Decisive moment! Decisive moment?

Commentary No. 497, May 15, 2019

We all want to know what the future portends for us about anything important. We all tend to believe the future will be what the present is. If the polls show we shall make a certain decision, deciding if something looks good now, it will continue to look good as the future goes on. At the same time, it is a well-tested phenomenon we canโ€™t remember decisions more than six months ago. What is a result of combining these two seeming facts? Let me try to explain how a combination works.

An example would be a decision most people are most concerned with โ€“ the election of the United States President in 2020. While we think the present is a favorable outlook for Donald Trump, it seems to me that it is more complicated.

Every day and every morning new elements enter the picture and by a small amount the present prediction is less valid. This continues over time. Think of it as a slow train pulling away from the accuracy of our prediction. By the time six months have passed, accuracy is reduced to almost zero.

So, it might be most sensible to start where we were six months ago and emphasize new things! And say that this predicts what will happen next. We are, therefore, urged to learn what it was six months ago. How can we do that?

There is first our memory of it, and second public evidence of it taken six months ago. If things favored Trump six months ago, he will be reelected. If things were less good six months ago, he will not be reelected.

How good are our assessments of whatever we felt six months ago? Six months for whom? Voting in the state of Oregon is completed and nothing that has happened since then can affect those votes.

There are other states with different rules about when a vote is taken in their state or at a local level. So, to know what people felt six months ago we have to combine an estimate of six months ago for different groups of people. This is, of course, a very difficult mathematical exercise and it is not likely people will do it well.

In addition, in the United States the vote is taken in a body called the Electoral College. This Electoral College is not in the computer but something that actually meets. When it meets, most electors have made promises how they would vote. They are not legally required to keep those promises. Some have violated them in the past and others may do so in the future. Now we realize what a hard time it is to predict today the vote in the Electoral College tomorrow. Some will then say the whole thing is not worth trying to see what will happen.

How do they then predict? Some do it by guesswork; some give up entirely. How can we know what will happen? Is there any way? It seems doubtful.

We may then enter a world totally cynical in which everyone does what they feel like doing.

So, decisive moment! But also decisive moment? There may not be a decisive moment.