More than two and a half thousand years ago – so the story goes – King Croesus of Lydia consulted the oracle at Delphi. And the oracle assured him that if he went to war against Persia he would destroy a mighty empire. Reassured, Croesus launched his war, and was defeated. The oracle had been correct, but the mighty empire that Croesus destroyed was his own.
Our modern oracles are predictive algorithms. And perhaps the strange old tale of King Croesus has a great deal to teach us about how to interact with these silicon prophets.
Featuring: Archie Panjabi, Toby Stephens, Rufus Wright, Melanie Gutteridge, Mircea Monroe and Ed Gaughan.
Producers: Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Fact checking: Joseph Fridman. Editor: Julia Barton. Recording: Wardour Studios, London. GSI Studios, New York. PR: Christine Ragasa.
Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.
Further reading and listening
Both stories about the oracle at Delphi are in Herodotus: The Histories.
Tom Knudson did the original reporting on “Death by GPS” for the Sacramento Bee. Reuters covered the Carpi / Capri confusion. Both stories – and others – are discussed in Greg Milner’s excellent book Pinpoint.
Gretchen Morgenson covered AIG’s woes for the New York Times in “Behind Insurer’s Crisis, Blind Eye to a Web of Risk” 27 Sep 2008.
Esther Eidinow discusses what we can learn from how the Greeks consulted their oracles in “Oracles and Models” at The Conversation.
The Pierre Wack quote about forecasts is in “Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead” Harvard Business Review Sep/Oct 1985.
The original study of the illusion of explanatory depth is Rozenblit, Leonid, and Frank Keil. “The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth.” Cognitive science vol. 26,5 (2002): 521-562. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog2605_1
The study of how forecasting tournaments nurture humility is Barbara Mellers, Philip Tetlock, Hal R. Arkes, Forecasting tournaments, epistemic humility and attitude depolarization, Cognition, Volume 188, 2019, Pages 19-26
The study of a 1980s diagnostic aid is Wyatt J., Spiegelhalter D. (1991) Evaluating Medical Expert Systems: What To Test, And How ?. In: Talmon J.L., Fox J. (eds) Knowledge Based Systems in Medicine: Methods, Applications and Evaluation. Lecture Notes in Medical Informatics, vol 47. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg
The study of navigating around Kashiwa with or without GPS is Toru Ishikawa, Hiromichi Fujiwara, Osamu Imai, Atsuyuki Okabe, “Wayfinding with a GPS-based mobile navigation system: A comparison with maps and direct experience” Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 28, Issue 1, 2008, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2007.09.002.