Thursday, November 10, 2005

Poor Cassandra

Varifrank posts a fine rant about those modern-day prognosticators who never seem to be called to account for the failure of their predictions of doom and gloom to come true (with, of course, the sole exception of Bush and the WMDs).

I've often wondered the same thing, in relation to pundits (especially those financial analysts who tell you where to invest), scientists, economists, fortunetellers, and psychics. But I'm not sure most of these predictions aren't considered a sort of entertainment, much like disaster or horror movies, meant to impart a frisson of almost-pleasurable anxiety but not necessarily to predict reality.

I have one tiny quibble with Varifrank's essay: he compares these people to poor old much-maligned Cassandra. Now I happen to know a little bit about Cassandra, having been fascinated by her back in high school when I first encountered her through Greek tragedies (yes, they used to make us read them in high school, and a public high school at that) and was moved to write a paper on her poignant plight.

Cassandra received one of those "yes, but" gifts/curses of which the Greek gods seemed so very fond. Her resultant powers, however, actually made her the opposite of those whom Varifrank decries: it was Cassandra's terrible fate to make correct predictions about dreadful events to come, but to never be believed.

Who would ever host her on cable news?


At 12:06 PM, November 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In 1941 the NYT Magazine ran a piece called "An Amazing Prophecy by Winston Churchill," citing pieces from his 1936 speeches that predicted the belligerent ambitions of Hitler and Nazi Germany. He was called the "British Cassandra," and we all know what happened a few years after he made his call.
But today, who will sort out our Cassandras, if any exist, from the multitude of "pundits," people whom in my college days we called "bullshit artists."
Who will tell the people? And, do they want to know?

At 12:23 PM, November 10, 2005, Blogger David Foster said...

Part of this is due to the amazing shallowness of so much of the media. When Professor "X" makes an alarming prediction, most normal people would crank up the ol' search engine (or just go to the library) and see what predictions Prof X made in the past, and how those turned out. But most media players seem uninterested in anything that didn't happen within the last 5 minutes, so they won't bother with this kind of research.

At 12:38 PM, November 10, 2005, Blogger Richard Landes said...

two comments.

first on blogger fatigue. i think that whatever the short-run discouragement, the bloggers are beginning to make a real impact. the superiority of the bloggers' coverage of france to the MSM (we'll be doing an investigation at seconddraft on this "first draft" of our MSM on the french intifada) has won new readers (like my parents who thought blogs were not for them, but now read avidly) or my students (only 2 out of 40 of whom read blogs right now). to get discouraged now on the eve of a major shift in reading habits and news delivery would be a real shame.

two: i think it would be extremely interesting to keep track of the predictions that talking heads make and see a) who has a good record and b) who gets invited back. i remember when the israelis killed rantisi and sheikh yassin, everyone expected furious rage and a wave of suicide terrorism. actually, nothing.


At 2:57 PM, November 10, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I actually like Cassandra.

At 9:37 PM, November 10, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you for getting Cassandra right. It has been a pet annoyance of mine for years.

As to sorting out whose predictions are reliable, we can at least start with people who have gotten at least one major thing right before -- Theodore Dalrymple is hot right now -- and eliminate people who have repeatedly gotten things wrong -- Jeremy Rifkin and Paul Erlich, for example.

That should eliminate 90% of the problem right there.

At 11:19 PM, November 10, 2005, Blogger BeckyJ said...

I always liked the Cassandra story. Definitely falls in the "be careful what you wish for..." category. I had a whole class on Greek mythology in public high school (mid- to late-1970s).


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