Future Babble

By Dan Gardner

That we cannot with any certainty predict the future is a tale soon told. Nevertheless, Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner provides an engaging tour through the recent history, science, psychology, and economics of prediction in this Malcolm Gladwell-esque primer, explaining why the 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 the “experts” in any given field were only a little better at making predictions than a dart-throwing chimp. Furthermore, the more certain an expert was of their prediction, and the bigger their media profile, the less accurate they were likely to be. Looking mainly at the results from 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 are less impressed by 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 scepticism and do cost-benefit analyses that are based on the probabilities of future outcomes – is rather banal. All of us know that the future is uncertain, and 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 part of human nature, and that there isn’t more of a takeaway is no big disappointment.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, November 2010.