Future Babble

Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway (2011) by Dan Gardner is a well written, popular non-fiction title that takes the points of Phillip Tetlock’s classic book Expert Political Judgement and expands on them and looks at a range of predictions made by experts.

The conclusions reached by the book are little different from Tetlock’s. ‘Foxes’, that is people who don’t make big sweeping generalisations and don’t have big theories do better than ‘hedgehogs’ who are people with a strong ideology or framework that they fit events into.

Gardner’s book is far more readable than Tetlock’s, he goes through lots of examples of popular predictions. Gardner pays particular attention to ecological predictions and talks about the wildly incorrect statements of Paul Ehrlich and his most famous book The Population Bomb. He also has a look at some of the economist Julian Simon who famously won a bet against Ehrlich and points out that some of his predictions have not held up.

The book looks at a range of predictions about how the US would decline in the 1980s and 1990s, how the Soviet Union would overtake the US economically, how the oil price would, usually be predicted to rise sharply and then fail to do so, how economic predictions made by most pundits are not valuable to say the least and how the Y2K problem was overstated. There are many more examples and Gardner has done his research well enough to even debunk some alleged failed predictions are being misinterpretations including most interestingly Norman Angell’s alleged prediction that there would not be a war in Europe in 1911, instead Angell instead says that no-one would profit from a war in Europe.

Gardner looks at many of these predictions that have been made and has contacted the authors and asked them about their predictions and uncovers staggering confirmation bias, including particularly Ehrlich himself. But most of the predictors suffer from the same problem. He even looks at the origin of phrase cognitive dissonance which is a great tale of Leon Festinger who studied the end of the world predictions of a group called ‘The Seekers’. What happened when the world failed to end to the group was fascinating.

The book also looks at why we do make predictions and points out that the reason is that most of our actions are dependent on predicting the future. Big decisions made by politicians are predicated by predictions. Invasions are expected by those who prosecute them to have certain outcomes.

Gardner also finds a group of intelligence people in the Canadian government who do better with their predictions of events in the next few years, by careful use of qualifiers like probably, likely and unlikely they wind up, overall, with confidence that was useful. There is hope that if their methods are followed and those who ask for predictions follow up on the confidence and accuracy of the predictions that they get they could a better sense of what may happen. This does not mean really accurate prediction, more that the likelihood of events happening can be more usefully dealt with so that more eventualities can be dealt with.

The book is well worth reading for anyone who has any interest in thinking about the future. Gardner writes well and has picked a great subject that he has looked at in reasonable depth. The book usefully builds on Tetlock’s work and will hopefully be read by many people.

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