Forecasting and the news

I occasionally like to listen the CBC World At 6, especially if I’m in the car coming home late from work, or going out somewhere earlier in the evening.

It’s by far the most interesting and in-depth news report on the radio today. But it’s not without its faults.

I don’t listen to the news often, read the newspaper, etc. I find the signal-to-noise ratio too high. The newspaper has to fill up a certain number of pages, the news segment has to be half an hour long, so obviously most of the time that’s just noise.

What new I do get from the internet is mostly tuned to what I find interesting — so not things that are particularly newsworthy. And when something interesting and newsworthy happens, well, I can’t really avoid seeing it.

I don’t watch cable news at all. This isn’t just because I don’t have cable. It’s also because the 24-hour news cycle is so much longer and needs so much more content to fill it, that the signal-to-noise ratio is almost always abysmal. Having watched (on vacation) some US cable news stations, I’m convinced that if I were to never watch a single minute of their programming, I would be immensely better off.

Specifically, what bothers me about news in general and cable news in particular is the professional talking head class that seem to cycle from newsroom to newsroom, acting as adjuncts to the professional news reader class. The things that they say seem often so divorced from any reality I recognise that I instantly tune them out. Either they’re prognosticating (always a bad idea) or trying to induce rage (and I have enough of that). I want to opt out of both future analysis and controversy generation. Neither is good for my health and wellbeing.

Prognostication in particular bothers me.

In fact, I wish the news were like Wikipedia, where every claim (but especially forecasts) has to be backed up. For instance, it would be nice to know that the analyst who’s predicting some economic measure has been right about 50% of the time. Then I’d know that he’s a particularly good analyst, as most of them seem to get it wrong most of the time. Especially when it counts bit time.

I suspect there wouldn’t be many analysts and professional prognosticators left.

Which would be a good thing.

An anecdote, then, to bring it full circle. The CBC World At 6 had just reported that retail sales in Canada were unexpectedly bad over the Christmas holiday. Not just bad, but seven time worse than the median analyst prediction. They said this, and then not 30 seconds later had an analyst forecasting what consumer spending would be like over the Easter holiday.

I switched the news off after that and listened to some (calming) music.

I’m just not sure how they expected me to take any of that seriously. Would you introduce your weather forecast by telling me that it had been seven times colder than you expected the day before? Or it had snowed seven times as much? Of course not. People take weather forecasting seriously. There’s a scientific method at work there. Weather is a dynamic and chaotic system, but our models are pretty sophisticated.

If your forecasts were off that much (and consistently off), you’d probably fire your meteorology department, or at the very least have them revisit the models that clearly aren’t working.

Why don’t we do the same thing with economists and analysts?

Please give us all your casinos.

I get jealous of my friends sometimes, especially the ones who live in places that are easy to care about.

Mississauga (where I live) is recent, affluent, suburban, but above all, stupendously boring. It’s defined mostly by what it’s not: It’s not Toronto, it’s not a place to go to do things, it’s not a centre of culture, it’s not particularly interesting, and it’s not a great place to live.

I mean, okay, it’s a fine place to live. Low crime, decent taxes, etc, etc.

But no-one really cares about it, you know? People might care about their individual neighborhoods, like if you live in Streetsville or Port Credit or some established place like that, but the rest of it is exactly the sort of mind-numbing suburbia that engenders no sense of belonging at all. It’s not easy to care about tract after tract of purposefully non-identical houses.

So when my friends, who live in places they care about, places that can be cared about, like Toronto or even lowly Hamilton, I get a little jealous.

Right now they’re fighting — and rightfully so — to keep casinos out of their communities.

When I imagine fighting to keep casinos out of Mississauga, I think… shit, put all your casinos here. Like, put five of them.

Maybe then there would be a place to get a decent dinner and a show.