As a species, us human folk respond very poorly to uncertainty, just think about how we look to the weather reader for their forecasts, and ultimately how often their predictions aren’t exactly accurate.

According to author and columnist Dan Gardner, people look to experts to help set their expectations so they can be prepared for what’s to come. The problem, however, is that these experts are rarely on the mark, in fact, not even close. In Gardner’s book, Future Babble, he references how Brill’s Magazine “compared the predictions of famous American pundits to a Chimpanzee named Chippy, who made his guesses by choosing among flash cards.” Chippy had more hits than the acclaimed pundits.

Gardner outlines an exhaustive list of calamities, predicted and real, covering famous documents such as Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 The Population Bomb, which predicated mass global famine for the 70s (which never happened) and Ravi Batra’s 1987 book The Great Depression of 1990, which also ended up being a very brief and mild recession.


In both cases the experts dispute that their predictions are inaccurate and defend their publications with “I was almost right..." or another is "or it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been blindsided by an unforeseeable event.”

The most audacious of the excuses is the “self-negating prophecy,” meaning that because of the warnings and hoopla, we were able to prevent catastrophe... think Y2K.

One of the experiments Gardner discusses is a shock test done on a group of people. Half the group is told they will have a series of 17 mild shocks, but three additional shocks would be added randomly. The second group was informed they would be exposed to 20 strong shocks. The results were that the group exposed to the full series of strong shocks felt far less anxiety because their expectations were they were getting 20 strong shocks... no surprises. Much like the Boy Scouts, be prepared.

A truly interesting and thoroughly researched book for the social economist in your network, just in time for the holidays.

– Craig Lund is the President Elect of the American Marketing Association’s Toronto Chapter and can be reached at