The 2010 Trading 8s “Journalist of the Year” Award

“Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” — Groucho Marx

Harold Camping was right all along.

Last month, Camping predicted the Rapture would begin on May 21. Good Christians would go to Heaven, and the rest of the Earth would suffer until the End of the World on October 21.

May 21 came and went. No one was “assumed” into Heaven. No earthquake at 6pm, as he had predicted. No death and destruction since — at least, no more than usual.

You may think this disproves Camping’s theory. You silly rational dufus.

Don’t you get it? The Rapture happened. You just couldn’t see it!  

“We have not made a mistake insofar as the timeline,” said Camping. It’s so obvious. Do I really have to lay it all out for you? “We were convinced that on May 21, God would return in a very physical way by bringing in an earthquake and ushering the final five months of judgement. When we look at it spiritually, we find that he did come.”

Phew. For a moment there, I was starting to doubt him.

We can’t argue with Camping. We can try, but we won’t get anywhere.

That’s okay for personal beliefs — as long as he doesn’t force them on others — but it’s a problem for public policy because public policy depends on public opinion, which is shaped by public debate. And there’s no debating a man whose theories are unfalsifiable.

A lot of people have a lot of theories about how the world works, and each suggests a different way to run the world. Making good public policy decisions requires picking the most accurate theory, but how do we know which theory is the most accurate? We make predictions based on the theories, and then we test those predictions against the evidence. As I wrote in my “Defense of Economists, Capitalists, and Canada“:

…it matters which ones you listen to. Follow their predictions. Hold them accountable. Did they predict the housing bubble? Did they warn against financial deregulation in the 1990s? Did they say that fiscal stimulus wouldn’t cause interest rates to rise? They may be immodest if they say “I told you so” a lot, but they probably know what they’re talking about.

A class at Hamilton College did exactly that: They tested each of the predictions made by a wide range of pundits made between September 2007 and December 2008. The most accurate pundit, with an astounding record of 15-1-1, was New York Times columnist (and Nobel laureate) Paul Krugman.

I’m not surprised. Krugman is probably the most quoted and referenced pundit on Trading 8s specifically because I’ve found his predictions to be the most accurate over time. Why would you keep reading a pundit who is consistently proven wrong?

Ask Harold Camping’s followers. Or, for that matter, ask anyone who listens to Sam Donaldson, Carl Levin, Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, or Cal Thomas. They have abysmal track records, according to the Hamilton study.

But that won’t bother most of those pundits. Like Camping, they can’t be dissuaded. No matter what the facts say, they will always come up with an excuse to justify their mistaken predictions.

That’s not democracy. It’s theocracy, for their theories are as unfalsifiable — and therefore unprovable — as religion. A republic must be governed by fact, not faith.

Krugman is the exemplar of this rule. Not only does he explain complex economic issues in layman’s terms better than anyone since John Kenneth Galbraith, but he bases all his predictions and prescriptions on carefully reasoned theories backed up by concrete evidence. And he holds his own feet to the fire, so we can all see when he’s wrong and when he’s right.

It is for these reasons that — with seven months (!) of backdating — we are proud to honor Paul Krugman with the 2010 Trading 8s Journalist of the Year” Award. (Damn if UCLA didn’t beat us to it.)