Crowd Intelligence

Outsmarting the CIA


Elaine Rich is a pharmacist in her 60s. She and a team of 3,000 other amateur forecasters in the Good Judgment Project (GJP) use Google to keep current on the news. The CIA employs more than 20,000 professionals, operates with a budget north of $14 billion, and has oodles of classified information. So which of these groups is better at predicting world affairs?

When it comes to "everything from Venezuelan gas subsidies to North Korean politics," reports NPR, amateurs outperform the pros. Rich's "predictions are reportedly 30 percent better than intelligence officers."

There's "a lot of statistical random variation," Philip Tetlock, a GJP founder, told NPR. "But it's random variation around…a true signal, and when you add all of the random variation on each side of the true signal together, you get closer to the true signal." The GJP has been operating for three years. Tetlock's team provides people like Rich with basic training in probability estimation. Then they're good to go.

This network of folk forecasters isn't likely to supplant the CIA, but it does intend to change the way the intelligence community operates. The GJP blogged in April that "for many geopolitical forecasting questions, we see promise in a human-machine hybrid approach that combines the best strengths of human judgments and statistical models."