Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top aide Dominic Cummings is said to be forcing advisors to read books promoting superforecasting and paranoia as part of a rigorous training regime he arranged for the summer. Special advisors were told to read the 350-page book “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction” by Philip Tetlock and “High Output Management” by Andrew Grove which claims that “only the paranoid survive”. According to POLITICO, the strict regime includes weekend away days during the summer break, where advisors are expected to discuss roadblocks preventing the progress of Government policies.
In a Zoom call with advisers last week, the Brexit guru ended a briefing by claiming that “a hard rain is coming”.
In the latest call he told advisers Downing Street did not care how people voted during the general election, but that they wanted to “get stuff done”.
Mr Cummings also dismissed claims Downing Street wanted a Brexiteer to replace Britain’s top civil servant Sir Mark Sedwill, saying it was “totally and utterly stupid” and a “dumb idea”, The Times reported.
He also criticised Sir Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Tony Blair, for claiming it was part of a “rolling coup”.
It comes as Downing Street has come under fire for its decision to fill Sir Mark’s other role as national security advisor with David Frost, who is expected to prioritise his role negotiating the UK’s deal with the EU while learning his new job.
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Britain’s top civil servant, Sir Mark Sedwill
The move is widely seen as just the beginning of wider upheaval, though, which has long been championed by Mr Cummings.
Moreover, the book Mr Cummings has urged advisors to read, “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction”, can yield insights into his thinking and reveal the sort of people he wants to surround himself with in Whitehall.
Professor Tetlock is a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and he invented the discipline of “superforecasting”.
Superforecasting is a reputable attempt to apply modern analytical and statistical practice to the art of forecasting events.
It seeks to do to prediction what opinion polling did to social surveying a generation ago: to turn decisions by pure hunch into something more of a science.
In January, former education minister Lord Andrew Adonis said regarding the discipline: “By comparing trained superforecasters with people who are simply knowledgeable about a particular sphere, but not about probabilities and event patterns, Tetlock shows that they consistently outperform the ‘experts’ in predicting the likelihood of events.
“In his graphic phrase, prediction without applying superforecasting techniques is ‘roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee’.
“This is commendable. Aid agencies, for example, now apply superforecasting to identifying the likelihood of droughts becoming famines.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson
“NATO strategists are using it to predict the likelihood of Russia invading Estonia.
“Political scientists can use it to predict when Chancellor Merkel will eventually retire and the likelihood of Trump getting a second term.
“It is all done in the form of constantly changing probabilities.”
For example, when one of the superforecasters was looking at the chances of North Korea conducting a nuclear test, the starting point was the country had, on average, conducted tests every 30 months, suggesting a 10 percent chance there would be a test in the next three months.
This figure was then doubled, to 20 percent, because North Korea had been threatening to conduct tests.
Superforecasters are supposed to be particularly good at keeping their personal opinions out of the calculations, the book explains.
The other important part of the method is you take the probabilities estimated by a number of superforecasters and average them out to get a final result.
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Boris Johnson’s special adviser Dominic Cummings
Their personality traits, rather than any specialised knowledge, is what, according to Prof Tetlock, allows them to make predictions that outstrip the accuracy of several of the world’s intelligence services, despite the fact that forecasters had access to no more classified data than they could access with a Google search.
Nick Hare, one of the superforecasters, told the BBC: “Most people would expect to find domain experts doing well in their domain.
“But, in fact, there are people who are good at all domains.”
According to Prof Tetlock’s research, in a philosophic outlook, superforecasters tend to be cautious, as nothing is certain, humble, as reality is infinitely complex, and nondeterministic, as what happens is not meant to be and does not have to happen.
In their abilities and thinking styles, superforecasters are actively open-minded, intelligent and knowledgeable, reflective and comfortable with numbers.
In their methods of predicting, they tend to be pragmatic, analytical, probabilistic, thoughtful updaters and good intuitive psychologists.
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Professor Philip Tetlock
And last, in their work ethic, they believe it is possible to get better and are determined to keep at it however long it takes.
Prof Tetlock recently claimed he does not think superforecasting should be linked to a particular political point of view.
He said most people would want their leaders to be “informed by the most accurate possible estimates of the consequences of the options on the table”.
Therefore, it can be argued that the fundamental change to the civil service and the Cabinet Office overhaul long desired by Mr Cummings can find its roots in Prof Tetlock’s thinking.
The rigorous training regime the Brexit guru arranged for the summer could be trying to train officials into becoming superforecasters.