Careful about those “experts”

Bob Tarantino
December 3, 2010
Bob Tarantino takes a look at Dan Gardner’s new book—and finds Gardner pulls his punches with fellow media….

Careful about those “experts”

Bob Tarantino
December 3, 2010
Bob Tarantino takes a look at Dan Gardner’s new book—and finds Gardner pulls his punches with fellow media….
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A review of Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway by Dan Gardner

McClelland & Stewart


320 pages

It takes a deft writer to craft a readable tome from toss-away All in the Family gags, thirty-year old prophecies of ecocatastrophe and reams of psychology studies, but Dan Gardner admirably succeeds in Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway.

A stylistic criticism of the book is that, perhaps owing to habits learned in his role as an Ottawa Citizen columnist, Gardner too quickly makes his compelling argument. By the time the introduction is finished, the reader is left nodding enthusiastically in agreement. Indeed, much of the remainder of the book is given over to anecdotes which supplement the initial tour de force.

Gardner’s thesis is relatively simple: predictions about complex phenomena are inherently fallible but people become invested in them regardless. Expert predictions fail because the world is complicated. Humans are not just imperfect, but actually “hard-wired” with a variety of perceptual and cognitive short-cuts which negatively impact our ability to filter information. A slew of psychological heuristics and biases, from confirmation bias and status quo bias to the availability heuristic and the “Interpreter” function of our brain (which endlessly attempts to rationalize conflicting information), mean that the non-linearity of the universe is a poor fit for our built-in need for certainty.

On Gardner’s account, people are virtually fated to make predictions about the future, to believe in those predictions and even to cling vigorously to that belief when all available evidence shows that the predictions were wrong.

One of the more refreshing elements of Future Babble is that it does not lack ambition. Like Gardner’s previous book (Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear), Future Babble serves as welcome relief from the spate of minutiae-driven history and social science books (the trend that began with How the Irish Saved Civilization and reached a nadir with Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World).

Gardner draws on cognitive science to explain not just why we incessantly make predictions, but why those predictions are almost invariably incorrect and why we, nevertheless, seem unable to wean ourselves away from them. While much of the book is given over to anecdotes, they are nevertheless absolutely fascinating, even uproariously funny, anecdotes – just how dismal were the cognoscenti in the 1970s were may never be better illustrated than in Future Babble. The future never quite lived up to the excitement promised by the bestselling book, Famine 1975! An additional conspicuous example was Robert Heilbroner’s 1974 prediction of, to borrow Gardner’s description, an imminent dilemma between Maoist China or extinction of the human race. That Heilbroner has never materially altered his prediction in light of subsequent events is a perfect an illustration of the various processes Gardner so ably describes.

But in the end, Future Babble, as valuable a read as it is, occasionally feels somewhat irresolute, as if the author were disinclined to prod too vigorously at some of the more interesting implications of his findings. The time devoted to recounting the missteps of Jimmy Carter (in 1977 Carter warned that by the middle of the next decade oil demand would outstrip supply, leading to massive price increases and social chaos) or various “stunning”, “fascinating”, “classic”, “startling” and “legendary” studies (who knew that clinical psychologists had such exciting jobs?) could have been supplemented with extended explorations of the political connotations of the intrinsic frailty of prediction.

Gardner seems reluctant to accord responsibility too vigorously. After all, it is the media gatekeepers that wield editorial pens and television producer clipboards who are ultimately responsible for publishing the fatuous tomes; it is they who commission the insipid columns and create the panels with competing blowhards who spew the predictions that Gardner so gleefully eviscerates. But, perhaps out of professional courtesy, Gardner refrains from judging too harshly the caretakers of our printed pages and airwaves.

The largest lacuna in Gardner’s analysis is the issue of accountability. To borrow a metaphor he himself evokes early in the book, the actors in the drama he recounts are little more than billiard balls ricocheting on green cloth. Future Babble does extensively document the bare fact that popular pundits are often wrong and Gardner appears to share the reader’s frustration that they are seemingly never held to account, but the point is never pushed home.

By giving the prediction complex a genetic and embedded psychological source, he ultimately excuses pundits, publishers and audiences from any meaningful liability for promoting and participating in the quixotic project of accurate prediction of large-scale or complex phenomena. There seems little space for moral agency on Gardner’s account. Even when he confronts Paul Ehrlich with the obvious falsity of Ehrlich’s apocalyptic forecasts, and Ehrlich demurs on whether he was in fact wrong, Gardner is loath to point out the deep deceptions which are being peddled. This even-handedness sometimes grates – an early concession that “reasonable people can disagree” about whether some predictions actually failed accords is far too indulgent. If someone is insistent that, for example, Ehrlich’s predictions of imminent mass famine have not been proven false, then “reasonable” is not an appropriate description of that individual.

There must be some scope for individual responsibility when it comes to making or broadcasting predictions, otherwise the book raises the question of what the reader is supposed to do with the information. If humans are hardwired to flog and fall prey to predictions, what good does it do to know that fact? It becomes like knowing that our bodies metabolize food. While worth knowing, one could not start or stop that process simply by wishing it were so or even by actively trying to stop it. The issue of responsibility becomes magnified as one expands the field of application of the conclusions found in Future Babble. If prediction is so inherently unpromising, what does that entail for the entire project of government?

The issue can be applied at granular or societal levels: for example, what are the implications for large portions of the criminal justice system, which are predicated on the hunches or “scientific” conclusions of judges, parole officers and psychiatrists as to the chances of an offender relapsing into criminal activity? Any vision of activist government, in particular, seems ripe for re-assessment if prediction is innately a mug’s game.

Gardner advises that humility about our ability to accurately predict the future, constant reflection about the soundness of our judgment and caution in exercising our prerogative are the best hedges against falling prey to our cognitive deficits. But that inevitably simply pushes the inquiry back a further step: if predictions are unsound, what criteria should we use to assess whether we’re making the correct policy decisions? Gardner’s prescription that we should only implement those policies that will have beneficial effects irrespective of whether a prediction of a particular state of affairs comes true is almost too anodyne to be useful.

A prescription of humility, caution and scepticism, when applied to the project of governance sounds remarkably like Oakeshottian conservatism, which calls for limited government as a consequence of government’s limited capacity to determine the consequences of its policies. Accurate long-term predictions in the face of bewilderingly complicated interactions of events and individuals seem to be necessary for progressive government, yet that is precisely the kind of predictive activity which Gardner argues is virtually impossible to undertake.

Regrettably, in a book which strives to be scrupulously non-partisan, this entire line of inquiry remains unexplored. Perhaps, though, Future Babble provides the empirical underpinnings for another writer, less empirical and more prescriptive in his or her leanings, to tease out the implications for political philosophy of Gardner’s data crunching. In the end, Future Babble, notwithstanding the unexplored avenues, is a worthy addition to any library and a treasure trove of information.

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