To Foretell the Future
Many small fortunes have been made by those who claim some ability to foretell the future. A few have managed rather large fortunes from their predictions.
Nearly every seedy burg has a fortune teller or a tarot card reader. Tube signs blinking on and off advertise insights into tomorrow and beyond. The purveyors gaze into your palms or eyes or the crystal sphere on a colorful printed card to divine the future. If you paid them, then it is your future they portend to foresee.
Most of us eschew these sorts of transactions doubtful of their usefulness. Yet, millions read their horoscopes and the contents of the fortune cookie with their purposefully vague language leaving room for some part of the prediction to come true. So tomorrow we read them again.
There must be something about the human psyche that yearns for some glimpse into the future. Perhaps we see some advantage of knowing what others don’t. We’ll alter our plans even if it appears to be foolish with some hope that we’ll get the last laugh. Some might even marvel at our extrasensory perception.
Throughout human history, humankind has ingeniously attempted to divine the future. Human curiosity provided a market, and the marketplace responded.
Technological advances offered new forms of the old craft. The printing press allowed for colorful cards and the mass printing of horoscopes and fortune cookies. Whole books could be written and published detailing with great flourish the future. Many would become great sellers- deservedly so. While most missed their predictive mark miserably, a few could claim the writer possessed extrasensory perception- clairvoyant even.
Perhaps some do possess extrasensory perception, but I posit that what they own is a keen understanding of both history and human behavior. Their ability to foretell the future is born from a belief that history is often repeated and human reaction to events is mostly predictable. The variables are the tools and technology then available or perceived possible. It is the creative use of these changes that become great reading.
That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history. Aldus Huxley
One of my favorite books, Brave New World by Aldus Huxley, 1932, found success by illuminating a dystopian future of sedating drugs and high tech mothering systems. The central theme, and central to nearly all of human existence, is the friction between those with power and those without. Mr. Huxley predicted that human control, or mass compliance, could be gained with sedation as opposed to the end of a gun. The goal is the same, subjugate the masses; only the tools are different. Fortunately, we have no evidence that mass sedation is taking place. Yet, some argue that sedation is possible using other means.
What appears to motivate writers such as Huxley, is some concern as to how technology will alter human behavior. What is the consequence of a young human baby being raised by sterol robotic hands? What part of the human psyche will forever be lost when deprived of an actual mother’s touch? We, the reader, are left to grapple with the scenario. Deep down, a fear rumbles through us; the future is possible if not inevitable.
Mr. Huxley’s future would have required some significant computing power, which we have today. ‘Modeling’ programs containing millions of lines of code and many thousands of variables are created to predict the future. Its powerful technology allowing one to simply change a few variables to see the effect for tomorrow, next year, or even a hundred years from now. Or at least that is the promise.
But computer ‘models’ have been notoriously inaccurate. In their short history, ‘models’ are often no more accurate than horoscopes or fortune cookies or science fiction writers. Often, educated guesses are more useful. ‘Models’ are only as good as the humans who coded the programs and provided for all the variables. That input is subject to all sorts of human foibles, including opinions and biases- including political biases. Why is that? Because we’re human.
Mr. Huxley wrote an entertaining novel about the future. His predictions, as far as I know, have never been used to craft public policy. That cannot be said about a computer out of Oxford University that, when told to execute the code, predicted millions of COVID-19 fatalities. The results, unfortunately, were considered with such alarm and virtually no back and forth that typifies good science. Policymakers with collective fear led to a disastrous over-reaction, which we’ll collectively endure the consequences for many years.
This ‘modeling’ debacle in the Age of COVID-19 will hopefully offer posterity some insight into possibly the most massive collapse of our world economy in history. When we let a single individual, a scientist, a human being, offer a computer model that plays into our very worst fears, we take heed at great peril. It is a glaring example of bad science in that it was like yelling fire in a crowded theatre.
Good science is a deliberative collective process. Scientists are as subject to confirmation bias and political biases as anyone else. Having data from a ‘model’ analyzed by many learned and varied eyes is the only antidote to preventing just such a disaster.
Before COVID-19, some claimed that the greatest existential threat to humankind was global warming. Using ‘models’ projecting the future for a hundred years is presented as if coming down from the mount by Moses himself. Without a hint of embarrassment from the irony of having 10-year-old ‘models’ laughably wrong, they role out new ones with even greater certainty that are even more alarming. 10-year-old documentaries full of dire predictions go up in the flames of fear-mongering. But there was good money in that. Hundreds of millions of dollars went into the fortune teller’s pocket.
It should be our hope that the debunked Oxford ‘model’ and its defrocked creator serve to humble those who claim an ability to foretell the future with great certainty using ‘models.’