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.
“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.”
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– 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