Ottawa author and journalist Dan Gardner’s second book, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway, launched this week.
Is there a common thread between Future Babble and your last book, Risk?
There is some overlap because in the last chapter of Risk, I talk about how we are the safest and happiest people who’ve ever lived, but what about all these thunderous predictions of civilizational doom? That’s sort of where I pick up. Future Babble is about big-scale predictions, the sort of thing that you read in the newspaper or hear on television or read about on bestseller lists. It’s about what’s going to happen to the stock market, who’s going to win the election, what the world will look like in 2050, that kind of stuff.
The experts who are making these predictions should be the soul of rationality, right?
We tend to think of experts as being Vulcan, purely rational, which of course is nonsense. Experts are human. I basically make a simple case. Number One: Experts are appallingly bad at making accurate predictions. Number Two: they are bad because the world is, in very important ways, fundamentally unpredictable and because the human brain is flawed in important, systematic ways. Number Three: The question is, OK, if experts have such a lousy record, why on earth do we continue to still pay so much attention to them when they make these predictions?
What are some of the real whopper predictions?
Well, 2008 is obviously a huge one. Almost no economist saw the crash of 2008 coming. You can go to the forecasts made by the best, the finest, the brightest, and you will see that they completely missed it.
Is it possible to lose your job as a sage? Can you think of somebody who has guessed so badly that he’s discredited forever after?
That is such a great question, and the answer is no, I can’t. I have a whole chapter on the total lack of accountability for failed predictions. I can list an endless list of people who made grand-scale predictions, who made a fortune with bestselling books and who subsequently proved to be completely wrong, and they just flailed along as if nothing happened.
Do you predict Future Babble will be a bestseller?
[Laughs] I hope Future Babble will be a bestseller, but I do not confuse hope with prediction.