The problem with futurologists. The Guardian, comment pages, 31 December 2005. By James Harkin

Spare a thought, as you sit idly recovering from your seasonal indulgences and pondering your new year’s resolutions, for those who are not so unfortunate. I am talking, of course, about the chorus of forecasters, futurologists, trends analysts and pundits, for whom the 12 days after Christmas are when business is at its most brisk. Will 2006 be the year in which Tony Blair steps down as prime minister, the US invades Iran and property prices finally go through the floor? As we speak, future-gazers everywhere will be demanding a little shush and staring intently into their crystal balls to help us find the answer.

Forecasting the future is a perilous business, but one which has never been healthier. Such is our anxiety about the future that nowadays almost every large organisation comes with its own futurologist or trends guru. Very rarely, however, does anyone measure the performance of these paid seers. By the time their prognostications have resolutely failed to materialise, most of us have forgotten all about them.

Until now, that is. Twenty years ago, a US psychologist called Philip Tetlock worked himself up into a rage at how rarely pundits ever admitted the errors in their predictions. Setting himself up as an honest broker and industry referee, Tetlock picked 284 people – academics, economists, journalists and think-tankers – who made their living hawking advice on political and economic trends, and asked them for testable predictions about the future. The results of his study are now in, and they make sobering reading. Over 300 pages of his new book, Expert Political Judgment (Princeton), Tetlock demonstrates in meticulous academic detail that most expert forecasters are no better than the rest of us at the prognostication game. Worse, when he informed them that they had been rumbled, most refused to eat humble pie and instead claimed to have been right all along.

What can be done about the future-fibbers? Part of the problem is the lack of transparency and rigour within the profession. Futurology is a bastard discipline, a synthesis of a wide variety of subjects. Anyone can set up shop in it, with the result that most of its practitioners know not very much about anything. Built into the discipline, too, is a tendency towards hyberbole and towards exaggerating the new. Those forecasters who pull from the bag startlingly counter-intuitive predictions win cachet and kudos, while those who predict the blindingly obvious can expect to be back in the dole queue before very long.

Tetlock concludes with an appeal for humility. “We as a society,” he says, “would be better off if participants in policy debates stated their beliefs in testable forms (and) monitored their forecasting performance, and honoured their reputational bets.” For the career futurologist, however, the moral of the story might be to make parsimonious and rather nebulous prognostications, and to sit on the fence wherever possible. Writing to Friedrich Engels in 1857 about a risky punt he had taken on the progress of a political rebellion in India, the German future-thinker Karl Marx gave solid advice. “It’s possible,” he admitted,” that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.” Ambitious forecasters take note.

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