In his 1968 book called the “Population Bomb,” Stanford biologist, Paul R. Ehrlich played out hypothetical scenarios that represented “the kinds of disasters that will occur.” In the worst-case scenario, famine rages across the entirety of the planet. The United States, China, and Russia are forced into nuclear war, and the resulting environmental harm soon extinguishes the human race. In the “cheerful” scenario, population controls begins, famine spreads, and countries stagger. Only half a billion people die of starvation. “I challenge you to create a future more optimistic,” Ehrlich wrote, adding that he would not count scenarios involving kind-hearted aliens bearing care packages.
The economist Julian Simon took up Ehrlich’s challenge. Technology had revolutionized agriculture, and global crop yields were increasing. To Simon, more people meant more good ideas about how to achieve a sustainable future. He proposed a bet. Ehrlich could choose five metals that he expected to become more expensive as resources were depleted and chaos followed over the next decade. Both men agreed that commodity prices could represent the effects of population growth, and they set the stakes at $1,000 worth of Ehrlich’s five metals. If prices had gone down 10 years later, Ehrlich would have to pay the difference in value to Simon. If prices went up, Simon would do the same. In October 1990, Simon found a check for $576.07 in his mailbox. The price of every one of the metals had declined.
Ehrlich’s starvation predictions couldn’t possibly be further from reality. Yet, the exact same year Ehrlich doubled down on his predictions in another book, with another prediction that would prove to be untrue. Despite one inaccurate prediction after another, Ehrlich accumulated a massive following and received many large awards. Simon, meanwhile, became a symbol for scholars who felt that Ehrlich had ignored fundamental economic principles. According to the New York Times, “The kind of excessive regulations Ehrlich advocated for, Simon argued, would put an end to the very innovation that had kept humanity from catastrophe.” Unfortunately, both were mistaken.
When economists later examined metal prices for every 10-year period from 1900 to 2000, they saw that Ehrlich would have won the bet 62 percent of the time. The only problem was that commodity prices are a poor measure of population effects, particularly over a single decade. The variable that both were certain would decide their views really had very little to do with those views.
In the 30 years since Ehrlich sent Simon a check, the track record of expert forecasters has been pitiful. In business, esteemed forecasters routinely make wild assumptions in their predictions of everything from the next stock-market climb to the next economic boom. Reliable insight into the future is possible, however. It just requires a style of thinking that’s uncommon amongst experts who are certain that their deep knowledge has equipped them with a special grasp of what is to come.
Yogi Berra, a baseball player known for his witty statements, once remarked, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Recently, many experts and news sources have made predictions regarding the course of events that will take place after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have taken it upon themselves to predict social behaviour, economic health, and even the course of the pandemic (something we do not know much about) with a variety of different opinions being brought to the table. Why is it so difficult for experts to predict social phenomena like economic crises, elections, and even pandemic patterns? There are two main kinds of predictions that people make: intuitive predictions, which rely on experience and intuition, and statistical predictions, which rely on hard data and algorithms.
When meteorologists try to predict tomorrow’s weather, they will be able to look upon loads of accurate, recorded data on precise atmospheric conditions and world weather patterns. They can look at computer models and technological systems that may help them predict the weather. However, predicting the outcome of events like the elections is much different—and much harder—because of the variety of elements at play. There is little to no directly relevant data to draw from. Analyzing data from past elections is helpful, but every political election is different, with candidates who have never gone up against each other before and different social and economic conditions each time. Polling data is considered to be helpful, but unfortunately, it still remains future-oriented as opposed to hard data-driven. It consists entirely of people’s individual predictions about how they are going to vote in the future and even whether they are actually going to make it to the polls and be able to vote, based on what they know and how they feel at the time of the poll.
Research seems to suggest two primary themes that may be helpful in trying to predict the outcome of the future. One is to incorporate statistical predictions into forecasts as often as possible. This is most evident in the world of sports. Baseball teams utilize data to build their rosters instead of relying solely on scouts to pick the best players. In the field of health, for example, the most recent meta-analyses of mental disorder diagnosis show that statistical prediction has an accuracy advantage over clinical intuition in identifying disorders. The current trend, however, seems to suggest that mental health professionals will continue to depend on their clinical intuition while still continuing to take into account the statistical data. The second theme suggests that expert predictors develop their expertise by relying on tons of corrective feedback to shape their forecasts. Weather forecasting is often considered the gold standard of prediction because meteorologists receive a ton of corrective feedback, enabling them to constantly rework their algorithms and better their theories. In other fields, it can be harder to get feedback. In some medical practices, for example, it might be difficult for doctors to receive feedback on the accuracy of their diagnoses, particularly if they have to rely solely on their patients to provide it.
Social psychologist Philip Tetlock, who is known for holding “forecasting tournaments” to test peoples’ ability to predict complex events, has found that “the accuracy of an expert’s predictions actually has an inverse relationship to his or her self-confidence, renown, and depth of knowledge.” Expert predictions could potentially be harmful if they don’t strive to consider relevant data and make clear the limits of their ability to predict future events. TV experts strive to appear confident and compelling. Expressing their uncertainty about an issue would make for bad TV.
However, incorrect predictions often do not suggest faulty reasoning. Consider the case of the patient whose doctor recommends a surgery with a 98 percent success rate. Most people will say, “Go have the surgery!” But if you told those same people that the patient died during the procedure, most would think the doctor’s reasoning was poor. This phenomenon is known as an outcome bias—an error made in evaluating the quality of a decision when the outcome of that decision is already known. Whether one is right or wrong shouldn’t matter as much as it does, as long as their reasoning is sound given the information that was available at the time the prediction was made.
People make predictions every day. Whether it’s trying to predict what will happen at the end of a tv series, or even the amount of time one will wait for a ride at Canada’s Wonderland, people attempt to predict the future more often than we can imagine. Some suggest that there’s a psychological benefit to feeling like we have some control over what might happen to us in the future. But, there may be more than that. One New York Times article explains, “Every morning we wake up and make predictions about how the day will unfold based on past experience. To make these forecasts—to conjure up mental pictures of what’s ahead—is one of the most remarkable things about being human.”