THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

What’s in all those predictions? Turns out, nothing much.

By Jesse Singal
March 23, 2011

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It’s hard to turn on a TV without seeing a bold prediction. Gold will go up. Oil will go down. China will launch a trade war against the United States. Each prediction is more confident than the last.

There’s a dirty secret behind these prognostications: They are worthless. Even when an expert nails one, look closer and you will see a track record littered with embarrassing misfires. There is simply no such thing as a consistently successful predictor.

And yet we still crave predictions, pay analysts to generate them for us, and flock to those experts who appear to have gotten something right. It’s a fascinating, futile circus, and Dan Gardner provides a lively tour of it in “Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better.’’ Gardner, a Canadian journalist and author, squeezes a heavy dose of fascinating social science and recent history into a quick, smooth read that greatly illuminates our penchant for prediction.

“Future Babble’s’’ debunking can be divided into roughly two segments:

First, Gardner shows how the world’s complexity dooms the prediction game from the start. Then he turns inward, explaining why the human brain is so bad at making predictions and so good at falling for the charlatans who do.

The first part is straightforward. The areas that garner the most predictions — the prices of commodities and questions about which countries will gain or lose power in coming decades — are the result of so many complex, interacting factors that there is simply no reason to think we can make accurate predictions about them. Given that experts cannot accurately predict the weather a week from now, why would we trust them to predict the United States’ standing in the world in 2050?

But this is not the only reason predictions are almost worthless; our brains also get in the way. Gardner expertly and entertainingly guides the reader through the reams of psychological research that explain our appetite for predictions and our incompetence in making them.

Predictions, Gardner explains, fulfill a deep-seated human need: certainty.

Evolution has given us brains that desperately seek control over our surroundings. Therefore, they abhor a foggy future and yearn for a predictable one. This need for a sense of control is so profound that it can be the difference between life and death — in one “unsettling’’ experiment cited by Gardner, nursing-home residents were twice as likely to die over a given period if they were not given any decisions to make — that is, control over — regarding basic aspects of their environment such as furniture and plant placement. So even if a prediction is dire — and there’s no shortage of dire predictions documented in “Future Babble,’’ as every decade has seen new crops of experts who write bestselling books predicting catastrophes that capture the mood and fears of that era — it still soothes our certainty- and control-addicted minds. We are cognitively disinclined to trust an expert who exudes humility and uncertainty, but our brain reacts giddily to the smooth talker in the suit who is drop-dead positive that the price of oil will increase next year.

And that is just one of the many biases and cognitive short-circuits that help keep us inundated with worthless predictions. There’s hindsight bias, for example, which convinces us that surprising events, in retrospect, could easily have been predicted. And the brain’s constant race to scrub itself clean of cognitive dissonance — uncomfortable evidence that there is inconsistency in who we are or what we believe — causes us to cling irrationally even to predictions that were obviously wrong, whether made by ourselves or a trusted “expert.’’ Gardner explains these and several other psychological pitfalls in clear, accessible language, recounting many a telling experiment along the way.

So, saddled as we are with heads full of biases and airwaves full of prognosticators, how do we plan for the future? Gardner has a simple solution: humility. If we can accept that the future is unknown and precise prediction impossible, we can work to make plans that are adaptable to a wide range of potential outcomes (nobody knows for sure how severe climate change will be, but weaning ourselves off of oil is a good idea regardless of what the future holds).

“This may not be as thrilling as believing we possess a map to the future and setting out boldly for some distant El Dorado,’’ writes Gardner, “but it is considerably less likely to end in a collision between one’s nose and reality.’’

That may be true, but here is a prediction: The know-it-alls on Fox News and CNN aren’t going anywhere.

Jesse Singal, who writes for the Globe’s opinion pages, can be reached at jsingal@globe.com.

FUTURE BABBLE: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better By Dan Gardner

Dutton, 320 pp., $26.95