I’m sure I’ve seen this quotation (and most others) attributed to Yogi Berra or Mark Twain, but I just saw it laid at the feet of theoretical physicist Neils Bohr:
“Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.”
In the days of oracles, animal sacrifice, and rain dances, dealing with the future was a fairly straightforward though stubbornly frightening project. The emergence from that era is a story well told in a book I’ve often recommended, the late Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods.
His special focus is the measurement of risk – unknown, except intuitively, until the 13th century, as far as European and Western Hemisphere people were concerned. Bernstein shows how humans discovered that although they could not predict what would happen, there was much they could figure out about what is likely – and how likely – or unlikely to occur.
Quantifying risk began shortly after Fibonacci introduced Arabic numbers to replace hard-to-calculate Roman numerals.
Innovations in risk-assessment proceeded through the centuries, mainly through the efforts of a few highly motivated genius gamblers, then to Pascal, Fermat, and on to the computer models of today. Which leads – among other things – to government foreshadowings of events such as unemployment, GDP, and inflation forecasts that have to be revised repeatedly after the fact – sometimes revising their methods of calculation as well.
But at least they have methods to revise, and they strive to pin down elusive facts, as do the Weather Bureau, NIH, CDC, OMB, CBO, and other agencies staffed by professional analysts.
Some new research out of Canada – just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – studies 1500 military intelligence forecasts prepared between 2005 and 2011. They found, as noted by The Economist, that the old joke about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron is unfair.
The findings: the intelligence analysts were right three-quarters of the time.
As a class, intelligence analysts are cautious, systematic, largely logical, and held accountable. Though it’s their mistakes we tend to remember, they’re most often on target — consistently outperforming media pundits who play prognosticator and often leave a trail so littered with mistakes that no-one can possibly clean up after them.
If you’ll excuse the self-indulgence, I have a personal theory that reinforces these conclusions.
I don’t know how to make the world’s best predictions, but I do know how to make the worst – start with a rigid ideology, and predict that reality will unfold according to your personal “ism.”
My name for that tendency is ISMISM, and there are a myriad of isms to choose from – Communism, Socialism, Capitalism, Buddhism, Veganism, Catholicism, Islamism, creationism,and hundreds more.
There is no factual basis for an ideological ism. It’s a belief system, pure and simple. If reality clashes with one of the beliefs, then reality must be wrong. Change it. Make up some lies and teach them to your kids.
The rest of us have to be careful – some isms are camouflaged by the lack of “ism” at the ends of their names. Supply-Side Economics, for example (and its fraternal twin, Trickle-Down), is a fact-free, 100% foolish ism, except for the cynical smirk from its perpetrators because the false promise of free money works so well politically.
Think of Dick Cheney or Paul Ryan and their high priestess, Ayn Rand. Or Larry Kudlow, who has been wrong about every major economic turn for 35 years (When Bill Clinton was elected, Kudlow predicted that the 1990s would turn into a calamitous 1930s-style recession), yet he still holds forth as a TV pundit on every subject in which he’s earned an F.
Or think Torquemada.
The Inquisition was an ism within an ism. As in dozens of organized religions, purity of belief – no matter how cockeyed or ignorant – has been deemed worth torturing and killing for. When the doctrines involved are academic rather than theological, then heresy is punishable by denial of publication or tenure or a parking place.
One thing puzzles me. I have a whole shelf of books prognosticating coming events trends, or epochs, all of them authored by admitted “futurists.”
Surely the future itself can’t be an ism. It’s too variable, versatile, and real – unlike, say, Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh, pounding away on their one-key pianos. If you so much as say “Happy Holidays” during the Christmas season, you’re on their Enemies List.
A Merry Ismness to all — and to all the most narrow-minded, a Merry Isthmus and good night.