen predicted he would leave the Coalition after the New England by-election if Malcolm Turnbull remained Prime Minister, then falsified his own prediction by not doing it, but perhaps he never meant it in the first place, so I am not sure that counts.

But finally, the gold.  Our winner has richly deserved this success with a string of overconfident dilettante statements down the years showing that greatness in the field of predictive error is achieved on merit and not just by a lucky dumb remark.  And let us not say so surely that he leapt onto the shoulders of giants to pull this one down. The Solicitor-General's advice hasn't surfaced and perhaps never will, but if it does my prediction is that it will prove a good deal more qualified than the statements based on it in Parliament.  The winner of the 2017 Ehrlich Award for Wrong Predictions is Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Many have been wrong this year, but few have hinted at separation of powers issues by trying to prejudge the highest court in the land and fallen so flat on their face from such a height.  The winning words for 2017 are:

"The leader of the National Party, the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia is qualified to sit in this house and the High Court will so hold"

Happy New Year everyone!  (That's a wish, not a prediction.)


  1. Yes I'm sure they will keep the Sol-Gen's advice secret forever. However, having seen Donoghue in action and having assessed him as a very smart lawyer, I can guess that it went along the traditional lines of an opinion by a barrister who knows he is probably on the losing side. Ie the phrase "we don't have a strong case but the best argument we can advance, if you instruct me to fight this case, is X" (or w.t.t.e.) would have featured in it. Wouldn't be the first time that a desperate client mistranslated that into "the court will hold that X". It's just that they don't usually do the mistranslation on the floor of the House of Representatives.