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Our Overreliance on Experts' Predictions

In his book Future Babble, journalist Dan Gardner explores our obsession with "experts" who claim to predict future events. Gardner relies on the work of Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who produced a massive 20-year analysis of 27,450 predictions from 284 experts. Tetlock concluded that as a group the experts did little better, and sometimes considerably worse, than "a dart-throwing chimpanzee."

Gardner's book lists a number of examples of these inaccurate predictions:

  • In 1914 the British journalist H. N. Norman proclaimed that "there will be no more wars among the six great powers."
  • In the late 1960s, the political scientist Andrew Hacker predicted that race relations in America would soon get so bad that they would lead to the "dynamiting of bridges and water mains" and the "assassinating of public officials."
  • In 1968 the president of Anaconda Copper Mining Company predicted that his company would be successful for 500 years. Less than ten years later, fibre optics trumped copper and Anaconda was out of business.
  • Also in 1968 Paul Ehrlich predicted that overpopulation would produce a total collapse in the world's food supply. Instead, the world's food supply has increased dramatically.
  • In 1974 Ehrlich confidently asserted, "If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000."
  • In 1990 the MIT economist Lester Thurow declared that Japan was "the betting favorite to win the economic honors of owning the 21st century."
  • In 2008 experts at Goldman Sachs predicted that oil prices would surge to over $200 per barrel within six months. Instead, the price for petroleum fell to $34 per barrel.

So why do we keep listening to these expert predictions even when they're wrong? According to Gardner human beings hate uncertainty. "Whether sunny or bleak," Gardner wrote, "convictions about the future satisfy the hunger for certainty. We want to believe. And so we do."

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