At the end of the movie Back to the Future Part III, Doc Brown says to Marty and his girlfriend “Your futures haven’t been written yet; no one’s has; so make it a good one”. Yet, as Dan Gardner tells us in Future Babble, the fact that our futures aren’t written has not stopped numerous so–called experts from filling the media with endless predictions about the world to come.
In this age of information saturation, there is no shortage of news reports, magazine articles, books, and websites dedicated to explaining how the future is going to play out. But how many of these predictions actually come to pass? How do we decide which talking heads get the spotlight? And why do people seemingly have an innate desire to find out what’s next?
These are the questions explored by Dan Gardner in the enlightening book, Future Babble. Using research from the fields of psychology, economics, and history, Gardner provides the reader with a clear perspective on why so many experts fail when it comes to making predictions and why people keep listening to them anyway.
Much of this book is based on the research of psychologist Philip Tetlock, who examined thousands of predictions from hundreds of experts (political scientists, economists, journalists) in order to determine their accuracy. Through his study, Gardner tells us, Tetlock discovered “the simple and disturbing truth is that the experts’ predictions were no more accurate than random guesses.” However, he did find what he believes to be a factor determining which experts were able to make more accurate predictions than others. Those experts that he termed “hedgehogs,” people who seem solely concerned with looking at things in terms of one big idea, were far more likely to make inaccurate predictions. On the other hand, “foxes” are more analytical and not as confident as hedgehogs, yet are more often able to make accurate predictions.
The author uses this framework of hedgehogs vs. foxes as he examines a myriad of examples of predictions from the recent past. As Gardner states, it is the hedgehogs that tend to dominate the media when it comes to discussing the future. Tune into any political talk show and you will very likely find some expert or another brashly predicting some cataclysmic change on the horizon based on a theory about one big idea (i.e. climate change, terrorism, overpopulation, peak oil, the list goes on and on). This is not necessarily a new phenomenon. Since the dawn of modern science, people have tried to use scientific methods to ascertain what the future holds. Yet history has proved time and again that people, not to mention the environments surrounding us, are full of surprises.
Anyone with even a slight knowledge of history is aware that the only inevitability is that the unexpected will happen. How many great empires have fallen as a result of a problem their leaders never saw coming? What Dan Gardner seeks to explain in Future Babble is why, despite our awareness of history’s never ending barrage of surprises, we still think we can make accurate predictions about the future. This book provides a variety of studies in psychology, behavioral economics, and other related fields which show that our brains are programmed with a particular set of biases that can create the illusion that our predictions are correct more often than they truly are.
The author also delves into the world of media punditry in an attempt to figure out why “hedgehogs,” despite their terrible track record at predictions, seem to dominate our television sets, newsstands, web searches, and bookshelves. Again using a number of scientific studies, Gardner shows us that even the brightest of us seem to prefer style to substance when it comes to choosing which prognosticator to believe. A slick presentation and a confident, engaging personality will likely sell more books and get better ratings, even when the presenter has been wrong multiple times.
Future Babble is a worthwhile read for anybody interested in the psychology behind people’s fascination with “expert” predictions. If you have ever tuned into the nightly news, seen a man in a suit rambling about some type imminent doom, and wondered, “Why should I listen to this guy?” then this is definitely a book you should invest time in. If you are a “hedgehog” yourself, telling anybody who will listen that the sky is about to fall any minute now, perhaps this book will help you gain a little bit of perspective. And if you have even the slightest interest in human psychology, you are sure to find some interesting food for thought in this absolutely engaging work. Go ahead and read Future Babble, and you might just help make your future a good one.
By Dan Gardner
Hardcover (also available in E-book)