Keywords: Science, Science policy, risk, futurology

Title: Future Babble

Author: Dan Gardner

Publisher: Virgin Books

ISBN: 978-0753522363


We are awash with predictions. The media is filled with dire prognostications: environmental disasters, economic meltdown, global instability… Everywhere there are experts looking ahead, extrapolating trends and looking into a future that seems increasingly uncertain. At times like these, it is difficult to step back and ask the question: just how good are these predictions? How accurate are these experts at seeing ahead? How much store should we place in their projections?

Well, judging by Dan Gardner's very timely 'Future Babble', we ought to treat these predictions with a good degree of caution. As he shows, the record indicates that most expert predictions are wildly out. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, the more expert the expert, the less we should trust their ability to see into the future. This and other results, make this a book that ought to be required reading for everybody - from the man or woman in the street, to the journalist and politician. It suggests that critical scrutiny is required, particularly when policy decisions that cost billions are being made on the basis of expert predictions.

Some names come up again and again in this text. Paul Ehrlich, a hugely influential environmentalist guru who has repeatedly hit the headlines with dire predictions of global famine, environmental disaster and similar dire outcomes. He is the leading neo-Malthusian and has been for more than 40 years. His 1986 book 'The Population Bomb' famously predicted massive famines that would lead to the deaths of hundreds of millions in the 1970's. This was later amended to the 1980's, but still populations continued to climb and the global famines failed to appear. Ehrlich was wrong, but he continues to be treated with accolades, and his co-workers, such as John Holdren, hold important positions in academia and in government. And, despite the failure of his predictions to come to pass, Ehrlich persists in his views and continues to make the same bleak assessments of what the future holds for humanity as the population grows.

Ehrlich is not the only expert show to be wrong, Gardner points out that there are plenty of others. But Ehrlich is typical in that getting it wildly wrong seems not to matter. As a society we are remarkably forgiving of doom-sayers that get it wrong. We simply forget, or chose to forget, and rather than learning from the lack of success of our experts, we simply lap it up when they come back with yet more fearful pictures of what the future holds in store. Like much of what goes on here, our psychology seems primed to dark forbodings.

This is good news for Ehrlich and others, but it's less good for those who want to urge caution. When some climatologists predict grim consequences unless we cut down on CO2 emissions, rather than stopping to ask how accurate these predictions might be, too many people just take it on trust and act accordingly. The end results are trillions spent on tackling problems that might or might not occur at some unspecified time in the future.

Gardner's message is that we need to exercise scepticism when greeted with these projections. We need to step back and ask some rather obvious questions about predictive skill. But, as is clear, this is no easy task. Scepticism is a hard discipline, and not one that our psychology seems designed for. And this is why this is such an important book, because it makes clear that scepticism is a virtue than needs constant practice else it goes rusty thanks to confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance and survivor bias and the other psychological blocks to dispassionate analysis.

Contents © London Book Review 2011. Published September 8 2011