Posted by Arlene Somerton Smith
by Dan Gardner
978-0-7710-3519-7, 320 pages
McClelland & Stewart, 2010
“The desire to know the future is universal and constant, as the profusion of soothsaying techniques in human cultures—from goats’ entrails to tea leaves—demonstrates so well.” —Dan Gardner
We humans hate not knowing what’s going to happen. We crave glimpses into the future to help us avoid pitfalls for today. The problem is, no one knows what’s going to happen. Not your astrologer or the well-meaning woman next door. Not even, as Gardner illustrates, the experts.
Every day we humans dance in the tension between our unknown future and our desire to make plans and avoid mistakes. This book instructs us in how to perform those dance steps as constructively and productively as possible.
Gardner is an author, journalist, lecturer, opinion columnist and self-described skeptic. As a columnist, he inspires and infuriates in equal measure, which means that he is good at his job. He is not short of strong opinions. When I read his columns I often wish for a helmet and suit of armour for protection while doing so.
That’s why it took me almost two years to get around to reading his book. My husband gave me my copy (signed by author) for Christmas two years ago. It sat on my night table and I passed over it time after time. I expected that Gardner would think he was so right about everything. I didn’t feel prepared for the onslaught.
A few weeks ago I had just enjoyed a leisurely read through Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and I had finished a romp through the vulgar but fun Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. For my next book I wanted something substantial. I wanted a challenge. It was time for Future Babble.
I donned my imaginary helmet and armour and picked up the book. Imagine my relief, then, when I read in the preface: “. . . the mistakes and delusions I chronicle in this book are human foibles. We are all susceptible to them, even authors who write about the mistakes and delusions of others.” With this I realized that Gardner was allowing for his humanity. He wasn’t going to be so darned right about everything. I settled into the book.
“They’re wrong a lot, those experts. History is littered with their failed predictions.”
Gardner is an accomplished writer working with thorough researchers. Together they explore the misperceptions we hold about future predictions. We assume that smart or well-educated people can predict the future better than others. Not so much. We assume that experts, with all their in-depth information, can foresee events. Not necessarily. In fact, too much information skews results. We assume our perception of events to be accurate and unbiased, but our Stone Age brains really mess with our perspectives on future possibilities.
Readers will be surprised to read that a ten-year study by the Economist showed that dustmen in London were better at predicting the financial future than finance ministers. Readers will be surprised to learn that often the flip of a coin yields better results than expert predictions.
“I can calculate the movement of the stars but not the madness of men.” —Sir Isaac Newton
Gardner urges readers to recognize the difference between predictable linear systems—like tides and eclipses—and other chaotic aspects of life. Oil crises, climate change, financial markets, or winning lottery tickets defy prediction. He cites the “seer-sucker” theory of Scott Armstrong of the University of Pennsylvania. “No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.” In other words, save any money you might consider spending on astrologers, psychics, or tea leaf readers.
“No matter how clever we are, no matter how sophisticated our thinking, the brain we use to make predictions is flawed and the world is fundamentally unpredictable.”
Technology today evolves from month to month. Our poor brains, however, evolve ever . . . so . . . slowly. We are stuck with brains evolved to deal with survival circumstances that no longer apply. This introduces many different kinds of bias into our beliefs about future happenings. Here are just some examples:
Optimism bias: The sense that bad things could happen to other people but not to ourselves. Smokers think others will get cancer from smoking but not themselves.
Negativity bias: We are drawn to bad news and are more likely to remember it. Emphasizing the negative influences our fearful preparations for the future.
Confirmation bias: Once we form a belief, we seek out and accept information to confirm it and we avoid or dismiss information that doesn’t confirm it.
Status quo bias: We do expect change, but we expect it to be more of the same. “Tomorrow won’t be identical to today. It will be like today.”
Confidence heuristic: If someone appears confident, we believe them even if they wildly wrong.
I won’t be the first to say that this book should be required reading for journalists. Those who rely heavily on expert opinions would benefit from the mind-broadening information in Gardner’s book. It should also be required reading for consumers of news. We won’t likely be able to resist our urges to try to pin down the future, but with the information that Gardner provides, at least we will be better equipped “. . . to adopt a considered, reasonable, skepticism about predictions.”