Annals of Inane Predictions

There’s the old saying, variously attributed to Sam Goldwyn, Yogi Berra, and numerous other folk sages: “Never prophesy—especially about the future.” And yet it is irresistible. And a lot of people and organizations make their livelihood out of making predictions about the future, though only a small subset of them actually put money on the line. (That’s why we call them “futures traders,” duh.)

Back around the year 2000—remember the Y2K scare?—I undertook to review predictions for that year from as early as 1967. The great sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote in 1966 that The approach of the year 2000 is certain to be attended by a greater fanfare of predictions, prophecies, surmises, and forewarnings than any millennial year in history.” And indeed he was right, though note that Nisbet wrote before the explosion of Malthus-inspired enviro-doomsters got up to full speed.

The great futurist Herman Kahn published a thick book in 1967 with 100 predictions for the year 2000. Kahn was one of the great ones at this, but as I scored his predictions, he only got about one-third right. Perhaps that’s not bad. The most interesting finding of my review, however, was that his best predictions were what could be classified as “wild-ass guesses” or intuition, whereas his most inaccurate predictions were the ones generated by . . . computer models. Heh. (Unfortunately I cannot now find my complete analysis. I’ll keep looking.)

The great book to read on this broader subject, by the way, is Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Tetlock’s conclusion to the first question (“How Good Is It??) is: not very.

Let’s review a few of the most famous along the way:

  • “…civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind,” biologist George Wald, Harvard University, April 19, 1970.
  • By 1995, “…somewhere between 75 and 85 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.” Sen. Gaylord Nelson, quoting Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, Look magazine, April 1970.
  • Because of increased dust, cloud cover and water vapor “…the planet will cool, the water vapor will fall and freeze, and a new Ice Age will be born,” Newsweek magazine, January 26, 1970.
  • The world will be “…eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age,” Kenneth Watt, speaking at Swarthmore University, April 19, 1970.
  • “By 1985, air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half…” Life magazine, January 1970.
  • “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make,” Paul Ehrlich, interview in Mademoiselle magazine, April 1970.
  • Ehrlich also predicted that by 1980 the life expectancy of Americans would be 42 years.
  • “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes, The Living Wilderness, Spring 1970.
  • “By the year 2000…the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America and Australia, will be in famine,” Peter Gunter, North Texas State University, The Living Wilderness, Spring 1970.

This is prelude to a story from the Telegraph this week looking back on a set of CIA predictions for this year made back in 2000:

Many of their conclusions were uncontroversial: water would still be wet, sugar would still be sweet, and ethnic and religious tensions would continue to drive conflict in nations where governance is poor.

But other predictions have fallen flat – such as the notion we’d all be eating cloned beef burgers, or that North and South Korea would be unified.

Overall, the CIA’s record over a shorter timeline than Herman Kahn looks to have come out about the same. Goldwyn (or Berra) were likely right about the wisdom of prophecy.