A Review of “Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – And Why We Believe Them Anyway”

Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway by Dan Gardner caught my interest, because I just spent the last 30 years of my life as an expert predictor in the field of transportation planning. I must admit that I felt defensive at first, since the author appeared to discount all forecasters. However, as I read the book, I found that I agreed with many of his points.

The Failing Pundits

“Man won’t fly for a thousand years.” – Wilbur Wright in 1901

Much of Gardner’s book Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway is devoted to examples of failed predictions. He focuses mostly on popular pundits. Such as Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and The End of Affluence. In the 1970s Ehrlich predicted wide spread famine and poverty around the world. Fortunately, so far, he has been wrong.

Gardner does not stop there though. He says that you can always cherry pick examples of failures, so selected examples will not prove his point. As he notes, although these predictions did not happen, they could have.

Gardner turns to the work of Philip Tetlock a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. Over a 20-year period, Tetloch collected and evaluated 82,361 predictions by 284 experts. What he found was that pundits, by and large, were no more accurate at prediction than if they had just guessed. Some pundits were better than others, and he notes that the more popular a pundit was, the more likely he was to be wrong. Tetlock also found that the more confident a pundit was in their prediction, the more likely the prediction would turn out to be wrong.

Hedgehogs and Foxes

“The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” – Archilochus

While in general predictions are usually no better than chance guesses, Tetlock’s research revealed that some people are better than others. Tetlock identified two types of predictors: Foxes and Hedgehogs.

Hedgehogs look for a single grand design and once they have found it, they look no further. They feel that they can predict with confidence, and they do.

Foxes, on the other hand, are sceptical of grand theories. They continually incorporate new information into their understanding, and as a result, are less confident about their predictions.

Tetlock found that Foxes, although much less confident of their predictions, were more likely to be correct in their predictions.

Prediction is Hard

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” – Yogi Berra

Gardner points out that one reason that pundit’s prediction are wrong, is that prediction is often hard to do. In fields like economics and politics, forecasters face very complex situations, where random events can radically change the outcome.

Other barriers to successful prediction lie within us. As Gardner observes: The mind is an impressive organ of thought, but it has its limitations. We are handicapped by cognitive biases, logical fallacies and other fallacies that undermine our ability to see clearly. Pundits who predict are just as vulnerable to these as anyone else.

An example the author discusses is Confirmation Bias , where, once a person has made a choice, they only accept evidence that supports their decision and reject evidence that does not. When evidence that contradicts a prediction is found, a typical pundit will find an excuse to disregard it.

Why We Believe Pundits, Even When They are Wrong

“He is often wrong but he’s never in doubt” – Norman Lamont, a British politician, on why he trusted a particular pundit.

Why, if pundit’s predictions are often so wrong, do we still turn to them for advice?

Gardner points out that the future is uncertain, and few people are comfortable with uncertainty. People are risk adverse and fear uncertainty. When someone comes along and promises that can put an end to uncertainty, most people will jump at the chance. Certainly, in my own experience, people are far more willing to take the advice of some one who sounds confident than someone who seems unsure. This is despite the fact that the less confident person is more likely to be right.

People are vulnerable to the same cognitive biases, logical fallacies and other fallacies that bedevil the pundits and predictors. These flaws in thinking undermine our ability to evaluate the predictions of pundits.

The Answer: A Better Way

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”  – John Maynard Keynes

Toward the end of his book, Gardner considers how we can get better predictions. He makes four suggestions.

  • Accept that the world is complex and uncertain.
  • Look at a wide variety of information and combine that information to gain deeper understanding.
  • Think about thinking: be aware of the biases and fallacies of thought.
  • Strive for humility.

Gardner goes on to suggest that we should look for courses of action that are good, what ever happens. Although this is easier said than done, I do believe this is the wisest approach to take. What I would add, is we should continue to seek out new information and revisit our decisions in light of what we have learned.

A final bit of advice, be doubtful of people who are confident of the correctness of their own predictions.

Other Information on Predictions

The Fortune Sellers by William A. Sherden

The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning by Henry Mintzberg.

How Accurate Are Your Pet Pundits? by Philip Tetlock

Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters Than Hedgehogs by Philip Tetlock

Dan Gardner talks about his book Future Babble on CTV

Note: I first published this article on a different website on 2011 February 3

Leave a Reply