Sunday, July 31, 2011

Making Predictions About the Future

The price of oil will soar to $200 per barrel. A bioterror attack will occur before 2013. Rising food prices could spark riots in Britain. The Arctic Ocean will be ice-free by 2015. Home prices will not recover this year. But who cares about any of those predictions: The world will end in 2012.

The media abound with confident predictions. Everywhere we turn, we find an expert declaiming on some future trend, concerning nearly every activity. Should we pay much attention? No, says journalist Dan Gardner in his wonderfully perspicacious new book, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, And You Can Do Better. Gardner is previously the author of The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't—and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger. _Reason
The only thing you can say for certain about the future, is that once it becomes past people will still not be sure exactly what happened. So how stupid is it to predict the future? Ronald Bailey of Reason Magazine thinks it's pretty stupid (via Dennis Mangan):
As oil prices ascend once again, naturally many predict that the end of oil is nigh. Back in 1980, Gardner reminds us, The New York Times confidently declared, “There should be no such thing as optimism about energy for the foreseeable future. What is certain is that the price of oil will go up and up, at home as well as abroad.” By 1986 oil prices had fallen to around $10 per barrel. On the accuracy of oil price predictions, Gardner cites U.S. Foreign Service Officer James Akins, who said: “Oil experts, economists, and government officials who have attempted in recent years to predict the future demand and prices of oil have had only marginally better success than those who foretell the advent of earthquakes or the second coming of the Messiah.”

...In this excellent book, Gardner romps through the past 40 years of failed predictions on economics, energy, environment, politics, and so much more. Remember back in 1990 when Japan would rule the world? MIT economist Lester Thurow declared, “If one looks at the last 20 years, Japan would have to be considered the betting favorite to win the economic honors of owning the 21st century.” Thurow was far from alone. Back in 1992, George Friedman, now CEO of the geopolitical consultancy Stratfor, predicted The Coming War With Japan. Twenty years later, for those hungering for more predictive insights from Friedman, he has recently published, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century.

...Back in 1968, Ehrlich notoriously predicted in The Population Bomb, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate….”

The famines didn’t happen. And Gardner notes that the world death rate was 13 per 1,000 when Ehrlich wrote his book. Every decade since it has fallen and is now 9 per 1,000 people. “In two lengthy interviews, Ehrlich admitted to making not a single major error in the popular works he published in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” observes Gardner. It is almost not too much to say that Ehrlich has never been right about anything that he has predicted. _Reason_via_DennisMangan
Experts typically suffered academic lobotomies sometime in their careers, which not only leaves them totally amoral as to the effect their predictions may have on real people's lives, but also makes it unlikely that they can ever learn from their inevitable mistakes. No wonder they are so consistently wrong.

And since experts are so highly valued in government, media, and academia, societies which allow themselves to be slapped around by government, media, and academia are going to suffer some hard times -- until they wise up to what they are letting be done to them.

Peak oil doom, climate catastrophe, overpopulation apocalypse, etc. etc. Today's conventional wisdom is a crock of shite. Perhaps it is time for people to learn to think for themselves. But can they still learn to do that?

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