The Tom Friedman Petro-State Bet and “Superquestions”

Posted on Posted in Pundit Challenge


by Phil Tetlock and Warren Hatch

Good Judgment takes more than accurate forecasts. For all their skills, superforecasters wouldn’t have their impressive track record without someone posing the right questions. Good judgment also requires superquestioners.

Here’s a timely example from the book Superforecasting.  Back in the December 23, 2014, issue of the New York Times, Tom Friedman wrote, “If today’s falloff in oil prices is sustained, we’ll also be in for a lot of surprises.” As it turns out oil prices have stayed low, opening up the important question: Now what?

As a vague statement about the future, Mr Friedman was offering less a forecast than an invitation to think about what those “surprises” might be. It is a superquestion, rich in ideas to convert into testable propositions. With your help, we propose to take up Mr Friedman’s Petro-State Bet.

In his column, Mr Friedman highlighted several hots spots around the world that are vulnerable to change. In some cases, such as Cuba, low oil prices can be a catalyst for positive transformation. But for cash-strapped regimes like Venezuela that depend on dwindling oil revenues, cheaper oil can be a destabilizing force.

Digging deeper, Mr Friedman observed that Russian finances would be squeezed by low oil prices and that “Putin can’t relieve the pressure without a lifting of Western sanctions.” But to be a testable forecast, that statement needs a deadline, a way of measuring the pressure on Russian finances, and what it means for Putin’s political fortunes. Here’s another provocative but vague forecast:  “The Islamic State, which depends on oil smuggling, will fail at governing even faster than it already has.” An important issue, but again without a deadline or concrete metrics to evaluate.

We invite you to convert these ideas into testable propositions and send in your best questions for the Tom Friedman Petro-State Bet HERE or post in the comments section below. Our panel will select from the best superquestion-writers to post on our Public Tournament site.

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