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on 20 March 2011
Gardner's "Future Babble" is a much needed antitode to the endless stream of nonsense that we hear from pundits who claim to be able to predict the future. Broadly speaking, Gardner distinguishes between two types of experts: Hedgehogs, who know a given subject extremely well, are very confident about their predictions and are almost always wrong, often spectacularly so; and Foxes, whose opinions about the future recognize the difficulties and complexity of forecasting and are nuanced accordingly. The Foxes are only a bit more apt to be on target than the Hedgehogs, but they will at least acknowledge their errors, recognize the limitations of their art and adjust their opinions to account for new facts. They are also routinley ignored because they are boring.

Unfortunately, people crave certainty, so they lionize experts who make bold, articulate predictions about what will happen five, ten, fifteen, even fifty years from now, a proposition that is inherently suspect when you consider that chaos theory shows that even small changes in initial assumptions will dramatically change long-term outcomes. Fortunately for the experts and their livelihood, listeners do an incredibly poor job of holding experts accountable for their gross errors. We remember the rare hits and ignore the many, many misses, a point that Gardner illustrates elelgantly and repeatedly.

With wit and broad knowledge of his subjects, Gardner skewers numerous still famous "experts" who have routinely been wrong about things like the price of oil, the scarcity or abundance of commodities, population growth, Y2K, the collapse or persistence of the Soviet Union, and a host of other problems. He also explains the psychological reasons--confirmation bias, negativity bias, anchoring bias, hindsight bias, optimism bias, and even "bias bias"--that enables experts to maintain their self-confidence despite their manifest errors, and that causes the rest of us to keep hanging on their every word despite the fact that they are usually wrong. We are drawn to those who are "often in error, but never in doubt" rather than those who recognize that predictions are very hard to make, especially about the future.

Gardner's survey of experts who remain highly esteemed to this day--and the howlers they have propogated over the decades--makes us wonder why on earth anyone still listens to these people. And yet they do, and corporations and news networks pay them enormous amounts of money for being repeatedly and ridiculously wrong. Imagine if your doctor's diagnoses were as off base as the predictions that famous experts routinely make--you'd soon get a new doctor (assuming you survived).

As a reality check, just ask yourself how many talking heads predicted in January that in the first quarter of 2011 we would see the fall of kleptocracies in Egypt and Tunisia, unrest throughout the Arab world, a civil war and an international military intervention in Libya, and an earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan. And those are short term (missed) predictions--how can we possibly take anyone seriously when they try to read the tea leaves five, ten or fifty years out? If you think that works well, try planning your picnics based on 10-day weather forecasts. We'll keep listening, though, as the same talking heads who completely missed all of these huge short-term developments will confidently tell us what's bound to happen next--they might be right (even a blind hog finds an acorn now and again), but odds are they will be dead wrong. Gardner's timely book reminds us not to be fooled by Broad Speculations, and his book is a wonderful grain of salt that every thinking person should take before listening to an expert pontificate about the future.
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on 30 October 2011
I came to this book having read Dan Gardner's excellent previous one, Risk. The purpose of this one is to explain that the so called "experts" who occupy most of the space in mainstream media are very seldom right, despite their claims to be so. This is basically because the commentators attractive to news editors are the ones who can express neatly packaged certain, dogmatic, opinions because they don't deviate from their own overarching theory about their topic - and are therefore often wrong. The more considered experts, who are only willing to give much broader, qualified (i.e. boring) views are shunted to the sidelines. And, as other reviewers have said, while that point is both interesting and important, it can be summed up fairly quickly and isn't really all that surprising. So in the end, the book is left making that same point again and again in different ways with pages and pages of very dry examples. As a consequence its modest 268 pages feel like very heavy weather indeed and while the concept is fascinating, it just isn't fuel enough for a whole book. The subject is, if anything, more a footnote to the broader issue of the pre-packaging of news.
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on 9 August 2011
I must confess that I picked up `Future Babble' with some scepticism. I mean, the so-called `expert' predictions you read in so many areas of the media are just so frequently and hilariously wrong, surely no one takes them seriously any more, do they? And the latest bout of economic misery has just gone to demonstrate to everyone that - even with billions resting on the outcome and hundreds of millions being spent on the best modelling software and the greatest mathematical brains - we'd do just as well by reading the tea leaves or interpreting the flight of birds. What else is there still to say? I was concerned that Gardner was setting up a straw man to knock over. Still, his previous book, `Risk', was so good that I thought I would give this follow up a try.

In a sense, I was right. The one downside of this book is that there isn't honestly a lot here that's new. If you've come across the work of Philip Tetlock, in particular, then you can pretty much guess most of Gardner's thesis.

This, though, is beside the point. The great virtue of Gardner's work is that he is wonderfully clear, persuasive and entertaining. Following Tetlock, he argues that there are two basic thinking styles. As the famous quote has it `the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'. When called upon to make predictions, experts, says Gardner, behave either like foxes or hedgehogs. Foxes, knowing many things, tend to make cautious predictions hedging them around with qualifications. They don't attach great certainty to them and, if they are wrong, they accept the fact and see what can be learned. Hedgehogs, however, knowing one big thing are absolutely certain about their predictions. They base them on the one big thing they think they know, and when they are shown to be wrong they come up with numerous excuses to show that they were right `really' - the reasoning was sound they were just a little out on the timing, for example, or they would have been right had people not heeded their warning and changed their behaviour, etc.

Several interesting things follow from this. Firstly, everyone - foxes, hedgehogs and random members of the public alike - is bad at predicting the future. In their fields, however, foxes - knowing a bit - tend to be a little better than a control group. Hedgehogs, however, are typically worse than random members of the public. Moreover, the more they claim to know about something, the closer it is to their `specialist field' the more likely they are to be talking nonsense. However - and this is the real reason why we should never pay any attention to expert predictions we read in the papers - the media loves a hedgehog. Foxes never get airtime because `well I think it's more likely than not that this will happen, but on the other hand there's still a fair possibility that it won't' makes bad copy. `The world will definitely end next Tuesday' on the other hand, is great copy. And when it turns out to be another in a long line of rank nonsense, no one is ever called to account because `prediction was wrong' is rarely good copy either.

The most entertaining parts of Gardner's book, though, are when he does call to account some of the so-called experts over their failed predictions. Fans of Paul Erlich, in particular, might like to look away during the repeated savagings that he receives. Robert Heilbroner and our own William Rees (mystic) Mogg are among the others given a well-deserved kicking. It raises the delicious possibility that, after their own books have long ceased to be read, they may only be known to posterity as the failed 'experts' mentioned in Gardner's work. Well, we can but hope.

The overall message - perhaps surprisingly - isn't one of despair. At least not complete despair. True, as a species we're not likely to get over our obsession with certainty, our desire to look into the future, or our credulous belief in those who can look confident and plausible as they claim to be able to do so. However, if you are cautious, learn a lot about your chosen sphere, make careful, hedged, nuanced predictions, and try to acknowledge and learn from your inevitable mistakes you might just get to be right more often than you're wrong. Don't expect to get in the papers though.
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on 20 June 2011
Clearly critical thinking is in shortage. We all seek refuge in expert opinions in our deeply human search for making sense out of the surrounding chaos. And yet we are proved again and again that experts' predictions of the future are wrong and they fail spectacularly, often in direct contrast to their publicly expressed invincibility. Part of it is the role itself - our expectation from an expert to be authoritarian, doubtless in their arguments and fearless in their convictions. Like a superhero that will lead us though murky waters of uncertainty into a dry land of the organized universe that can be explained in simple terms. The doubt is a bigger crime than being proved wrong. Part of it is that we are searching for the convenient truths, something that we already believe in anyway and simply want to get an affirmation from the authority figure. We instinctively hear what we want to hear, sinking into a comfortable self-congratulatory bliss. And the more people share the same thoughts and experts eloquently annihilate our inner doubts, the better. We can't be all wrong, can we?

This is one of those books that will stop you in the tracks and make you wonder - aren't we asking for it? Aren't we creating an everlasting demand for false prophets to relieve us from making our own conclusions? To surpass our inner voice of discontent, doubt and uncertainty? Does everything need to be black and white and fit our preconceived maps?
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on 15 June 2011

A fascinating book that explains why human beings crave certainty about the future and why we're suckers for people (Experts) who make predictions about what will happen next.

A little long-winded at times. Almost too many examples of failure. But ends with useful ideas on how to make better quality decisions.


Full Review:

Who can you trust to tell you what's going to happen in the future?

No one.

Especially 'Experts'. Oh no, don't trust any of those...

At least that's the way I feel now after reading Future Babble by Dan Gardner. In this serious book, Gardner explains why we have an in-built desire to know the future. He also demonstrates, again and again, why we are so bad at prediction.

Yet, despite the countless attempts at predicting the future, we still seek out people who claim to know what's coming. We will even pay attention to those who make new predictions when their previous prediction proved to be wrong e.g. an Economist revising their predictions for the economy when new economic data undermines their previously expressed views.

In the book, you're introduced to the metaphors of 'Hedgehogs' and 'Foxes'.

Hedgehogs are experts or opinion makers who have one 'Big Idea' or concept through which they see the world. They use this basic concept to make predictions about the future. Sometimes they're right but usually they're not. But when they're shown to have been wrong, they'll claim that there were other factors at play or that their prediction is still valid but, 'not just yet' and so on.

Foxes, on the other hand, take a more balanced and nuanced view of the world. They are willing to incorporate different pieces of data into their worldview. They're more prepared to accept that they might be wrong about their ideas and predictions.

Now, whilst Foxes don't get it right either, they've got a better chance of making better quality predictions because of their ability to see complexity. At the very least, they're prepared to accept that they don't have all of the information and that the world is a complex place i.e. one simple explanation will not do.

Gardner uses these metaphors throughout the book. They're not his in fact (they're from Professor Tetlock's famous study into 'Expert Political Judgement) but they help you see why some Experts get it so wrong and whilst others can (occasionally) get closer to the mark.

My only criticism of the book is that because Gardner describes one predictive failure after another, I got a little tired reading about them. Not that they weren't interesting and often amusing but more that I got 'failure fatigue'.

After reading about several poor attempts to predict future events, I 'got it' and just wanted to skip to any part of the book where Gardner could provide suggestions on how to make better quality predictions.

This he does in part. Although he doesn't attempt to give the reader a 'Prediction Tool Kit'. Indeed, he makes it very plain that we can't predict the future. Although that won't stop us trying...
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on 21 July 2015
If you are not a skeptic now you certainly will be after reading this book. I cannot listen to any expert predictions now without donning my skeptical caps and assuming that what I am hearing is complete self serving hyperbole. History certainly supports me in that view. Highly recommended.
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on 3 July 2015
I absolutely loved this book; only fed up that it took me so long to stumble upon it. Wonderfully intelligent, erudite and easy to read, and filled with affectionate warmth towards the human race and all its failings. I'm totally a Dan Gardner fan, now.
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on 6 August 2015
I liked this book. While admittedly I read it to confirm what I already knew, I found it readable enough to get all the way through. As is often the case with books like this though, the author tended to harp on about the obvious at times, and at others he keeps going on when the point has been well and truly made. I get that they probably have word quotas or something, but I'M TRYING TO READ AS MANY INTERESTING BOOKS AS I CAN DAMNIT so a little help in the form of conciseness would be great.

If you need proof that expert predictions are to be taken with a pinch of salt, here's your book.
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An entertaining and insightful look at the complete futility of professional fortune-telling, with a particular focus on oil and financial markets. One by one, Gardner cleverly knocks down big name after big name, pulling no punches - I do wonder if he got into trouble writing this book, debunking so candidly some of the most celebrated futurists! Even those with a 'proven' track record are not immune, as Gardner shows their successes to be build on foundations of quicksand.

Behind all this is a very informative narrative on the foibles of the human mind with all its biases, tricks and inadequecies, giving a fascinating psychological grounding to Gardner's argument. It's backed up with references to lots of social science research, both engaging for the casual reader and of interest to anyone studying the social sciences. Drawing on examples as disparate as environmental doomsayers to UFO-awaiting religious cult members, there's plenty here to keep the reader intrigued.

It's not just a series of potshots, but there is a more important message in this - for all the Schadenfreude of laughing at people's failed attempts to tell the future, such activities can often be misleading and damaging. Gardner offers some hope with suggestions for approaching the black hole of the future in a different way.

A great read, brilliantly backed up with lots of evidence, soundbites and anecdotes - and it might just make you take the next weather / financial / oil prices forecast you see with a pinch (or ten) of salt.
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on 23 July 2012
Why do expert predictions fail and why do we believe in them anyway?

The human brain finds the world too complicated to understand it. We have an aversion to uncertainty. Admitting we do not know what is happening now and what will happen in the future is disturbing. So we see patterns. But we know we know we do not know much about any given subject so we look for experts. And the more confident and convincing the experts are the more we believe them - without any reference to the track record of experts.
Dan Gardner takes a leaf out of the book of the experts. A convincing expert appeals to the emotions. Dan Gardner does the same - the book is filled with stories. Usually stories of experts who have got it completely wrong - Paul Ehrlich of the Population Bomb predicting widespread famines in the 1970's is one of his favourites. Sometimes stories of experts who have got it right - George Soros being often quoted.

But the book hinges on Gardner's belief in Philip Tetlock's approach. Tetlock is a psychologist from California's Hass Business School who collected 27,450 judgements from experts about the future. He concluded that the simple truth is that the experts' predictions were no more accurate than random guesses. However the more complicated truth is that there was a wide variation among the individual experts. Experts who did particularly badly were not comfortable with complexity and uncertainty. They were confident their predictions were right. Tetlock called them the "Hedgehogs" with one big idea. The experts who did well drew information from multiple sources and sought to synthesise it. They were self critical and always questioning. They acknowledged they could be wrong and were less confident in their own judgements. They are the "foxes" who know many things.

The book provides a wealth of examples of false predictions and the reasons for them revolving around human behaviour and evolution of the human brain. But I was waiting for the conclusions of how I should cope. We all need to base our lives on predictions from whether cars will stop for me at traffic lights to saving for my pension. To where do I turn to help me with these decisions?

Gardner's answer comes in the rather short, but concise, last chapter and lies in 3 key elements of the foxes' cognitive style.

Firstly aggregation. Combing multiple sources of information is more likely to produce good results than using a single source. Not groupthink , but independent judgements. Aggregation implies consideration of conflicting evidence and revision of ideas.

Secondly metacognition. Thinking about thinking - reflecting on their conclusions questioning them and seeing if they make sense.

Thirdly humility. Recognition that predictions are fundamentally uncertain. Predictions that are couched with probability scores reflect the likely happening more than strutting certainty. Avoiding predictions that are impossible because they peer too far into the future.

This book provides no template but it does stimulate.
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