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Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail - and Why We Believe Them Anyway [Hardcover]

Dan Gardner
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 12 2010
In 2008, as the price of oil surged above $140 a barrel, experts said it would soon hit $200; a few months later it plunged to $30. In 1967, they said the USSR would have one of the fastest-growing economies in the year 2000; in 2000, the USSR did not exist. In 1911, it was pronounced that there would be no more wars in Europe; we all know how that turned out. Face it, experts are about as accurate as dart-throwing monkeys. And yet every day we ask them to predict the future — everything from the weather to the likelihood of a catastrophic terrorist attack. Future Babble is the first book to examine this phenomenon, showing why our brains yearn for certainty about the future, why we are attracted to those who predict it confidently, and why it’s so easy for us to ignore the trail of outrageously wrong forecasts.

In this fast-paced, example-packed, sometimes darkly hilarious book, journalist Dan Gardner shows how seminal research by UC Berkeley professor Philip Tetlock proved that pundits who are more famous are less accurate — and the average expert is no more accurate than a flipped coin. Gardner also draws on current research in cognitive psychology, political science, and behavioral economics to discover something quite reassuring: The future is always uncertain, but the end is not always near.

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Product Description

Quill & Quire

That we cannot predict the future with any certainty is not all that shocking a revelation. Nevertheless, Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner provides an engaging tour through the recent history, science, psychology, and economics of prediction in this Malcolm Gladwellesque primer, explaining why the metaphorical reading of tea leaves remains such a popular pastime.

The core of Gardner’s account comes courtesy of the research of Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of California. In a nutshell, Tetlock determined that “experts” in any given field were just slightly better at making predictions than a dart-throwing chimp. In addition, the more certain an expert was of a predicted outcome, and the bigger their media profile, the less accurate the prediction was likely to be.

Looking at the results of a variety of psychology experiments and some of the more spectacular flame-outs from recent years (population doomster Paul Ehrlich is given a particularly rough ride), Gardner examines Tetlock’s paradoxical findings and shows why being forearmed doesn’t protect us much against those seeking to forewarn us. Topics covered include why and to what extent the future must always be uncertain, why smart people make dumb predictions (and how they rationalize their mistakes), and why we are so easily conned by glib “hedgehogs” (experts who are certain of one big thing) and less impressed by thoughtful “foxes” (experts comfortable with their doubts and limitations).

The book is a fast and informative read, which helps hide the fact that Gardner’s ultimate point – that we need to cultivate skepticism and engage in cost-benefit analyses based on the probabilities of future outcomes – is rather banal. All of us know the future is uncertain, so most of what passes for prediction in the media – from market forecasts to political punditry to picking the winner of the Super Bowl – is just a form of harmless entertainment. Still, Gardner gives us a fascinating look inside this silly aspect of human nature.

Review

“It’s rare for a book on public affairs to say something genuinely new, but Future Babble is genuinely arresting, and should be required reading for journalists, politicians, academics, and anyone who listens to them. Mark my words: if Future Babble is widely read, then within 3.7 years the number of overconfident predictions by self-anointed experts talking through their hats will decline by 46.2%, and the world will become no less than 32.1% wiser.”
– Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought
 
“Well-researched, well-reasoned, and engagingly written. I’m not making any predictions, but we can only hope that this brilliant book will shock the human race, and particularly the chattering expert class, into a condition of humility about proclamations about the future.”
– John Mueller, author of Overblown and Political Scientist, Ohio State University
 
“As Yogi Berra observed, 'it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.' In this brilliant and engaging book, Dan Gardner shows us how tough forecasting really is, and how easy it is to be convinced otherwise by a confident expert with a good story. This is must reading for anyone who cares about the future.”
– Paul Slovic, Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon
 
“If you are paying a lot of money for forecasting services – be they crystal ball gazers or math modelers or something in between – put your orders on hold until you have had a chance to read this book – a rare mix of superb scholarship and zesty prose. You may want to cancel, or at least re-negotiate the price. For the rest of us who are just addicted to what experts are telling us everyday in every kind of media about what the future holds, Future Babble will show you how to be a bit smarter than what you usually hear.”
– Philip Tetlock, author of Expert Political Judgement and Mitchell Professor of Organizational Behavior, Hass School of Business, University of California

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Future Babble Jan. 9 2011
By ATC123 TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As for the author's book on risk, this book is clear, easy to read and shows why the expert predictions that we see every night on the news, should be taken with a grain of salt. Likewise the grand statements by other public figures are also likely to be based in some measure on defective information that is the result of no one taking the time to logically apply reasoning. This book should be mandatory reading for every journalist, politician and public "expert".
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The disease of certainty Nov. 16 2010
Format:Hardcover
This should be required reading for everyone, experts included, who think they are qualified to predict the future. This book will act like a cold shower for those people. For the rest of us it is a fascinating examination of the disease of certainty. I now save newspaper headlines that make sweeping predictions (Climate Armageddon's-a-comin'). If I may be so bold as to make a prediction: in a few years time we will look at those headlines and shake our heads that we could have been so certain and so wrong.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Socrates was right Nov. 2 2010
Format:Hardcover
Dan Gardner eloquently illustrates that Socrates was correct in saying the wise know what they don't know but that most people will ignore the wise if provided a confident sounding alternative.

Gardner provides an up to date summary of research in psychology and many, many well documented examples of both the failings of over confidence and the human propensity to fall for the confident story, especially ones own.

An excellent read and resource for anyone needing reminding of the madness of crowds or a counter to over confident forecasters.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Be wary of those who predict the future March 25 2011
By Len TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
'Future Babble' documents the futility of prediction, which competes with our internal drive to know our destiny. This would be a very short book considering how easy it is to provide examples of failed futurists, however, Mr. Gardner goes one step further. He provides evidence for our need to be sure in a world that's become ever more connected and therefore ever more difficult to understand. There are other books on this topic, 'Black Swan' being one of the best, however 'Future Babble' does offer it's own take on how we can be so easily fooled into believing the nonsense presented to us in the guise of a science that can prophesy the future. And we believe it. We need to know and the more confident the speaker, the more likely we are to believe him of her even though they are sure to talking absolute nonsense. We are more likely to believe a confident voice over the reasoned speculation of an educated commentator. It's a crazy irrational side to our species that we are all too susceptible to and Dan Gardner argues that it is incumbent that we be aware of.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening and entertaining July 1 2011
Format:Hardcover
Pundits who make sweeping predictions about the future are almost sure to be wrong, Gardner reports in this fascinating book. But you can't really blame them. Their brains are hard-wired to exaggerate threats, extend current trends in a straight line into the indefinite future and reject information that contradicts their existing beliefs. Perhaps even worse, we -- the pundits' audience -- are programmed to demand certainty where there is none. We forget old predictions that were proven wrong and glom onto new ones with the eagerness of children. We believe forecasters who make the boldest and most confident predictions even though they're the least reliable guides to the future. So what are we to do? Gardner nudges us toward a more realistic way to prepare for a future we can't predict. Find and use the best information but acknowledge the limitations on what we know and be prepared to revise our outlook when new evidence comes in. In short: be foxes who know many things, not hedge hogs who know one big thing, in the metaphor popularized by Isaiah Berlin. This is a good book, filled with clear explanations of the imperfect way we process information. Gardner also offers lots of good examples of failed prophets who refuse to own up to their errors. One of my favorites involves some true believers who predicted the end of the world on a very specific date and were undaunted even when it did not happen.
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