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Eat, Drink and Be Merry, for Tomorrow We (Might) Die
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.