Column: Roger's Soapbox

Pollsters, Ponies And Post-Truths

By: | March 3, 2017

Roger Crombie is a United Kingdom-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at [email protected].

Here’s what we know about what lies ahead: nothing. Nothing at all. Events are largely unpredictable far into the future; people much more so at any remove. Earthquakes happen without much warning; life is a minestrone.

To quote George Carlin: “We’re all here on a big rock, zippin’ around a bad star for no good reason. We don’t know where we came from, we don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know how long it’s gonna last, and we have to keep going to the bathroom. And on top of that, the whole thing is completely meaningless.”

Despite which, forecasting is a basic requirement of any business — and in four industries that come immediately to mind, it’s the entire business.

What do the pollsters do wrong that insurance does right?

Weather forecasting is the weakest one. The bouncy weather girl hasn’t been selected for her brains or inside knowledge, because, generally speaking, she has neither.

Polling is another, although its reputation lies in ruin following a recent stunning series of wrong forecasts. Brexit. The British economy post-Brexit. Trump. Events have proven beyond the forecasting abilities of pollsters and economists, for that matter. The dismal science indeed.

Bookmaking fares better — not the art of printing and binding, but the science of knowing which horse or team will win the race or the game (Trump foxed even those guys). The “bookies” (or the OTB or what have you) make a solid living forecasting the outcome of complex events.

So do insurers. What is insurance if not the ability to accurately forecast life spans and accident probabilities?

Which begs the question: What do the pollsters do wrong that insurance does right? Easy enough to discern. It’s the clause in every insurance contract that says that if you lied on your application in any meaningful way, the policy is invalid. Simple.

Pollsters must rely on the answers they are given. Many of them phrase their questions to derive desired answers. I know this to be true, because I been politically polled. What was wanted was not the truth, but confirmation of the pollsters’ biases.

Insurers want the truth, the whole truth and, quite literally, nothing but the truth. Not the post-truth or the alternative truth. A smoker who claims to abstain is warping beyond repair the forecasts on which premiums are based. The citizen who says she intends to vote Clinton, because she is embarrassed to admit to liking Trump, can lie with impunity. Many of them did, apparently.

Horse racing, football and all sports on which wagers are laid also rely on the integrity of the players, the officials and the supervising bodies. That’s why a drugged athlete offends our sense of fair play. Without that, all bets are off.

My truth may differ from yours, but the smart forecasting industries dial that out of the equation. That’s why insurance companies have billions and why there are at least two legalized betting shops on every high street in Britain.

Martin Luther King put it best: Peace if possible, truth at all costs. &

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