Paul Ehrlich

It's Hard to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future

The new book Future Babble explains why dart-throwing monkeys are better at predicting the future than most pundits.


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

In Future Babble, Gardner acknowledges his debt to political scientist Phililp Tetlock, who set up a 20-year experiment in which he enrolled nearly 300 experts in politics. Tetlock then solicited thousands of predictions about the fates of scores of countries and later checked how well they did. Not so well. Tetlock concluded that most of his experts would have been beaten by "a dart-throwing chimpanzee." Tetlock found that the experts wearing rose-tinted glasses "assigned probabilities of 65 percent to rosy scenarios that materialized only 15 percent of the time." Doomsters did even worse: "They assigned probabilities of 70 percent to bleak scenarios that materialized only 12 percent of the time."

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.

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."

Akins' observation was made in 1973 and it's as true today as it was then. Consider the 2008 claim made by analysts at the investment bank Goldman Sachs that oil prices could surge beyond $200 per barrel in as little as six months. In fact, in as little as six months, the price of petroleum had fallen to $34 per barrel.

When it comes to prophets Gardner prefers foxes to hedgehogs. This is a distinction used by Tetlock, which was made famous by political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (who himself adopted an observation by ancient Greek poet Archilochus): "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

Foxes are intellectual omnivores obtaining disparate information where they can. Hedgehogs in contrast fit all information into one central grand scheme that explains the operation of the world. "Hedgehogs are big-idea thinkers in love with grand theories: libertarianism, Marxism, environmentalism, etc.," says Tetlock. "Their self-confidence can be infectious."

As Gardner shows, foxes are a bit better at predicting the future than are hedgehogs. For example, environmentalist Paul Ehrlich is a perfect hedgehog. For more than four decades, he has maintained that everything important about the world can be explained by population trends. 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.

And yet failed prophets like Ehrlich are almost never punished. In fact, pundits like George Friedman continue to be quoted by journalists, invited to appear on TV talk shows, and hired by corporate executives eager to see what the tea leaves say about the future. When caught, pundits emit squid-ink clouds of obfuscation harrumphing that they got the timeframe wrong, it almost happened, or an unpredictable exogenous shock derailed the forecast. In any case, Gardner reveals the recipe for achieving success as a pundit: "Be simple, clear, and confident. Be extreme. Be a good storyteller. Think and talk like a hedgehog." 

Besides making fun of the failures of the prognosticating class, Gardner also explains why so many of us keep falling for false prophesy: Humans beings hate uncertainty. Gardner offers myriad insights from research in cognitive psychology and behavioral economics that explains how and why we succumb to our desires for certainty. "Whether sunny or bleak, convictions about the future satisfy the hunger for certainty," writes Gardner. "We want to believe. And so we do."  

In the end, I am tempted to adopt English soccer player Paul Gascoigne's pledge: "I never make predictions and I never will."

Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution (Prometheus Books).

NEXT: 'Core Constitutional Roles' Like Job Training, Farm Subsidies, and Health Insurance

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  1. I’m Curious Ron, does Gardner bring up the bet between Ehrlich and Julian Simon?

    (In 1980 Simon sold Ehrlich (on credit) ten year futures on five metals of Ehrlich’s choosing. The total price was $1,000. In 1990 Ehrlich had to pay Simon $600, because the metals had gone down in price.)

    That should be enough for anyone to show that Ehrlich is to be ignored.

    Also, here I am again marveling at the Ron “Super Realist-Skeptic” Bailey sized up against the Ron “Global warming is coming so let’s figure out a government solution” Bailey.

    An enigma wrapped in a paradox…..or something.

    1. Great point!

    2. You can believe that AGW is happening while not believing in government “solutions” to it.

      1. Tman & realist: Thinking like a fox?

        Otto: Correct.

        1. Ok Ron, what’s your “non-government solution”?

          This is the “we can do better” I was talking about the other day.

          1. My inner fox tells me to ignore AGW. Heard it all before…

          2. You’re thinking like a hedgehog, you want one big solution. Maybe a handful of smaller solutions will turn out to be better. Or maybe solutions will emerge without us having to explicitly adopt any. Or perhaps there really isn’t a problem or not a big as you think.

            You’re implying a false dichotomy, that are choices are between a big one-size-fits-all government solution, or a big one-size-fits-all private solution. Sometimes the world can get by without a big wise man up on top.

            p.s. My money is on the unplanned emergent solutions.

    3. if you like, i can lend you my crystal ball!

  2. Also, I linked this in other threads before, but this is a good post to link to John McCarthy, Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Stanford University’s page-


    This Web page and its satellites are aimed at showing that human material progress is desirable and sustainable. People have worried about many problems. These pages discuss energy in general, nuclear energy, solar energy, food supply, population, fresh water supply, forests and wood supply, global engineering, pollution, biodiversity, various menaces to human survival, the role of ideology in discussing these matters, useful references.

    Here’s the money quote from his page: “He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense.

    1. Actually, most really bad predictions come from looking at just a few numbers and extrapolating them indefinitely.

      Usually, there are confounding factors which need to be applied, but it makes better press to say “At the rate house prices are falling, US homes will be worth less than $10,000 in 20 years.”

      1. At the rate your child is growing he will be 20 feet tall as an adult (and still growing!)

        1. That’s true.

          Just because something is happening this way now doesn’t mean that it won’t change (and quite possible must change, because the laws of nature (in the child case, human biology) require it).

      2. The other big mistake is thinking that everything is planned. Most of the huge changes throughout history were the result of accidents or emergent orders.

    2. McCarthy got an opinion on expotential arithmetic? Kind of sounds un-american.

      “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the expotential function.” Albert Bartlett, Professor Emeritus, University of Colorado.

      To be fair, Dr. Bartlett wrote a piece in 1998 titled ‘The massive movement to marginalize the modern malthusian message (The Social Contract, Vol. 8, No. 3, pgs. 239-251). I am unfamiliar with Malthus’ work but realize it is threaded within the conversation this book protends.

      What in the 21st century, is, and will always be considered finite?

  3. Interesting that he specifically included libertarianism in the “hedgehog” mentality. Are we so wrapped up in our own grand theory of the universe that we can’t see the forest through the trees?

    1. Certainly vulgar libertarianism, at least, can get monomaniacal and fail to recognize that things called “privatization” by the political class can be harmful and so on.

      Generally, to the extent we predict miserable, abject failure of government and to the extent we

      1. Hey! I try to be as vulgar as a libertarian can get.

      2. I certainly am. I struggle with this all the time. Sometimes I feel like the James Hetfield parody – GOVERNMENT BAD, FREE ENTERPRISE (and beer) GOOD!!!

    2. Yes, we are that wrapped up. Whenever there is a tax increase we predict doom. Whenever there is a tax cut we predict a boom. Yet it never happens in either case. Where is that Great Depression II we were promised because of TARP? Where is the Weimer style hyperinflation because of the Stimulus?

  4. And yet failed prophets like Ehrlich are almost never punished

    In fact, they inspire people like Roland Emmerich to make terrible movies, so in the end, we are the ones being punished.

  5. The world will end in 2012 Oct 21st.

    1. The article says May 21st! Oh noes! Only a month and a half left!

    And this pretty much explains why you should never listen to pundits.

    1. That article is amazingly useful. Thank you.

      1. I find that has a suprisingly abundant amount of useful articles. And non useful articles that are just awesome.

        1. I find that has a suprisingly abundant amount of useful articles. And non useful articles that are just awesome.

          I remember finding their ‘Top 5 Bugs that shouldn’t exist’ and being entranced such horrors were real.

  7. In any case, Gardner reveals the recipe for achieving success as a pundit: “Be simple, clear, and confident. Be extreme. Be a good storyteller. Think and talk like a hedgehog.”

    Would it be possible to affect this attitude while taking a more epistemically humble position? If it’s just a matter of using short, punchy sentences, and not stuttering, why couldn’t you say something like, “Anyone who tells you they can predict the price of oil in five years is either a moron or a charlatan. If you believe them, you are either a sucker or a child.” [Then make a short term prediction for six months on something relatively simpler; e.g. the federal budget will continue to be in massive deficit because the American People are what’s technically known as “Greedy Morons.”]

    /my wet dream

  8. I love failed predictions
    “We will never make a 32 bit operating system.” Bill Gates

    1. If we’re going for Gates and irony, I prefer the regular predictions from Microsoft that the next edition of Windows? will be “virtually bug-free and highly secure.”

      ‘Course, unlike Erlich, nobody takes it seriously.

      1. Don’t forget “who would ever need more than 640K of RAM”*.

        * Gates never actually said this.

        1. Over 640,000 memories of random accesses is a whole lot of strange.

          Not Gates. Chamberlain.

        2. There’s a lot of doozies out of Redmond. But in the past ten years, this one takes the biggest cake of them all:


          1. 30. “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?” ? Associates of David Sarnoff responding to the latter’s call for investment in the radio in 1921.


            They were lucky to not have had you tube-it makes it worse

  9. Way off topic, but can someone at reason respond to this facebook wall-hogging Vanity Fair article:…..ent-201105 THX

    1. I agree. The Stiglitz article raises a perspective that many around me share and I have a hard time completely discounting. I’m sure there’s a good counter-argument, I’d like to read it.

      1. That old piece of Marxist propaganda has been trotted out every few years or so for as long as there’s been commie sycophants in newsrooms. I usually see it whenever the economy shits the bed and the numbers presented, while often accurate, are cherry picked and shown in a way to make it seem like a peoples revolution will be lighting up the pitchforks by the next presidency.

        My favorite counter to “the top 1% own such and such %” is to simply inform the closet commie and their biased bullshit is that, since WWII, on average the top 1% here in the U.S. pays about a little under 50% of the taxes collected.

        Liberal Assholes who demand that the rich be treated the same as the poor are usually quick to shut the fuck up when they realize how much more the “poor” would have to start coughing up to make things even.

    2. Putrid. Wealth is not a zero-sum game. The “rich” getting richer or owning a greater percentage of wealth doesn’t affect me at all, unless, of course, one of them hires me to work for them.

      1. Intuitively, I think we all know this.

        Bill Gates might be worth a billion dollars, or two, or ten, and all that really matter to me is the money in MY accounts.

    3. Its worth noting the states with the grossest disparities between the unwashed masses and the pampered elite are decidedly ‘blue’ states run by blue team all-stars.

      Think Henry Waxman hitting the beach in Santa Monica or Nancy Pelosi sipping wine in Sonoma. Mikey Bloomberg dreaming of gunning down smokers for their own good in his undoubtedly tony NYC pad (I know Gracy Mansion wasn’t good enough for Mikey).

      And these folks are the ones fighting for the ‘little guy’ and embrace shit in that Vanity Fair article as their animating ideology.

      Fuck them.

    4. The top 1 percent rarely serve in the military?the reality is that the “all-volunteer” army does not pay enough to attract their sons and daughters, and patriotism goes only so far.
      I have no idea how Stiglitz could come up with the data to make that claim. Does the army ask recruits how much money their parents make?
      They probably do ask for parents’ address, which is how Heritage was able to figure out neighborhood income of enlisted recruits, and conclude that 3.46% of them come from neighborhoods with median family income >$100k.

      Plus, the wealthiest class feels no pinch from higher taxes when the nation goes to war: borrowed money will pay for all that.

      Aside from the fact that the military constitutes less than a fourth of the federal budget, and the fact that the top 1% presumably know that borrowed money has to be paid back, that’s an excellent point.

      Think Henry Waxman hitting the beach in Santa Monica

      Ew. No.

  10. “The new book Future Babble explains why dart-throwing monkeys are better at predicting the future than most pundits.”
    Who is this book aimed at? If you didn’t know this you probably can’t read!

  11. It’s not hard to make predictions….just accurate ones.

    1. That’s what she said.

      And if it literally was what she said, it was followed up with ‘Were you listening to me?’

      Prediction: Short sell wheat. It’s what Nightly Business Report told me to do a couple of days ago because of China, its economic policies to suppress inflation and its reserve wheat crop, blah, blah, herp derp.

      9 out of 10 people don’t understand that 90% of them don’t understand probability.

  12. It’s Hard to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future

    I suppose I should stick to making predictions about the past.

    1. The problem with predicting the past is that it keeps changing according to the current political narrative.

  13. It’s sad that someone even needed to write a book to demonstrate this. Sad because millions of people believe that (a) a small number of people are actually smart enough to make accurate predictions over great lengths of time in systems featuring countless interacting and immeasurable variables, and (b) those people aren’t using this knowledge to make billions in equities trades, but are instead using it to sell badly written books.

    1. But I want to be retooled for the jobs of the future!

  14. Why do you hate chimps?

  15. BTW, Ron, that’s a White-faced Capuchin from Central America. I hated that movie Outbreak, remember when diseases like Ebola were going to kill everyone in the 90s. Outbreak also tried to pass off a new-World monkey in the Old World. Funny enough, that monkey was the monkey on Friends and also was the Angel’s rally monkey. Said monkey should have formed the Monkey Actors Guild. Probably would have been the first monkey union President.

    1. There would probably be much less shit being thrown around by them than in the Screen Actors Guild…

      1. what about the Film Actors Guild?

    2. I almost forgot those times. Now that was a fun scare.

      1. It’s kind of funny when “the culture,” via the news media, “discovers” something like Ebola. There’s all this chattering and gesturing and excitement, like a troop of monkeys that just spotted a snake. Then after a while the new “threat” gets processed somehow, people lose interest, and they move on to the next unpleasant subject that catches their attention. I’m not sure if it’s just human nature – always curious and vigilant – or if the news organizations gin up these crises as a reliable way to keep people consuming their product.

        Similar pop-threats:
        Global Warming
        Global Cooling
        Nuclear Winter
        The Population Bomb
        Killer Asteroids
        Satanic Cults
        Recovered Memory Child Abuse
        Red Dye No. 2
        Sick Building Syndrome
        Genetically Engineered Food
        Vaccines Cause Autism

        What’s the latest thing I should be panicking about?

  16. The new book Future Babble explains why dart-throwing monkeys are better at predicting the future than most pundits….And yet failed prophets like Ehrlich are almost never punished.

    Monkeys have an incentive to predict more cautiously. Unlike humans, they face the constant danger of being spanked.

  17. Many predictions about lots of things are wrong, but there are still many accurate ones as well.

    Peter Shiff did predict a long, nasty recession when hardly anyone else did, and he was correct.

    1. DG: Yes Schiff did. But as Gardner points out Schiff also made a whole bunch of other predictions that didn’t come true. This illustrates the point that people gladly take credit for predictive “hits” while passing over in silence their “misses.” In addition, we spectators remember “hits” far more readily than we remember the failed predictions. Pundits know this and take advantage of it.

      1. It’s kind of like the way we look at batters in a baseball game. You get three strikeouts, then hit a game winning homer in the 9th inning.

        When you are interviewed, you don’t talk about the three strikeouts, only the homer.

        No one has batted 400 since Ted Williams. Today that would be considered amazing, even though you miss 60% of the time.

        1. Too bad there isn’t an “Earned Prognostication Average” for pundits.

    2. We could also add to the list the ones made by Georges Colente and comparing them and searching for common points.

  18. Before I read the article, let me just mention that I, and many people like me, were predicting the market bubble correction around 2005-2006.

    1. Predicting a volcano is going to blow isn’t exactly rocket surgery when your standing balls deep in lava.

  19. Back in 1999, you guys at Reason were asking for books that made terrible predictions. There may have even been a prize involve. I had and still have a copy of Omni magazine’s Future Almanac from I believe 1980 (too lazy at this hour to even thumb through it). I was tempted to send it in but I couldn’t part with it. I just had to know if Singapore was going to be underwater in just a few more years due to global warming and if my McDonald’s hamburger was really going to cost fifteen bucks.

    1. in adjusted for inflation dollars $15 for a McDo’s burger wouldn’t be all that of a bad deal.

      1. They were relying on a rather simple minded linear extrapolation of pricing to get that answer. Keynesians, for one, when critiquing the thinking behind the argument the editors make will point to the phenomenon of price equilibrium. Prices rise, wages rise, and it all evens out in their estimation. No, I’m not a Keynesian and they ignore the fact that it is not a true equilibrium that occurs. The phenomenon is not an evenly balanced shift across the market but effects some actors positively at the expense of others, nor is it distributed to the point of mutual benefit (funny it happens to be the favorite economic model of liberal democrats).

        However, there is some rudimentary truth to it. As a percentage of the mean distribution of income the price of a Big Mac is cheaper than in 1980 as a percentage of your yearly take home.

        I would not want to be a newly minted high school graduate looking to finance his way through college at this time, though. The credit market is where we see that inflation as having dramatically occurred to the point it can rightfully be called hyperinflation. Price of fast food not so much (yet).

        Two weeks back I bought the new apple wood bacon chicken sandwich from Wendy’s (when I need protein on the go between long distant stops the only thing I care about is if it is palatable and whether or not it will kill me). It was five bucks and some change. At first I considered it a rip off, but the fact was that the thing was huge. I got two meals out of it, so price wise I paid slightly less for it than its equivalent from 1990.

        It is also likely that continuing gains in market efficiency are the only factors keeping that price reasonable.

  20. The bar tender says, “Sorry, we don’t serve your kind here.”

    Two time-travelers walk into a bar.

  21. I just read the first chapter of this book free on my Kindle, a device Douglas Adams accidentally predicted when he conceived of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, easily the most popular and profitable book ever to come from the publishing houses of Ursa Minor.

    1. How is the flying technique coming along? I think with some steady practice I can completely miss the ground one of these days.

  22. One doomsayer who was predicting depression right before the internet-dot com boom was NTU founder James Dale Davidson.

    He’s still predicting it:


    and he still scares the hell out of me!

  23. ‘It’s Hard to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future’
    Sure but we go as the world go, if they lifestyle goes high then everything will go high. We can picture how it will be depending on how things are.

  24. Thanks for sharing, Ron. Wrapping up Sowell’s excellent “Economic Facts and Fallacies” and needed some new Kindle nonfic.

  25. I predict that the wife will not give me oral satisfaction tonight. Sadly, I am 100% sure that I am 100% correct with my prediction. See how easy this prediction stuff can be.

  26. This is fun….…..warns.html

  27. Now Will They Listen to Dr. Ravi Batra? He’s predicted 22 of the last 3 recessions.

    1. 22 of the last three? Is that meant as joke or is that a typo?

      1. I knew you were going to write that.

  28. I remember Marxian thinkers predicting communist revolution around the globe after a terrible war occurred. World War I came and skull-fucked humanity. No communist revolution (Russian Empire doesn’t count – it was just three gold-plated palaces and endless fields). That was funny.

    Also, it was hilarious when Lyndon Johnson predicted his Great Society horseshit would work. Lol. And Roosevelt with his New Deal. LOL.

    Yeah, funny times. Predictions really ARE hard to make.

  29. I think the hedgehog principle is terribly misused here. The fox is actually the one who tries to game the system and the hedgehog just sharpens his spikes. The hedgehog finds that one thing he’s good at and gets behind it.

    The point is that the hedgehog has to be GREAT at something whereas the fox is just good at a lot of things.

    1. In the original fable, it’s a cat and a fox. The fox knows many tricks to escape from dogs. The cat knows one. A pack of hunting dogs comes along. The fox tries all his tricks but the dogs catch him anyway. The cat does his one reliable trick – climbing a tree – and escapes.

      It’s may be useful to classify thinkers as foxes or hedgehogs. However, these books and articles seem to reverse the moral of the original story by favoring the fox’s way over the cat/hedgehog’s.

  30. Thanks for sharing, Ron. Wrapping up Sowell’s excellent “Economic Facts and Fallacies” and needed some new Kindle nonfic.

  31. I think the hedgehog principle is terribly misused here. The fox is actually the one who tries to game the system and the hedgehog just sharpens his spikes. The hedgehog finds that one thing he’s good at and gets behind it.

    1. All hedgehogs are contraian douchebags, all foxes are incorrigeble
      nitwits…so there

  32. I think we should not rely purely on the predictions from other people. Rather, we should be putting our best foot forward to everything that we do. Who knows, if these predictions are really true, then at least we know we did something in preparation for them. If you want to discuss this notion with me, visit at

  33. thank you man

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  34. very well done. thank you for all your research time on this piece.

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  36. I remember Marxian thinkers predicting communist revolution around the globe after a terrible war occurred. World War I came and skull-fucked humanity. No communist revolution (Russian Empire doesn’t count – it was just three gold-plated palaces and endless fields at bet365). That was funny.

    Also, it was hilarious when Lyndon Johnson predicted his Great Society horseshit would work. Lol. And Roosevelt with his New Deal. LOL.

  37. Also, it was hilarious when Lyndon Johnson predicted his Great Society horseshit would work. Lol. And Roosevelt with his New Deal.

  38. Personally, count me as being against chaos and badness, and badnessism, and being in favor of goodness, motherhood, and apple pie (and goodnessism). Why was THAT crappity-crap not included in the survey?!?! Can’t we all just get more?
    ????? 2017 ????? ???????.

  39. Ok Ron, what’s your “non-government solution”?

    This is the “we can do better” I was talking about the other day.
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