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An excellent book on the futility of trying to predict world events

Posted by Jesse Singal  March 26, 2011 09:45 AM

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The two biggest news stories going on right now, the civil war in Libya and the threat of a nuclear disaster in Japan, are bringing lots of predictions with them. Confident, well-dressed people go on TV and explain with nary a trace of doubt what the Middle East will look like in 20 years, or why it's inevitable that an increasing proportion of America's energy will come from nuclear power, despite the current hiccup of concern over the enterprise.

But these predictions are predestined to be worthless, argues a great book I reviewed this week in the Globe.

Dan Gardner, a Canadian journalist and columnist, dedicates "Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail - and Why We Believe Them Anyway" to explaining the phenomenon of expert prediction and why it is so fatally flawed (even experts who appear to have gotten major events right turn out, under closer scrutiny, to have thoroughly unimpressive records of prognostication).

What makes "Future Babble" is Gardner's comprehensive approach to explaining both the external and internal factors that make prediction impossible. Externally, the world is simply really, really complicated, far past the point of human predictive abilities (few types of prediction have been as studied and refined as weather forecasts, and even those are only consistently accurate to a few days out). Internally, our brains are beset by all sorts of biases and cognitive short-circuits that negatively impact prediction-hearing and -making.

As a result, we crave certainty (and therefore expert predictions about the future), but are expert rationalizers, never fully letting go of the predictions and experts that lead us astray. And those of us who make predictions have a lot of trouble escaping the clutche sof our own brains, which often cause us to pay too much attention to certain factors and not enough attention to others.

In short, it really is an excellent book that anyone who is into the social sciences would enjoy. I highly recommend it.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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