Seems to be a slow news day in Cascadia—so here’s something from farther afield.  The economics-oriented Angry Bear blog has a nifty post on economic forecasts, in this case, of US Gross Domestic Product.

To a remarkable extent, economic forecasters from the private sector, the White House, and the US Congress tend to agree with one another about their predictions for economic growth.  Most of their forecasts agree within a few tenths of a percent—a surprising degree of unanimity about something so uncertain.  Which should, perhaps, give us some confidence in their forecasts—when different sets of economic experts tend to converge on the same prediction, it probably suggests that they’re all onto something.  Right?

Or maybe not.  As it turns out, even though the forecasters agree with one another, their predictions don’t do a particularly good job of predicting the actual econonmy.  In fact, rather than going through all the econometric rigamarole, if they just used a simple rule of thumb—next year’s growth will be pretty much like this year’s—they’d actually make more accurate forecasts.  Sheesh!

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  • What’s going on here?  Why are professional forecasters—no doubt very smart folks, and just the sort of people who’d have a handle on this sort of thing—not so good at forecasting? Part of the reason, no doubt, is that the future is inherently unknowable.  Even the best forecasters can’t predict the impacts of unknown events, or the "animal spirits" that seem to rule the marketplace.

    Or perhaps—as James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, might have argued—the problem is that forecasters aren’t a diverse enough group.  As it turns out, groups of people who think pretty much alike tend to do a particularly bad job of sorting out uncertainty.  They tend to make the same kinds of mistakes—and in a group, those mistakes reinforce one another.  To make better predictions, Surowiecki argues, you’d need to aggregate the opinions of people who are very different from one another, people with very different biases, experiences, and areas of expertise. To the extent that economic forecasters (whether in the private or public sector) all use the same methods and data, and share the same outlook and education, the quality of their forecasts can suffer.

    This situation reminds me of the conclusions of this book (on my reading list, but not yet read), which argues that political experts do a lousy job of predicting future political events.  In fact, the author argues that the more knowledgeable and expert is in a subject, the worse her/his predictions.  People who are especially well versed in a subject matter tend to develop biases and blinders that make them overestimate the significance of some pieces of evidence, and underestimate the significance of others.  Which makes one wonder what the value of expertise is, anyway, if it does more to cloud your judgment than clarify it (and also makes me wonder why anyone even bothers to listen to the bloviations of TV pundits, except to reconfirm their own biases).

    OK, then—economic forecasts aren’t as useful as we’d like.  Which, to me, raises this question:  if we don’t know how to predict the future, should we even try?  Not trying to forecast economic trends could be considered irresponsible—if you fail to plan, you plan to fail, and all that.  But when the best minds, using the best available data, collectively come up with answers that are effectively worse than doing nothing at all, is there any real point in the exercise?

    —– EXCERPT: —– KEYWORDS: —– COMMENT: AUTHOR: Melissa EMAIL: IP: URL: DATE: 01/25/2006 10:18:05 AM Another problem is a variation in opinion and multiple interpretations. One economist might have a different outlook on a situation than another forecaster. There is always the problem of a difference in opinion regarding economic trends and where it will lead to, plus it seems like everyone nowadays has their own agenda and biases, like you mentioned. —– ——– AUTHOR: Eric de Place TITLE: Looks Matter (To Ecosystems) STATUS: Publish ALLOW COMMENTS: 1 CONVERT BREAKS: 0 ALLOW PINGS: 1 CATEGORY: Idaho CATEGORY: Oregon CATEGORY: Washington CATEGORY: Wildlife DATE: 01/24/2006 04:59:38 PM —– BODY:

    Oregon State University just won a $3.6 million grant for sagebrush ecosystem restoration. That’s good news because sagelands conservation always seems to take a back seat to other landscapes. I wonder if the explanation for sagebrush’s short shrift isn’t surpisingly superficial (how’s that for alliteration?). Looks matter and sagebrush just doesn’t sell like the prettier places do.

    If so, sagebrush ecology is paying the price for its lack of glam appeal. The American West is home to 100 million acres of sagebrush country, but it is a battered landscape. As the AP story today puts it:

    Because of the invasion of non-native plants, increasing wildfires and the expansion of juniper woodlands, sagebrush ecosystems have become one of the most threatened land types in the United States, researchers say.

    "We are losing sagebrush-steppe ecosystems at an alarming rate, as wildfires fueled by cheatgrass sweep across the landscape," said project coordinator Jim McIver, an associate professor of rangeland resources.

    The ongoing tragedy of conservation biology, with its limited resources, is that large attractive creatures–"charismatic megafauna," in biologist-speak, such as the ivory-billed woodpecker–generate most of the hoopla and therefore receive most of the protection. Less sexy creatures are often ignored, though they may be no less critical to complete and well-functioning ecosystems.

    Landscapes tend to go the same way as wildlife. People get animated by old-growth forests, coastlines, canyons, and alpine settings. These are the places that we protect in national parks, photograph endlessly, and write volumes of earnest prose about. Big conservation organizations have little trouble "branding" these ecosystems and drumming up the dollars necessary to protect them from depredations. But sagebrush country is another matter.


    At first glance the drab dun-colored world can appear desiccated, windy, even lifeless. And for some reason, the aesthetics of sagebrush country are particularly anemic in the car-centered view of the world. I’ve never encountered another landscape that looks so dull and hostile from a car at 70 miles per hour but that can be so arrestingly beautiful and complex at pedestrian speeds.

    Given their lack of superficial appeal, it’s no surprise that sagebr
    ush ecosystems are so badly stressed and under-protected. The list of insults is long: invasive species, biodiversity loss, fire suppression, unsustainable water withdrawals, grazing, cattle ranging, road-building, fencing… In many places, sagebrush country is so degraded that some of the most intact landscapes are where you would least expect them: the lands that were formerly part of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Yakima Training Center, a large-scale artillery range, to name just two places in Washington.

    It’s unfortunate that sagebrush lands are not better preserved because the ecology is worth protecting. They’re home to an astonishing array of birds, rare plants, and even the big charismatic critters like elk, owls, porcupines, cougars, and my personal favorite, the sage grouse. (Sage grouse, in fact, may be one of the better simple indicators of overall sagebrush ecosystem health; and, no surprise, grouse numbers are drastically depressed from historical levels throughout most of the West.) Sagebrush landscapes are beautiful too—particularly during the springtime blooms—but to most observers they lack the dramatic flair of other places.

    Sagebrush ecosystems should be near the top of the list of good conservation buys. Sagelands shelter rare and endangered plants and animals, they are under-represented in protected areas, they are are often not in high demand for important uses, and the land (or the rights to it) is comparatively inexpensive. In fact, one of the Northwest’s recent conservation success stories is the Owyhee Initiative, a collaboration working to protect seldom-visited sagebrush country in southwestern Idaho. It’s telling,however, that the group’s website mostly advertises the conventionally scenic portions: river gorges and basalt outcroppings.

    Sagebrush ecology, and it’s comparative lack of conservation, strikes me as precisely the reason why we can benefit from a public biodiversity accounting. I’d bet that dollar for dollar, conservationists—and funders of conservation—could do more good for native biodiversity by protecting sagebrush country than by continuing to help the eye-candy ecosystems.