From football to finances, 'experts' fumble forecasts

I was lucky enough to be at Sunday's playoff-clinching win by our beloved Ravens as they beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 27-7 to cap an unlikely turnaround from 5-11 last year - a performance that cost former head coach Brian Billick his job - to 11-5 this season. The Ravens advance to the Super Bowl elimination tournament against all preseason odds, expectations and forecasts. And this wasn't even close to being the biggest surprise of the National Football League in terms of unexpected success.

The Miami Dolphins won but a single game last year - coincidentally, against Baltimore - but rebounded to win the AFC East Division by beating the New York Jets on Sunday behind quarterback Chad Pennington, who, ironically, had been cut by the Jets to make room for Brett Favre. The Atlanta Falcons, a team in utter turmoil last season, torn apart by Michael Vick's imprisonment over a dog-fighting scandal, a coach who up and quit, and - like the Ravens - under a rookie head coach and with a rookie quarterback leading the way, also made it to the playoffs.


These were unanticipated successes, just as the failure of "America's Team," the Dallas Cowboys, to advance to the postseason was an unanticipated disappointment. The New England Patriots were just a few minutes into their first game of the season when quarterback Tom Brady, widely considered the best in the league, was severely injured while being sacked. The expert commentators wailed in unison how this doomed the Patriots' chances for a successful season. Yet behind untested quarterback Matt Cassel, the Pats still managed to win 11 games.

What this brief excursion into the hazards of predicting the performance of football teams leads me to is this: Prediction is a fool's game. Too many random things take place to enable anyone to tell us what's going to happen in the future, whether in sports or in anything else. These random things have been labeled "Black Swans" by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, because it was assumed (error of confirmation) that all swans were white until the discovery of Australia and its swans, which are black.


As humans, we are compelled to predict the future, but we are provably unable to do so when it comes to truly important, world-changing events. Mr. Taleb asked people to name three recently implemented technologies that most affected our world. Most would select the computer, the Internet and the laser. All of these things were, as he points out, "unplanned, unpredicted and unappreciated upon their discovery."

If you've granted me the point about the inherent unpredictability of sports-team performance in a given season, let's take this into a more important area: the current economic meltdown. Some people - Bill Bonner, Jim Grant, Nouriel Roubini and a handful of others - were warning for some time about the dangers inherent in the creation of ever more debt and how this would lead to disaster. But most "experts" dismissed these "perma-bears" as killjoys who didn't understand the workings of the modern economy. Once again, we had entered a New Era, in this case one in which the values of residential real estate would continue ever upward and there would be no need to worry about derivatives of real things being priced at a multiple of the real things themselves.

We all now know this was massive self-delusion, the kind to which we succumb, just as did the peoples of earlier times. Strangely, one of the many sobering things about the current emergency is the lack of predictions about how this will turn out, or what will eventually right the ship. The "experts" in economics have apparently come to grips with the fact that they do not know what they do not know. Who could ever have predicted that?

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and His column appears Wednesdays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is