March 8, 2020
It might seem surprising that a Research company should make the case against predictions, but the facts are overwhelmingly clear. Almost every prediction you are likely to read about the future is essentially worthless. The stark reality is that no-one is really certain about what the future will hold, and this includes your favourite guru, celebrity blogger, or politician. When it comes to the future we are all, essentially, clueless. How do we know this you might wonder? In our eyes, you only really need a passing knowledge of the history of the future to understand why.
Since the beginning of time people have been making predictions about what they thought was going to happen in the future. And, since the beginning of time, they have, largely, been spectacularly wrong.
By way of example, it was once widely predicted that the sequencing of the human genome would eradicate cancer; we thought when the clock rolled over and calendars turned to 2000 the world would come to a halt; and, laughably now, we believed technology and automation would push the majority into a ‘leisure crisis.’ Hindsight tells us we were wrong. And it seems that the more you think you know, the more clueless you become about the future. Lord Kelvin, a mathematical physicist and engineer, once believed that heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible. He didn’t believe them to be unlikely, or even inconceivable, but absolutely, undoubtedly impossible. Today, we find it impossible to imagine a life without the aeroplanes that have facilitated an ever smaller world. But today’s minds are equally capable of predicting a future based on impossibility. Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, once famously quipped that there was no chance of an iPhone ever gaining a significant market share. Again, this is laughable today because we have the benefit of hindsight.
There are, of course, serious studies of forecasting and these predictions show, categorically, that most predictions are worthless. The best known of which is a study that was conducted by Philip Tetlock, from the University of California who ran a twenty year study measuring the accuracy of predictions made by the kinds of people who are paid to make them - journalists, forecasters, those people we see on television or headlining conferences. His study recruited 284 of such experts and over those twenty years logged more than 80,000 of their predictions. As you may have guessed by now the results of this study were as instructive as they were depressing. Tetlock’s findings concluded that these experts were no better at predicting the future than you or your friends, or to use his now famous quip “a dart throwing chimpanzee.”
What these examples tell us is that in most cases you’d be just as well off tossing a coin - or giving a dart to a chimp - than listening to the predictions of experts. Certainly, we wouldn’t recommend pinning all your research on the predictions made in the public arena. Rather, you need to invest a little in understanding where your stakeholders are really at, what they’re prepared to trade off for the ‘betterment’ of society and what they’re not. Comfortable is often much more appealing than dislodgement!