Science

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

Why dart-throwing chimps are better than the experts

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The price of oil will soar to $200 a barrel. A bioterror attack will occur before 2013. Rising food prices will 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, an expert is sounding the alarm bells on some future trend. 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 (McClelland & Stewart).

Gardner acknowledges his debt to the Berkeley psychologist Philip Tetlock, who in 1985 set up a 20-year experiment involving nearly 300 experts in politics. Tetlock solicited thousands of predictions about the fates of scores of countries and later checked how accurate they were. He 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 last 40 years of failed predictions on economics, energy, environment, politics, and much more. Remember back in 1990, when Japan was going to rule the world? The 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. In 1992 George Friedman, now CEO of the geopolitical consultancy Stratfor, predicted The Coming War With Japan. (In case you are hungry 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, many naturally predict that the end of this energy source 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 a barrel. On the general 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 is as acute now as it was when he said it back in 1973. In 2008 analysts at the investment bank Goldman Sachs warned that oil prices could surge beyond $200 per barrel in as little as six months. Six months later, the price of petroleum had fallen to $34 per barrel. 

When it comes to prophets, Gardner prefers foxes to hedgehogs. This distinction was made famous by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who was adapting an observation by the 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, by contrast, fit all information into one grand scheme that explains the operation of the world. "Hedgehogs are big-idea thinkers in love with grand theories: libertarianism, Marxism, environmentalism, etc.," writes Tetlock. "Their self-confidence can be infectious."

As Gardner shows, foxes are a bit better than hedgehogs at predicting the future. The environmentalist Paul Ehrlich, for example, is a perfect hedgehog. For more than four decades, he has maintained that everything important about the world can be explained by population trends. In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Ehrlich notoriously declared: "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. The world death rate was 13 per 1,000 people when Ehrlich wrote his book; it has fallen in each decade since, and it is now nine per 1,000. "In two lengthy interviews," Gardner writes, "Ehrlich admitted to making not a single major error in the popular works he published in the late 1960s and early 1970s." Yet it is not far from the truth to say that Ehrlich has never been right about anything he has predicted.

False prophets are almost never punished. 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 in an error, they emit squid-ink clouds of obfuscation, harrumphing that they got the time frame wrong, it almost happened, or an unpredictable exogenous shock derailed the forecast. 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."

In addition to making fun of the failures of the prognosticating class, Gardner cites research in cognitive psychology and behavioral economics to explain why so many of us keep falling for false prophecies: Humans hate uncertainty. "Whether sunny or bleak, convictions about the future satisfy the hunger for certainty," he writes. "We want to believe. And so we do." 

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

Ronald Bailey (rbailey@reason.com) is reason's science editor.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

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

  1. I predict I have left the first comment!

    1. Really? Wow. I thought I was going to help make the point of the article by not being first.
      But I was wrong… Hold on… What?

      1. Why the picture of Biden?

        1. damn dirty ape…

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  2. “Gardner cites research in cognitive psychology and behavioral economics to explain why so many of us keep falling for false prophecies: Humans hate uncertainty. “Whether sunny or bleak, convictions about the future satisfy the hunger for certainty,” he writes. “We want to believe. And so we do.” ”

    So this explains the central planning mindset of the statists. If only there were a smart guy in charge who could plan everything out, then we would all be certain about the future…

  3. So if you predict that free markets will be Libertobpia it will never pan out?

    1. Re: rather,

      So if you predict that free markets will be Libertobpia it [sic] will never pan out?

      Could you rephrase your question, rather? I can’t understand what you are asking.

        1. Re: Rather,
          I am being serious, rather: I can’t make heads o tails from your question. Let me show you:

          “So if you predict that free markets will be [will be what?] Libertobpia it [what, who?] will never pan out?”

          You have a broken sentence followed by another broken sentence. Just rephrase it, don’t just give me this *comma* shit.

          1. really? it seems rather obvious to me (haha!):

            “So if you predict that free markets will be Libertobpia (sic) [that is, free markets result in a perfect world], [then your prediction] will never pan out?”

            context, guys. just think it through a little bit.

            unless i’m wrong. in that case, i was just joking.

            1. Re: poetry,

              context, guys. just think it through a little bit.

              I prefer not to think for others. I cannot understand the sentence, and I would rather that Rather expressed her question better.

              1. OM, would you please email at my handle link?

                1. What’s in it for me?

                2. Re: SugarFree,

                  OM, would you please email at my handle link?

                  Sent. I will reject any advances or attempts to sell me something – be warned.

                  1. Noted.

                  2. I’d wondered why you hadn’t responded to my ‘Gasoline Tablet’* offer.

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      1. Your right why not?

    2. While there are undoubtedly some libertarians who see the free market as a panacea, most of us realize that there will always be problems of unfairness (in the sense that some will be better rewarded than others for the same effort), social problems, crime and poverty.

      What libertarians argue is that almost all statist solutions to these problems will make the problem worse while at the same time causing damage in areas which were doing fine before the “solution”.

      There is no “Libertopia”: The notion is a strawman invented by statists.

      1. Re: Aresen,

        While there are undoubtedly some libertarians who see the free market as a panacea[…]

        I would be hard pressed to find a serious libertarian that believes free markets are a “panacea,” as that would entail a problem needing a cure. That would show their misunderstanding of markets. Instead, libertarians would argue that PERSONAL FREEDOM is the greatest good. That would include that markets are free. But markets ALREADY exist, as long as people exist.

        The Market is simply the network of exchanges between people, be it of goods, services, ideas, information, you name it. A free market is simply a market unencumbered by undue restrictions from the criminal gangs people call (with a very perverse and sick sense of humor) “governments.”

        1. I think we are making the same argument from two different perspectives, but I have met libertarians who believe that social problems like poverty and drug abuse would all but vanish in a libertarian world. I hesitate to use the ‘serious libertarian’ label to distinguish myself from such people in order to avoid the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy.

          1. While acknowledging the two meanings, I try and only use Libertopia in “in-crowd” discussions to mean “society where libertarianism is socially and legally dominant.”

            There should be a distinction drawn between Libertopia (ideal society for libertarians) and a Libertarian Utopia (a fantasy construct where libertarianism makes everything perfect for everyone.) But people who aren’t interested in arguing in good faith, will always collapse the two, in the same manner as they collapse libertarianism/anarcho-capitalist into Hobbesian chaos (somalia!!1!).

          2. Re: Aresen,

            but I have met libertarians who believe that social problems like poverty and drug abuse would all but vanish in a libertarian world.

            I do believe you. However, it has been my experience so far that, most of the time, people that make such arguments are actually indulging in strawman-making to ridicule Libertarianism. For instance, did you read Ann Coulter’s column attacking Ron Paul and libertarians? It’s unbelievably filled with such strawman arguments and a lot of ignorance about libertarianism itself. Here’s Ryan McMaken’s review of her essay.

            Freedom and free markets definitively will NOT solve problems of drug abuse or other human foibles, for the simple reason that people are not perfect. What free markets solve is scarcity problems.

            However, and as I have pointed out to a few persons that attack libertarianism and free markets using such arguments, just how many of these “social problems” have been successfully corrected by government, or made worse by it? And how much of “poverty” ends up being a mere statistic, a bar artificially raised by government to continue justifying a few spending programs?

          3. Aresen says:

            … but I have met libertarians who believe that social problems like poverty and drug abuse would all but vanish in a libertarian world.

            Aresen suffers from false belief. Drug baause and poverty are problems of individuals. There’s nothing “social” about such problems.

            Only each individual who abuses drugs or each individual who finds himself or herself in poverty has a problem.

            Those distinct individual failings (problems, sufferings) are not causal by the acts of another or many others.

            All too often, drug abusers and those in poverty suffer from false beliefs, which lead each of them as individuals to decide poorly.

            What would “vanish in a libertarian world” is the use of force by a gang (called government) to force the unorganized to pay the wages of bureaucrats and technocrats who devise schemes of all kinds for drug abusers and those in poverty.

            1. *baause=abuse

      2. There is no “Libertopia”: The notion is a strawman invented by statists.

        To be fair, this is a very common tactic used by those wishing to put down any opposing opinion. Look only at the most extreme positions, ascribe these positions to anyone who even remotely agrees with some aspect of those positions, which then justifies ignoring any rational arguments opposing your own opinion. Note: this is not limited to any particular ideology.

        1. Thank you for defining what a strawman is.

    3. putting aside the original derogatory connotations of the word for now, actually yes, the “prediction” will pan out that: free markets + free minds = Libertopia

      because, like others mentioned, it’s not a panacea, not a cure for anything, not an outcome predicated on some uncertain events; rather, it’s simply the definition.

      Libertopia entails: happy + sad; joy + suffering; life + death; drug users + drug abusers; rich + poor; and more so: rich to poor + poor to rich, etc etc

  4. As Gardner shows, foxes are a bit better than hedgehogs at predicting the future. The environmentalist Paul Ehrlich, for example, is a perfect hedgehog.

    Ron, where does Gardner show that foxes are better than hedgehogs? You fail to mention a single example – there is a disconnect between your first sentence and the rest of the article.

  5. The one prediction that libertarians have made consistently over time – that the government will contiue to seek more power and that those powers will be abused – has been borne out repeatedly.

    1. Particularly if you have a deep confirmation bias.

      1. Care to provide an example of a government that has consistently sought to reduce its power?

        Or an example of a government power that has never been abused?

        1. I actually agree with your general argument, but the Republic of China (aka Taiwan) under Chiang Ching-kuo and then Lee Teng-hui actually did cede substantial amounts of power.

          Then again this took place over only two or three decades, so might not meet “consistent” depending on the length of time you are looking at.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H…..tic_reform

      2. Particularly if you have a deep confirmation bias.

        Yes. Fortunately, one is not needed.

    2. Right libertarians make this argument. Left libertarians argue that humans period will seek to expand and abuse their power. One could go so far as to eliminate formal government, only to find that private coercion will eventually replace it. That’s how monarchs and aristocracy first emerged; they rode in and made clear the consequences for those who didn’t submit.

  6. Good article, but unfortunate title. After all, as a friend just pointed out to me, what predictions AREN’T about the future? Where dem editors??

    1. Uhhh… Yogi Berra ring a bell?

    2. I’m nostalgic about the future.

    3. Predicting the past is almost as difficult.

      Liberals keep revising it to suit their current agenda.

      1. u mean like revising the excuses for invading iraq?

        1. u mean like revising excuses for staying in Iraq?

          1. if staying means leaving

            1. AAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHHAHAHA

            2. If “leaving” means keeping 50,000 U.S. troops in the country.. What a dumbass.

        2. We all were arguing against invading Iraq.

          Do some people’s browsers say “steynonline.com” at the top when they’re reading this blog or something?

  7. Ron, where does Gardner show that foxes are better than hedgehogs? You fail to mention a single example – there is a disconnect between your first sentence and the rest of the article.

    That is because he needed to focus on another salvo in the hedgehog-on-hedgehog war between “the environmentalists” and Ron Bailey. Gotta keep that meme alive.

    1. Re: Neu Mejican,

      That is because he needed to focus on another salvo in the hedgehog-on-hedgehog war between “the environmentalists” and Ron Bailey. Gotta keep that meme alive.

      That may be so, but Ron is making a book commentary, where he mentions that the author *shows* foxes are better than hedgehogs. Where is the example of a so-caled “fox” that can be contrasted with the performance of the hedgehogs? Either he forgot to mention one or the author failed to mention one. That is exactly what I am asking: which one is it?

      1. Either he forgot to mention one or the author failed to mention one. That is exactly what I am asking: which one is it?

        I understood your comment. But you are assuming Ron was interested in talking about the book. In fact, it seems he was interesting in continuing his career long diatribe against environmentalism. The “Foxes” discussion would have been a distraction from his main purpose (particularly as it might have highlighted the fact that there are foxes as well as hedgehogs that fit under the label “environmentalist”).

  8. Since Joe public ends up believing a lot of this seems like there would be good money on betting against it. We need bookmakers to expand into this kind of stuff.

  9. Predictions are woefully inaccurate for the same reason government programs never achieve their intended results. For any given situation, there are an unlimited number of possible results, and the odds that any one prognosticator will be correct is infinitesimally small. Same for government programs, there are any number of possible legislative acts, and the odds that any one act will accomplish the intended goal is negligible. Always bet against the predictions. Always bet against the success of government programs.

  10. what about a priori, non-empirical predictions? i’m talking about the world of forms, here.

    example: “if a POTUS says something, s/he is lying.”

  11. The future ain’t what it used to be.

  12. The future is like an electron, you can know its position or its velocity but not both at the same time…the act of observation changes the observed entity.

    1. Re: RADIOACTIVE,

      the act of observation changes the observed entity.

      And it becomes worse when the observer is a self-absorbed and pedantic fool.

      1. or a self referential asshat

        1. or a self reverential politician.

  13. So much for Alaska’s “Dutch Harbor: The new Jamaica” tourism campaign.

    1. It worked on the Japanese in 1942.

    2. Bummer. Obama’s economic advisors were telling us that they will bring 1 million new jobs to America by promoting tourism, amongst other things.

  14. I think the article may have included a note that the “prognosticating experts” are somewhat self selected and are definately publicized by a media that wants to sell ink, not necessarily report on the fact that experts disagree.

  15. So does this mean that all the doomsayers pulling their hair out about the US debt are just a bunch of chimps throwing darts?

    1. Please don’t feed the troll.

    2. —“So does this mean that all the doomsayers pulling their hair out about the US debt are just a bunch of chimps throwing darts?”—

      Yes

    3. The debt ceiling’s doomsday is in August, not years from now.

  16. Unfortunately, we see this kind of thing all the time in science. A lot of smart and honest people put a lot of time into making careful and measured claims grounded in reality. Then, the public conversation is hijacked by sensationalists.

    1. Fucking academic papers, how do they work?

  17. We should ignore Austrian economists when they keep predicting the hyperinflationary collapse of the American economy. They’ve just latched onto hyperinflation as their counterpart to the left’s global warming apocalypse.

  18. A great book! Glad you caught it too, Ron.

  19. I don’t think anyone’s really predicting Weimar republic-style hyperinflation around here, and I’d dismiss those who do as alarmist.

    Quite a few are worried about a gradual increase in the money supply and the attendant rise in the cost of borrowing and importing goods.

    Compared to the specter of increased taxation targeted at certain groups, though, I prefer to deal with taxation via debasement of the money supply–at least it hits everyone fairly and is easy to predict well in advance.

    1. I doubt there will by hyperinflation (i.e. greater than 20% per annum), but high inflation rates in the 8 – 12% range are certainly possible.

      Probably the only thing stopping it from happening now is that the US dollar is the “least worst” store of value right now. Gold and oil are both overvalued if one compares the cost of production to the current price, so there is unlikely to be commodity-based inflation.

      As for the effects of inflation: It does not “hit everyone fairly”. Those in a position to leverage themselves at favorable interest rates will profit from it; the average yob will suffer as inflation pushes him into higher tax brackets while his disposible income shrinks.

      1. Tax bracket creep is an important part of the problem that would be remedied by a flat income tax.

    2. >I prefer to deal with taxation via debasement of the money supply–at least it hits everyone fairly and is easy to predict well in advance.>

      I’m afraid you don’t have a good grasp of how inflation works.

  20. Archilochus. I need to read his stuff…heard some excerpts and they sounded pretty neat (he broke with epic poetry and wrote a poem about when he ran for the hills and threw his shield away). Although, he also sounded kind of like a douchebag, like when a girl’s father refused to give her hand in marriage to him. Wrote a bunch of poems and then bragged that they were so harsh that she committed suicide.

  21. Yeah, experts–who needs them? We libertoids have a faith that explains everything, and since we’ll never have to test our theories in the real world, we never have to account for shit. Trust us–our plan would work. Donate now!

    1. Be you spoof or actually Max… shut the fuck up, either way.

  22. Our side predicted the economy would collapse if not for the stimulus, and we were right.

    1. You have served Me well, Tony. I will kill you last.

      1. What about me, O Lord?

        1. And me, my King?

    2. “Our side predicted the economy would collapse if not for the stimulus, and we were right.”

      You claim credit for something that didn’t happen. That’s a neat trick

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  24. Rising prices good quick, and resources and development of the prominent contradiction, the future bad really predict

  25. A foolish article without any insight. If you attempt to mock those saying oil prices will not rise I’m not convinced.

  26. A great book! Glad you caught it too, Ron.
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  28. I love your post. I want to read more from you. keep posting.

  29. The two were direct rivals. Strangely, a small town in Pennsylvania was the first beneficiary of the electric light

  30. They get to profit from tax dollars, aren’t any more accountable than a public employee and don’t give a whit about quality because they have a contract.

  31. There may be a slight benefit in that private firms, even acting as government contractors, are going to be more efficient than the government itself, but other than that, what’s the gain?

  32. Rising prices good quick, and resources and development of the prominent contradiction, the future bad really predict

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  35. Berkeley psychologist Philip Tetlock, who in 1985

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