The morning I met Elaine Rich, she was sitting at the kitchen table of her small town home in suburban Maryland trying to estimate refugee flows in Syria.
It wasn’t the only question she was considering; there were others:
Will North Korea launch a new multistage missile before May 10, 2014?
Will Russian armed forces enter Kharkiv, Ukraine, by May 10? Rich’s answers to these questions would eventually be evaluated by the intelligence community, but she didn’t feel much pressure because this wasn’t her full-time gig.
“I’m just a pharmacist,” she said. “Nobody cares about me, nobody knows my name, I don’t have a professional reputation at stake. And it’s this anonymity which actually gives me freedom to make true forecasts.”
Rich does make true forecasts; she is curiously good at predicting future world events.
Better Than The Pros
For the past three years, Rich and 3,000 other average people have been quietly making probability estimates about everything from Venezuelan gas subsidies to North Korean politics as part of the Good Judgment Project, an experiment put together by three well-known psychologists and some people inside the intelligence community.
According to one report, the predictions made by the Good Judgment Project are often better even than intelligence analysts with access to classified information, and many of the people involved in the project have been astonished by its success at making accurate predictions.
When Rich, who is in her 60s, first heard about the experiment, she didn’t think she would be especially good at predicting world events. She didn’t know a lot about international affairs, and she hadn’t taken much math in school.
But she signed up, got a little training in how to estimate probabilities from the people running the program, and then was given access to a website that listed dozens of carefully worded questions on events of interest to the intelligence community, along with a place for her to enter her numerical estimate of their likelihood.
“The first two years I did this, all you do is choose numbers,” she told me. “You don’t have to say anything about what you’re thinking, you don’t have to justify your numbers. You just choose numbers and then see how your numbers work out.”
Rich’s numbers worked out incredibly well.
She’s in the top 1 percent of the 3,000 forecasters now involved in the experiment, which means she has been classified as a superforecaster, someone who is extremely accurate when predicting stuff like:
Will there be a significant attack on Israeli territory before May 10, 2014?
In fact, she’s so good she’s been put on a special team with other superforecasters whose predictions are reportedly 30 percent better than intelligence officers with access to actual classified information.
Rich and her teammates are that good even though all the information they use to make their predictions is available to anyone with access to the Internet.
When I asked if she goes to obscure Internet sources, she shook her head no.
“Usually I just do a Google search,” she said.
And that raises this question:
How is it possible that a group of average citizens doing Google searches in their suburban town homes can outpredict members of the United States intelligence community with access to classified information?
How can that be?”