- Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better
- Publisher: Dutton
- Year: 2011
- Pages: 320
Several years go, I read Dan Gardner’s The Science of Fear, which belongs to a genre of nonfiction I internally think of as “iconoclastic popular science”, or the “Everything you know is wrong” genre. Written for lay persons, such books purport to de[con]struct popular misconceptions about how things work, or to explain to the reader how they are being mislead, either on purpose or accidentally, by people who know better.
Other popular entrants in this genre are anything by Malcolm Gladwell1 and the Freakonomics books by Levitt and Dubner2. By itself, the inclusion of a book in this genre doesn’t say anything about its quality or merit; what does seem to be the case is that, either because of the subject matter or because of the various empty suits in charge of the book’s publication, the marketing and even the content of the books tend to be afflicted with a snobby snideness at best and a conspiratorial air at worst3.
The title of Future Babble is a good example. Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless is, of course, an accurate reflection of the book’s content, but that last part, …and You Can Do Better is total marketing rot, because the point of the book is that you can’t do better, especially not “you” the average reader. At the heart of Future Babble is the notion that, despite a cottage industry of self-proclaimed “experts” peddling tell-it-all books and appearing as talking heads on the new fad of 24-hour news channels, it’s really, really hard to make accurate predictions about the future, even—especially—if you happen to be familiar with the subject. But our common sense should tell us that these people are wrong: not only do they all say different things (and therefore, by definition, some of them must be wrong), but they continue to do so with little or no regard for their past mistakes.
One is tempted to attribute such chicanery to malice, and of course in the case of doomsday prophets and the like, that may be closer to the truth. But pundits and politicos are generally well-meaning, if stupid; why do humans have such a persistent predilection for making and believing prognostications we know are likely false?
This question becomes the basis for Gardner’s follow-through. His initial argument, after all, leaves little room for argument. He comes out swinging with the work of Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania, whose long, comprehensive study of experts and their predictions proved the experts less accurate than simple statistical models, and only slightly smarter than dart-throwing chimps.
Tetlock borrowed a metaphor from Archilochus to explain variance within the experts themselves. He labeled generalists as “foxes”, and noticed that their predictions were less certain, in part because they included/admitted more factors; “hedgehogs” were the specialists—wonks, really—who know only one thing always changed or expanded the problem domain to include their narrow knowledge. Tetlock’s book on the subject is well known and still popular (for a social science book), and so one begins to wonder what the rest of Gardner’s book will be about. He warns us early on that he doesn’t want to spend the rest of the book calling out individual experts and ridiculing them; then he spends the rest of the book calling out individual experts and ridiculing them. From the batty Madam Zelda and Dorothy Martin (AKA Marian Keech4) to academics like Paul Ehrlich; each is paraded in front of readers, their crimes read aloud, and if it’s not immediately obvious just how wrong they are (i.e. the world is still here), Gardner takes great pains to tell us. Admittedly, each new case Gardner brings up illustrates a facet of the psychological underpinnings of our desire for predictions. We find comfort in knowledge of the future, even when we know it’s wrong; when we emotionally invest in a prediction, proof against its correctness only redoubles our resolve. And, of course, no one ever wants to admit when they are wrong.
There isn’t much else to say about Future Babble, I’m afraid. It’s less compelling than The Science of Fear; though it’s not mean-spirited, it has the feel of a Cracked.com article—e.g. “10 Predictions That Were Totally Wrong”—occasionally glib, often repetitive, and interesting for a limited time only. As much as I may agree with the book’s content, I can’t help but feel blasé while reading it.