Thursday Reviews: Future Babble by Dan Gardner

Future Babble: Why Pundits Are Hedgehogs And Foxes Know Best

Dan Gardner

Dan Gardner has a problem with pundits. They make grand proclamations about the future, often telling us their vision of things to come is inevitable. More often than not, they get it spectacularly wrong. And yet we keep going back to them for more. Why?

The reason, Gardner says, is that pundits often predict the future with a high degree of confidence and certainty. It’s the certainty that the audience craves. And yet the future is, by definition, uncertain. Human beings do not act rationally. Doomsayers are often thwarted by someone else who reaches the same conclusion only to also reach the conclusion that maybe we ought to take some action.

And, of course, even when they get it wrong, they point to the lack of evidence as proof they were right. Why is it we believe this?

Gardner states that humans are hard-wired to hate uncertainty. This is why a pundit who makes predictions along the lines of a weather forecaster (“There’s a 75% chance of X happening, 20% chance of Y, and a 5% chance of Z) is often seen as unsure or hedging their bets. And yet these, Gardner insists, are the people we should be listening to. He calls these people foxes, crafty and able to adapt to random changes.

It’s the randomness that most people don’t like. They want to know how the world is going to be with pinpoint accuracy. And yet, even when the predictions are wrong, we keep going back to the same people for more.

Gardner breaks down the psychology of such pundits, whom he dubs hedgehogs, and illustrates why they look so good when they get things right.  He points to Peter Finch, the economist generally credited with calling the 2008 mortgage meltdown. There was a series of videos on YouTube showing Finch sounding the alarm while several other economists, including Ben Stein, called the crisis a blip. So Finch was right, and he’s a genius. Right?

Wrong. Finch, according to Gardner, who shows evidence from the 1990’s, is a stopped clock, and the time he is stuck in happened to strike in 2008. There was this pesky Internet boom and a housing bubble that sort of ruined his predictions in earlier years.

Gardner shows predictions as far back as World War I showing that a war in Europe was not very likely (one made only a week before the Archduke Ferdinand was murdered in Sarajevo), that 1930 would be a boom year, and that Japan would emerge as the world’s only superpower by 2000.

Gardner’s evidence is compelling. There is no denying that the randomness of human behavior makes forecasting anything but the weather a few days out is little more than a crap shoot. However, Gardner seems to have an axe to grind with environmentalist Paul Erlich. True, Erlich has been sounding the alarm over and over about overpopulation since 1967. However, rather than pointing at a host of other experts for calling it wrong (and they are legion), Gardner repeatedly hammers on Erlich. It’s unfortunate because it undermines an otherwise important premise, that the future is, in the end, unknowable.

But don’t tell that to Glenn Beck. He’s got gold to sell, and wouldn’t it be a pity if his future was wrong and he was stuck with all that cheap metal?