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Predicting the Future is Hard

Here we are in January and another new year has begun. You know that because of all the "predictions" being made. The old saying goes something like "even a broken clock tells the correct time twice a day". Three years ago (at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic) I wrote an article "Predicting the Future is Easy". My point there was that if enough people make a wide variety of predictions some are bound to be proven "correct".

In reality, predicting the future is hard – or, better, consistently predicting the future is hard.

I am fortunate to make a living off making predictions. More specifically, I created new tools that others use to make predictions. Today, after 30 years, I have a team here at AFT that works on making our tools the best in the world in our space. If it was discovered that our tools consistently gave incorrect predictions no one would use them. And AFT would soon be out of business.

How is it then that others (not in engineering) can make consistently incorrect predictions and still be "in business", so to speak? And how is it that others can get paid to make predictions and no one ever creates a "scorecard" for them? So they continue to make poor predictions and no one checks or cares?

One of the really nice things about engineering (and the tools that we at AFT make) is that it is based on so-called Laws of Nature – such as conservation of mass, momentum and energy, the laws of thermodynamics and the laws of chemistry and material science. These laws are well understood with equations associated with them.

As one moves further away from engineering and physical laws, it gets harder to predict things. Especially to do so consistently. I get that. But at least let's keep scorecards from past predictions and then stop listening to people who have shown they are not capable of making good predictions.

I was reminded of this by a recent episode of 60 Minutes – a television news program here in the USA. They featured the biologist Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich is famous for his 1968 book "The Population Bomb" where he predicted mass starvation and that England would no longer exist by year 2000. I have never read the book, but have heard about it all my life. In searching for articles about it, I find many extreme critics – perhaps deservedly so – which apparently have existed since the book was first published. I found a more nuanced and helpful article from a 2018 article in Smithsonian Magazine here. Newsweek published a more critical and one-sided opinion piece this week authored by an Austrian professor here.

From what I can tell Ehrlich has not predicted much of anything correctly, and certainly not consistently. He predicted famines, which have happened, and have always happened, but it appears these have not had much to do with our ability to grow enough food and more to do with things like war and regional conflict.

About 10 years ago I had occasion to be involved in a legal dispute where one of the experts made predictions about the future I thought were wildly optimistic and misleading. Subsequent years proved I was correct and the legal "expert" was completely wrong. Did that expert ever get a scorecard or just go forward in other legal cases making incorrect predictions – for which the expert got paid handsomely?

If expert predictions were innocuous, then we might all just say, "who cares they got It wrong"? But often they are not innocuous. In Ehrlich's case, his views and those of others created overpopulation fears which drove national policies in places like China (see previous articles I linked) on forced sterilization and forces abortions. In the legal expert's case it contributed to an unjust legal decision.

This has all left me with the belief that situations where experts have to personally live with the results of their predictions makes them better at predicting things. I tend to trust those experts far more. Talking head "experts" on television and the internet who never made anything and have never had to actually run or manage anything? I take those people with a huge grain of salt regardless of their "credentials".

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Tuesday, 28 March 2023
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