GJ: How did you first qualify as a GJ Superforecaster?

EP: I have an RSS feed that has different areas of interest. I was following many other forecasters and was subscribed to a couple of blogs. I knew what GJ was. One of the blogs, I think it was Marginal Revolution, said the Good Judgment Project would be an interesting thing to do. The pitch was that they would teach us how to forecast. So I joined. In my first year when I qualified as a Superforecaster, I didn’t modify any of my forecasts ever. I thought an apples-to-apples comparison would require that you make a forecast once and you live with it, and that’s what I did. But I qualified anyway, so obviously I did something right.

The value of updating your forecasts depends on your use case. If you’re trying to challenge yourself as a forecaster, from a theoretical perspective, it doesn’t make sense to update. But if you’re trying to provide business intelligence, or any other natural practical use case of that, then it does.

GJ: Could you tell us a little bit about your background? What skills helped you with your forecasting the most?

EP: I was raised ultra-Orthodox, what Americans would call Hasidic, though it’s not. It’s more an academically rigorous form of Judaism. From a young age, from about the third or fourth grade, we would study 12-14 hours a day. One of the things that you would learn is how to pull information from the Bible. Basically, is there a rule, is there an exception to the rule, what does the exception tell you about the rule—things like that. Then there’s what’s called the back-and-forth, Shakla V’tarya, that is essentially a way of arguing. That is, you’re trying to split hairs as much as possible. Certainly, that’s useful in many applications—to figure out how to split hairs.

We didn’t do any secular things. There was no math, no physics, no science, nothing really except for religious studies. When I was still a child, I decided I didn’t believe in God, so I had to figure out what I wanted to do, and that was going to be science. I had to teach myself. I did have help. I had some teachers who enabled me to access labs. But I was the first person to matriculate, from the government perspective, from high school. That certainly stays with me.

Then, I tend to read widely. I can read about two pages a minute and I tend to retain that information. Part of what I was trained on as a child is the Jewish Talmud, the Gemara, whatever you want to call it. It’s a debating society. Rabbi X says this, and Rabbi Y says, “No, here’s why you’re wrong.” So, in high school, I was able to recite entire pages and go back and forth. That was certainly something useful.

I also have military experience in Israeli army because service is mandatory. I was a military planner in the IDF. So I’ve become a subject matter expert on military issues for Good Judgment. The fact that I was raised in Israel also gives me some amount of expertise on Israel-related questions, although I haven’t been back in a while.

GJ: You were among the first Superforecasters and subject matter experts to foresee the Russian invasion of Ukraine. How did you approach that question?

EP: That was a combination of my military expertise and looking at how I would plan a Ukraine invasion from a Russian perspective. The Israeli army is trained and briefed on the Russian doctrine because that is the doctrine of most of the surrounding countries, especially Syria, who, at the time when I did my military service, was the major threat. That’s their doctrine, so I was quite familiar with that.

The Russian army was arrayed the way you would do to invade Ukraine. It was pretty clear that was being used as a coup de main on Kiev. But it wasn’t clear at first if this was a bluff. That bothered me for a week or two. Ultimately, I resolved this by treating this as a backward induction problem, a concept from game theory. If you know what the option for the end state is, then what does that say about the state right before that?

Russia had invested pretty much all of its army in putting it around Ukraine, taking the troops from as far as Siberia. This wasn’t something they could maintain that long, with the troops in the field and maintenance issues. But they wouldn’t be able to do this again. If they decided, for example, to go back to camps and try to replicate this the year after, it would no longer be as successful, in terms of being threatening, because Ukraine would have seen this as a threat and they would have started building up their army, like Poland is doing today. So, it would have been harder next year.

So, if we knew this was a one-time option, what could they achieve from that? There were two options of things Russia could achieve. They could either try to capture something, or everything, though it wasn’t clear to me what the plan was, besides the coup de main in Kyiv. Or they could do this to leverage their negotiation, but Russia was not showing any willingness to negotiate. They were basically making demands that they knew were impossible. Everybody knew that. So, if they were not interested in negotiation, then the only thing left was invasion.

It was harrowing to watch, but I thought it was predictable at the time.

When you talked to some Russian people, they would say things like, Ukraine is not a country. The Russian plan was to be greeted as liberators. My ancestry is from Ukraine, but as in the Eastern European Jewish ancestry. I didn’t know enough about the policy of Ukraine, but history is pretty clear that when you get invaded, you’re going to rally round the flag.

GJ: What has been happening in GJ world for you recently? What have you been working on?

EP: It’s war-related, but in a different way. We weren’t predicting the recent Arab-Israeli conflict, although the notion of enemy force overrunning the Israeli border forces and taking over civilian settlements was something that was planned for decades, going back to the 1960s. The usual suspect was Hezbollah, not Hamas, but still something that was being planned.

Our early days of analysis at Good Judgment had some interesting aspects. The forecasting group that we have is pretty international. We have the Israelis, and we also have the Lebanese. So we had these Israelis and the Lebanese working together, trying to figure out what’s going to happen between their countries, but also supporting each other emotionally, because it was difficult for all of us involved.

GJ: What do you find most rewarding about being a GJ Superforecaster?

EP: The intellectual stimulation. It’s not trivial. I tend to know things about a lot of areas. Having intellectual debates is something that I was raised on. Going back to my childhood, telling somebody that their idea is wrong is just something you would do. That’s literally what you study day in, day out.

There is a saying in Hebrew, “Fighting between scholars leads to greater knowledge.” This is the ideal, the platonic ideal, if you wish, of how intellectual debates happen. In practice, even in academic settings, you find that when people’s ideas are challenged, they will oftentimes take it personally. It does happen in GJ, but it happens less than in most other environments.

GJ: When you’re not busy forecasting, what do you do in your spare time? Is there something that would surprise your fellow Supers that they didn’t know about you?

EP: In my spare time, I go to lectures and pick fights. I look for interesting problems, like fake news or RFID, things like that, and I solve them. I have a patent for wind turbines. I read books, but I don’t think it would surprise anybody, because I tend to quote a lot. I have not managed to become a chemist, that’s one of my weak spots, but I can go to chemistry poster sessions and ask good questions.

GJ: We usually ask Superforecasters to offer some tips to people either starting out or seeking to improve their skills in forecasting. What is your top suggestion for somebody to work on?

EP: The most important one, I would say, is as Cromwell said: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, consider that you may be mistaken.” The biggest one is to realize that you might make a mistake. And you’re going to make mistakes. That’s just the nature of it.

Sometimes you’ll make a mistake that is your fault because you didn’t consider something. For example, take forecasting a movie’s box office gross. Box office is seasonal dependent. So, if you take an annual average, you’re going to get a very different result than if you take a seasonal average. That’s a mistake that would be on you.

But sometimes it’s just the unforeseen, what Lady Burton called the unknown unknowns, a rare event. And if you say something’s going to happen 90% of the time, that means that 10% of the time you’re going to be wrong. And that’s okay. But you need to figure out whether that 10% is just that or whether it was because you screwed up.

And then, “begin with the base rate,” and things like that. That’s all important. But the most important tip is look for what’s different, look for when you’re wrong, and be willing to adjust.


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