Canadian journalist Dan Gardner (no, I've never heard of him either) has a new book, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better, and a profile in See Magazine (no, I've never heard of it either). Gardner's book asks, "why are experts so consistently bad and, why do the media and the public keep paying attention to them?'"
Gardner locates answers in social psychology and pins our aversion to uncertainty as a core reason why predictions, especially catastrophically negative ones, continue to thrive.
“Believing that something bad may happen may be more psychologically oppressive than knowing something bad will happen,” he says. What’s more, predictions which forecast hope and positive change “feel intuitively false because they don’t accord with your current circumstances.”
While the gut-wrenching anxiety of personal uncertainty plagues our lives, Gardner is eager to avail his readers of the social and political ramifications of the collective debt of failed predictions. “Expert forecasts are most likely to be accurate when they’re least needed and more likely to be inaccurate when they’re most needed,” he says.
And, what’s more, while scientists proclaim the limits of their powers to forecast change in chaotic natural systems, “the boldest, most confident experts who talk about social systems haven’t adopted this humility,” he says. “It’s absurd.”
Perhaps it’s that the media have a vested interest in shielding talking heads from the truth. “There is astonishing little accountability of predictions by experts,” Gardner laments. “The rule of expert predictions is heads I win, tails you forget we had a bet.”