November 14, 2008

Making Predictions: Why Is It So Much Fun?

"Making predictions has the unintended but unavoidable effect of putting one's reputation on the line. Which, given all of the inevitable uncertainties, is basically a foolish thing to do." -Charley Rosen, writer and NBA analyst

Unlike Mr. Rosen, I will shamelessly admit that I love making predictions. By predictions, I am not referring to fortune cookies, psychic infomercials, creepy astrology or apocalyptic forecasts of gloom and doom found in the pages of supermarket tabloids or forwarded emails. Does anyone remember the Y2K panic of 1999?

I'm also not referring to monetary wagers since I've never been one to put money on poker games, football scores or boxing matches. What I am talking about is the more innocuous speculation of the news and commentary variety: current events, politics, sports, cultural trends, that sort of thing. While it can be very difficult to forecast the future with any consistency, the thrill of crafting and discussing a semi-educated guess provides more than enough fun to outweigh the potential shame of guessing incorrectly. Besides, by the time the results have come in to show how wrong you were, hardly anyone will remember what you said a few months ago unless you're some sort of well-respected talking head with an "expert" opinion (a job I'd love to have but sadly do not).

Without any accountability, making predictions becomes even more exciting. The amount of time between your prediction and the actual event often leaves plenty of room to weasel your way out of your words in order to either 1) "revise" your prediction to accommodate a new set of circumstances, or 2) conveniently predict something new on an entirely different topic, preferably an event that is safely off in the distant future. With such low risks and high rewards, how could anyone resist the urge to pontificate on the juiciest topics ranging from sports to politics to the events leading up the end of the world? As long as no one actually remembers what you said the last time you made a prediction that didn't turn out so well, you can't really go wrong.

Back in October of 2007, barely a year ago, I remember eating dinner with a friend at Bravo's restaurant where we discussed who we thought might win the 2008 election. On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani was the clear front-runner at the time and even picked up the endorsement of Pat Robertson a month later. Mitt Romney was having problems explaining his Mormon faith, Mike Huckabee was largely unknown and John McCain had been completely written off by all the analysts because of his terrible polling numbers (single-digits as I recall) and the fact that his campaign was flat broke.

For the Democrats, Hillary Clinton was so far out in front that it didn't seem anyone could catch her. Barack Obama was drawing huge crowds in the big cities, but was hard to imagine him winning in any red states or rural areas where his race would be a major liability. That night, my friend and I agreed that America was probably not ready for a black president, especially an inexperienced young Senator who was up against the well-oiled prowess of the Clinton political machine. As far as we could tell, it was going to be Rudy vs. Hillary in the general election and as crazy as it now sounds, we predicted Mr. Giuliani to win the presidency since we reckoned that half the country was hopelessly predisposed to hating Mrs. Clinton, or so we thought.

Needless to say, 20/20 hindsight now shows just how wrong we were. McCain made an incredible turnaround, Giuliani flamed out quickly by the end of January after forgetting to campaign outside Florida, Obama squeaked past Clinton in the longest primary season ever and he even managed to flip several of the traditionally conservative states like North Carolina, Indiana and Virginia from red to blue despite all of those working-class white men who were not supposed to vote for a black candidate. These days, anyone can point to Obama's big electoral victory margin and ask, "How could he not have won?" It all seems so obvious now.

So why do I enjoy reminiscing about my off-base predictions like the Rudy vs. Hillary scenario? Why do I have this tendency to gravitate toward controversial issues and unpredictable outcomes? As one of the many who erroneously predicted the Lakers to beat the Celtics in last season's NBA Finals or the Patriots to beat the Giants in Superbowl XLII, why should I even continue with my shoddy guesswork when there's such a high probability that I'll be entirely wrong? Wouldn't it be much safer to avoid making any reckless predictions until the outcome of the event in question has been largely decided? Of course it would, but this would also be dreadfully dull and boring. Heck, I could predict that the 49ers will miss the playoffs for the sixth year in a row or that the Best Actress winner at the next year's Oscars will cry on stage while giving a long-winded acceptance speech, but those things are already a foregone conclusion. I might as well forecast light trade winds and Windward/Mauka showers while I'm at it.

It's much more fun to speculate on things that are really up for grabs. Maybe that's why I enjoy playing fantasy sports, a frivolous virtual guessing game where I can join the ranks of like-minded squares who appreciate the value of meaningless statistics like home runs, touchdowns and rebounds. It's the perfect cocktail of skill and luck. If you guess correctly, by selecting a lineup of overpaid professional athletes that perform well according to a collection of arbitrary statistical categories, you have earned the respect of your peers for supposedly outsmarting the competition. Even if you end up guessing wrong, that's still forgivable because everyone understands how difficult it is to be right 6 months ahead of time.

Now that the 2008 election season has finally ended, pundits, bloggers and news junkies have lost their main source of prediction fodder. What was once a gushing fountain of intrigue and speculation has dried up for the moment, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions for the curious observer. Who will be selected for Obama's key cabinet positions and how long will the honeymoon last? What, if any, will Hillary Clinton's role be in the new administration? Who will be the Republican nominee for president in 2012? When will Bobby Jindal become a household name? At the local level, who will run for the Hawaii governor's seat in 2010 against Duke Aiona? Will Charles Djou become the first Republican to represent Hawaii in Congress in 20 years? Will Cliff Slater and his band of anti-rail protesters try to make another splash in 2009 or will they fade quietly into the sunset? Only time will tell, but that won't stop me from guessing.

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