Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

[REVIEW] Dan Gardner, Future Babble

Dan Gardner, Future Babble
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei
I wish i'd made it to Ottawa Citizen writer Dan Gardner's University of Toronto Scarborough event in support of his new book Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail - and Why We Believe Them Anyway. It's one of those books that points out the obvious that needed explanation, pointing to an issue--here, the tendency of futurologists of all kinds to make predictions which turn out false but whose opinions and methods are still valued--and explaining why this tendency exists.

The central problem Gardner deals with is this. I like to know about what will happen in the future, you like to know what will happen, we all want to know. Will the Earth be deterraformed by climate change and other environmental catastrophes? What fashions will be in vogue in Paris and Moscow and New York City next year? Will nuclear war raze the Northern Hemisphere? Are the French really going to outnumber the Germans by 2050? When will we send a manned mission to Mars? Using ostensibly scientific frameworks, any number of smart people have created systems which aim to explain the future: Arnold Toynbee created a theory of civilizations that claimed to describe the past and predicted the creation of a totalitarian world-state, for instance, and Paul Ehrlich predicted mass famines in the 1970s. Neither prediction came to pass, and any number of other predictions by other people (smart or not) have also failed to come true. Why?

Chaos theory, Gardner points out, makes predictions which go too far out into the future impossible. As the Depeche Mode song goes, "everything counts in small amounts." I zig, here, and the next mayoral election in Toronto goes one way; I zag, there, I get hit by a car and never get elected ward councillor. Accounting for all the variables involved is impossible at the best of time, while the simplified theories used by these futurologists are even less capable. Certain predictions can be made in certain broad contexts--Gardner cites the knowledge that, based on births and migration this year, we know how many people will be 30 years old in 30 years time, and we can speculate on their marital behaviour and fertility regimes--but that's it. This is not a new fact.

Why do we believe the people who claim to know what will happen? Put it down to our primate brains. We just aren't as perfectly rational as we'd like to think we are, with tendencies to overlook inconvenient facts. Toynbee had to hack his schema to account for the fact that Islamic civilization began--not ended--with a universal empire, while Ehrlich kept postponing his doomsday, saying that it will come. How did these gentlemen get away with this? They had tremendous charisma, with the population at large if not with people with enough knowledge to critique their theories, with excellent presentation skills and good connections and the certainty that, in a confusing world full of threats, they knew what would happen. And they themselves believed that they'd know, again discounting inconvenient facts, indeed becoming upset if people pointed out their contradictions.

All this is a serious problem for people. Acting on the basis of mistaken theories could cause catastrophe: Ehrlich's suggestion that food-exporting countries stop exporting food to countries "doomed to fail" like Egypt and India would have created horrors where none happened. It is possible, Gardner emphasizes, to learn ways to think critically about the future, particularly by adopting the practice of radical doubt. George Soros did a good job predicting the world financial crisis, but in numerous interviews Soros has emphasized the fact that he looks not for proof that he's right, but rather for proof that he's wrong. (These critical thinking skills would be useful in domains apart from predicting the future, too, but that falls somewhat outside the scope of Future Babble.

I wish that I'd made it. It would have been great to hear Gardner speak, maybe even chat with him, perhaps even get my copy signed. I didn't, and I regret this. Future Babble still stands up quite well without his physical presence. Engagingly written, very well-sourced, and well-argued, I'd recommend this book for anyone who's interested in what we think about the future and how we can do better.
Tags: book reviews, futurology, humanity, reviews
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