July 22, 2011
China’s economy will continue its surge for at least the next decade. Precipitation in my city will be 10% above normal next July. The military outlook in Afghanistan is rosy—or bleak, depending on who you consult. Predictions of all sorts abound in today’s media—from the political talking heads proliferating on cable television to our local nightly weather forecaster. Numerous experts tell us, often with little or no doubt, exactly what is going to happen tomorrow, next month, next year, and far into the future. And most of it is crap.
I just finished an excellent book: Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better, by Dan Gardner. Everyone who relies on expert analysis (or makes such predictions) should read this book.
Gardner considers the value of expert prediction in the only way one sensibly can—by looking at past predictions and comparing them to what actually happened. Gardner shows how often experts go terribly wrong in predicting the future. Not only does he take names, he goes back to some of those experts to get their views on what went wrong—or whether they think they were wrong.
If Gardner stopped at that point, the book would be mildly amusing, but he does more than just point out past errors. He uses principles of social psychology to explain the problem: why people so smart can be so wrong; why the experts we see in the media tend to be so certain, why we (and the experts themselves) forget experts’ past mistakes and think they’re better than they are; why we don’t learn from our past errors.
Gardner is a journalist with the Ottawa Citizen, not a social scientist, but his grasp of the subject is excellent, and his writing is lively and easy to follow. Well worth reading.
July 22, 2011 | Permalink