In 2014, Ignore Predictions

My hunch has always been that “presentist bias” is the single most potent force driving analysis of the past and predictions about the future.  Presentism is hard to nail down precisely, but I’d describe it as the unwarranted assumption that the future will basically be like the past.  Presentist bias sneaks in around the edges of your declared assumptions, making its mark precisely where you don’t think you’re making any assumptions.

Everyone suffers from it. Capitalists in 1910 declaring the victory of trade over war. Communists in 1921 declaring permanent revolution suffered from it no less.  Francis Fukuyama declaring in 1991 that liberal democracy was the natural order of mankind was a particularly pungent example. Long-run national budgets are basically giant steaming piles of presentist bias.  We are bad at predictions, especially about the future.

Unfortunately, it’s only a little bit better in retrospect. Marx declaring that “human history is the history of class struggle” was pretty bad.  Post-modernists’ attempts to define history in terms of late-20th-century American political debates are even worse.  I think on some level this is a basic weakness of empathy – we have a really hard time understanding on a deep level exactly how different people were on a personal level.  Because when you spend a lot of time reading historical primary sources, it can overwhelm you.  The drives of people in medieval Europe are simply unintelligible to you or me, they just thought differently.

Incidentally, due to lead exposure and poor nutrition, they would mostly be considered developmentally disabled in modern society.

So presentist bias seems to have different roots for the past and future.  For the past, it’s mainly an issue of relatively simple bias.  In predictions, this too plays a role but is overshadowed by the fact that unexpected events always happen when you least expect them.

I think this is why predictions about micro issues are so much better than about macro issues.  It’s pretty easy to make guesses about what life is like when computers are ubiquitous – a lot of science fiction nailed the “everyday life” bit about life today.  Our real world is different mainly in having better design, since gadgets are designed through years of real-world experience rather than in a hurry by set designers.

But the predictions about what the future will look like on a large scale are almost always staggeringly incorrect.   If you can imagine a technology, it’s pretty easy to guess about how it will be incorporated in a single use case.  For example, cheap microchips leads to omnipresent computers.  Trying to figure out how that will affect society requires not only that you predict this, but that you correctly nail every other factor involved, from economics to politics to electrical engineering to basic physics.

With the start of the new year, prediction season is upon us.  Try to read prediction articles for what they are, entertainment.  Or better yet, ignore them.  A good science fiction novel is usually much more imaginative and almost always better written.


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