Once again we face a fresh New Year with countless possibilities stretching out far beyond the horizon. Will this year be filled with triumphs or tragedies? What changes lay ahead? Is the uncertainty daunting or exciting? Are we creating a new earth or witnessing the end of history?
Will this be the year of “The Big One” — flu pandemic, economic collapse, natural disaster, terrorism attack, nuclear war, environmental disaster, or The Second Coming and end of time? Or will 2011 be another step in humanity’s long march to ever higher prosperity, social development, environmental awareness, interconnectedness, and personal/spiritual growth?
As we’ve been experiencing this time of year during “Silly Season,” the deep-seated need to eliminate uncertainty and know the future empowers an array of “experts” all too willing to forecast with great certainty what’s in store. In his new book, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway, Dan Gardner shows just how wrong those experts are.
This is an extremely readable and thought provoking book. Gardner’s exhaustive research builds an extremely persuasive case for the book’s sub-title. He also explains why we keep coming back for more useless forecasting babble. Although some of his examples could be more succinctly summarized, most are very entertaining and enlightening. Gardner illustrates the book’s core message around the dismal failure of expert predictions with examples of both overly rosy predictions and darkly apocalyptic forecasts missing the mark by miles. He’s especially effective at pillorying the many bestselling prophets of doom. These include the authors of such pessimistically dire works as, The Population Bomb, How to Prosper in the Coming Bad Years, The Limits to Growth, The End of Affluence, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, and Blood in the Streets.
Future Babble cites numerous studies showing the repeated and colossal failure of expert predictions in every field (except for short term weather forecasts.) He quotes Scott Armstrong “an expert on forecasting at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania” on his “seer-sucker theory: No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.” Here’s another of Gardner’s examples: “The now-defunct magazine Brill’s Content, for one, compared the predictions of famous American pundits with a chimpanzee named Chippy, who made guesses by choosing among flashcards. Chippy consistently matched or beat the best in the business.”
Future Babble draws heavily on the comprehensive research of Philip Tetlock, professor of psychology, business, and political science at University of California Berkeley. His authoritative study encompassed 284 experts “giving 27,450 judgments of the future.” Tetlock concluded that the experts would have been beaten by “a dart-throwing chimpanzee.” Gardner observes that “the simple and disturbing truth is that the experts’ predictions were no more accurate than random guesses.” An especially interesting finding in these days of media sound bites, blogging, and viral videos is Tetlock’s use of Google hits to determine the fame of each of the 284 experts. His findings: “the more famous the expert, the worse he did.”
Future Babble concludes with very wise advice from British/American journalist and broadcaster, Alistair Cooke, for dealing with life’s uncertainty: “In the best of times our days are numbered anyway. And so it would be a crime against nature for any generation to take the world’s crisis so solemnly that is put off enjoying those things for which we were designed in the first place. The opportunity to do good work, to fall in love, to enjoy friends, to hit a ball, and to bounce a baby.”
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