Future Babble

December 27, 2010 at 2:24 pm

One of the items under my Christmas tree was a book titled Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway.

It’s a fun read, and I’m not yet finished. But here are a few teasers:

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  • “…while the future we face may be disturbingly uncertain, ’twas ever thus…” p. xi
  • “The desire to know the future is universal and constant…” p. 7
  • “The world is complicated – too complicated to be predicted.” p. 15

Author Dan Gardner concludes that whether the prognosticator is from the right of the political spectrum or the left, whether he is a pessimist or an optimist, predictions regarding what will happen in the future are rarely correct:

Over and over in the history of predictions, it’s not one expert who tries and fails to predict the future. It’s whole legions of experts. (p. 11)

By definition, experts know much about their field of expertise….But the future? All too often, their crystal balls work no better than those of fortune tellers. And since rational people don’t take seriously the prognostications of Mysterious Madam Zelda…they should be skeptical of expert predictions. And yet we are not skeptical. No matter how often expert predictions fail, we want more. (p. 14)

…admitting we don’t know [what will happen in the future] can be profoundly disturbing. So we try to eliminate uncertainty however we can. We see patterns where there are none. We treat random results as if they are meaningful. And we treasure stories that replace the complexity and uncertainty of reality with simple narratives about what’s happening and what will happen. (p. 15)

…thanks to the news media’s preference for the simple and dramatic, the sort of expert we are likely to hear from is confident and conclusive. They know what will happen; they are certain of it. We like that because that is how we want to feel. And so we convince ourselves that these wise men and wise women can do what wise men and women have never been able to do before. (p. 15)

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Entry filed under: books, predictions that failed. Tags: , , .

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