Sunday, March 27, 2011

Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail - And Why We Believe Them Anyway

How the price of oil will go up, how the price of oil will go down, how house prices will certainly fall, how house prices will most definitely rise: turn on the radio, open a newspaper and the predictions of experts are seemingly ubiquitous.

In Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail - And Why We Believe Them Anyway, Dan Gardner wonders why we have always lived in a world of predictions, what it is about them we find so attractive and why they unfailingly appear inaccurate.

There have of course been predictions that were not only wrong, but which now seem bizarre: in the 1970s the world would begin to starve to death, by the year 2000 the Soviet Union would have the fastest-growing economy in the world, there'd be permanent undersea colonies, artificial moons to illuminate large areas at night, we'd all be using driverless cars, having robot maids and holidays in space.

Of course, reading old predictions about the future that is now the past - and with the benefit of hindsight - it would be too easy to mock the experts. But, as Gardner points out, there's a universal desire to know the future. We have, he says, a "hard-wired aversion to uncertainty".

Indeed, on one of the few occasions a futurist is cited approvingly, Gardner quotes George Friedman, author of The Next 100 Years, as saying that "predictions are built into our existence". Saving for retirement is a form of prediction and even every time we cross the road: we predict that a car won't run us down because the lights are on red!

More significantly for Gardner, however, is the authority we entrust in the experts to make the important predictions around which so much of our world revolves. His discussion of our willingness to accept expert predictions is fascinating. However, readers of his earlier book RISK: The Science and Politics of Fear, will be familiar with the anthropological, physiological and psychological arguments the author employs to discuss our decision-making abilities - or lack of. The temptation in this book was to skip those bits ... and I almost succumbed.

Gardner begins his book by writing about his grandfather, born into a good middle class family in good middle class England at the beginning of the 20th century. Britain had a vast empire, the telegraph and the airplane were modern miracles, and he asks, how could the future have been anything but grand? Of course, within a few years the world was plunged into a savage war and millions lost their lives, but the end of war and an eternal sense of optimism have always marked many predictions for the future.

Others, notably H.G. Wells in The Shape of Things to Come, accurately predicted the future 'Second World War' (although he forecast a decade-long slaughter ending not in victory for one side or the other, but the exhaustion and collapse of all nations).

Contrary to a belief that most human beings are born optimists, Gardner also refers to the doomsayers on the 1980s who saw the build-up of nuclear weapons under Ronald Reagan as the impending approach of Armageddon. The left wing of politics is, however, no more guilty of mistaken expert predictions than the right wing. Neither side of the political spectrum predicted the rapid collapse of the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union for example.

Apart from conflict, economics is the other great field for expert predictions and again Gardner points to the failure of all the economic experts and forecasters. No-one predicted the wealth and prosperity to come following World War II, it was generally thought that Japan would replace the US as the economic superpower and China would remain isolated and, more basically - but just as importantly - the world's great minds still seem to get it wrong in something apparently so simple as predicting the price of oil.

In a similar vein, Gardner seems to suggest that the current debate about energy crisis should be placed within the same framework. He quotes former US President Jimmy Carter who, back in 1977, said that soaring energy costs would imperil civilisation. But, writes Gardner, "cheap oil was the very breath and blood of the American way of life" and Carter was "spectacularly wrong" because crude oil prices collapsed in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Obviously, oil prices are determined by more than just supply and demand. So many other factors need to be taken into consideration: war and civil unrest, new inventions, new and alternative energy sources, new ways to find and drill oil, new oil fields are just a few examples.

Inventions and human ingenuity of course will always seem to confound expert predictions and, in Future Babble, Gardner cites the fascinating example of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. The Anaconda company is all but forgotten today but was once one of the largest companies in the world because of the expanding market for copper. In 1968 the company's president boasted about how strong it would still be in 100, 500 years. Then British scientists figured out how fibre optics could theoretically be a medium of communication and two years after the president's speech, fibre optics were vastly superior to copper wires, the price of copper plummeted and Anaconda sold itself facing liquidation in 1977!

Gardner quotes the philosopher Karl Popper who perhaps best expressed scepticism about the whole industry of expert predictions. "The course of human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge," Popper wrote. But it is impossible to "predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our scientific knowledge" because doing so would require us to know that future knowledge. "We cannot, therefore, predict the future common course of human history."

The future, as Gardner so succinctly puts it, "will forever be filled with surprises". Accidents or something apparently trivial can push history into a certain direction: there is always a massive and highly significant element of chance. That's why so many expert predictions are totally meaningless.



  1. Buy the fuking dip?

  2. Do you see the market is going up or down for the remaining week?