On the best futurologists’ limits

Dan Gardner, Future Babble

Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei

Over at A Bit More Detail, I just posted a review/synopsis of Canadian journalist Dan Gardner‘s new book Future Babble. It’s a very good book, one that examines the way in which oversimplified views of the world, mistaken belief in one’s own rationality, and sheer charisma, can interact to produce futurologists who confidently voice theories and make predictions which turn out to be without value.

I like knowing the future. Call it a side-effect of my interests in science fiction and alternative history back in 2008, if you want, maybe call it a cause of my interests in those areas, note that there are certainly other reasons for this. Gardner pointed out the causes and potential effects of bad predictions–the example that sticks out in my mind is Ehrlich’s seemingly well-founded suggestion that it would be impossible to feed everyone in the world, so we may as well stop exporting food in Egypt and India. Talk about unneeded catastrophe …

I’ve a few books which purport to describe the future. Some do so in very general terms, some do so in very specific terms. The book of mine that did the best job, I think, is a book I blogged about in 2008, a book by Yergin and Gustafson originally published in 1993, Russia 2010. Making (as one might project) predictions about the future of a then-uncertain post-Communist Russia, the authors made use of scenario planning. (Let me copy and paste from Wikipedia.)

Scenario planning, also called scenario thinking or scenario analysis, is a strategic planning method that some organizations use to make flexible long-term plans. It is in large part an adaptation and generalization of classic methods used by military intelligence.

The original method was that a group of analysts would generate simulation games for policy makers. The games combine known facts about the future, such as demographics, geography, military, political, industrial information, and mineral reserves, with plausible alternative social, technical, economic, environmental, educational, political and aesthetic (STEEEPA) trends which are key driving forces.

In business applications, the emphasis on gaming the behavior of opponents was reduced (shifting more toward a game against nature). At Royal Dutch/Shell for example, scenario planning was viewed as changing mindsets about the exogenous part of the world, prior to formulating specific strategies.

They came up with four broad scenarios, predictions about specific paths that Russia would take. Two of these scenarios, combined, did work: “Muddling Down,” assuming continued chaos and decline, covered the 1990s; “Two-Headed Eagle,” assuming state-led modernization and growth in an authoritarian context, covered the past decade.

Does Russia 2010 work? Only to a certain extent. These were simply scenarios, not weighted according to any probability. The scenarios themselves were fairly predictable: there was also an economic-boom scenario, and a totalitarian-nationalist scenario, these four covering the very good, good, bad, and very bad elements of the spectrum. There were wildcards mentioned, possible scenarios which could complicate issues, these wildcards being very problematic. (No, Azerbaijan is not going to be an oil-driven economic dynamo, and an Iranian invasion of said and missile exchange with Russia is …)

It’s possible to have some idea what the future might include. It’s just that there are so many ideas that have to be included in the future that picking one of these and saying, here, this is what will happen, is impossible. Best to take it likely.

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5 Responses to On the best futurologists’ limits

  1. curmudgeonlyanarchist says:

    Do you really like knowing the future? Could it be that the belief that one know the future gives some solace in a seemingly stolid world? I’m not ragging on you directly, just positing that futurology assuades certain fears and sates our human curiousity. I prefer not tying the intellectual musings about what could be directly to the present, as in the case of Russia 2010.

    I too enjoy Science Fiction, particularly the harder variety, but I find works most satisfying that place the subject far in the future, like Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. Moveover, I don’t look to Sci-Fi as a prophecy of what is to come, rather the genre enables us to explore, thanks to the author, a unique concept, divorced from a familiar setting. For this see Heinlein, the greatest Sci-Fi author.

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  3. Matt McIrvin says:

    The interesting thing about the Foundation Trilogy is that it’s actually predicated on the idea that there could be a quantitative science of predicting the future of society. (And then it subverts that idea in various ways: the predictions fall for a time to an extreme wild-card possibility, and it also turns out that there are puppetmasters trying to manipulate the world just so that it fits the predictions.)

  4. Pingback: On the problems of planning for chaotic/complex futures | History and Futility

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