April 30, 1993

Predicting The Future

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Go oft awry,

An leave us nought but grief and pain

For promised joy.

Robert Burns(1759-1796)(translated into modern English)

Perhaps the most important thing that each of us does is to predict the future. We don't usually call it that; we say that we are making plans. People who claim that they can predict the future are invariably phonies.

Yet, what we have to do when we make any kind of a plan for the future, is to predict that future. How good those predictions are depends on how complete and accurate our information is and how well we are able to deal with that information.

ALL valid predictions are based on the assumption that what will happen in the future is the same as, or similar to, what happened in the past. If there is no or little information about the past, there is little basis for making a rational judgment. Much of science consists of documenting the present as well as the past, so that it will be available in the future. It is called collecting data.

When a surgeon takes a lump out of a person's breast, he can sometimes make a guess, from its appearance, whether it is a cancer or not. The final judgment is made by the pathologist who examines a stained, tissue paper thin, piece of that lump. The pathologist has no special divining rod. What he does is decide what kind of tumor it is, based on its resemblance to similar pieces examined in the past. When he says that it is cancer, what he is saying is that when tumors that looked like this were left alone, that they spread and the patients died. That is all that he is saying and while some will spread, some will not.

That kind of judgment is the same as that made by a structural engineer, when he says that a certain kind of construction will or will not resist earthquakes or hurricanes.

Yet, we all know that the best of predictions can be wrong. When I was building my house, I decided to add the second story during the two week period when it was least likely to rain. After examining local area rainfall records back as far as I could find them, I decided to do the job at the end of June. It was in 1982, and we had just finished framing the upper story when it poured for days. The best that we could do was to put aluminum roofing sheets and buckets in strategic places to collect the water. What had happened was that things did not happen at that time as they had happened in the past. Another source of error is incomplete or wrong information. A person predicting rainfall in California based on the past 6 drought years is likely to be wrong a good part of the time.

An expert is someone who has lots of information about the past and the judgment that will enable him to predict the future. As we all know, an expert can be wrong. He can be wrong because he isn't much of an expert, or because things didn't happen as they had in the past, or because he simply made a mistake. There is nothing he can do when things don't happen the same as they did in the past. The best meteorologist, with the best available information, is sometimes wrong. He is wrong a lot less often that I am, and less often than a less competent meteorologist.

It should be obvious that a bright, hard working expert will get better at predicting things as he grows older. That's why I prefer my physicians to have a few grey hairs on their heads. A surgeon may be technically at his best in his forties or fifties, but his knowledge and judgement increases with age --that is, if he had any knowledge and judgment to begin with.

Masquerading as experts are a lot of phonies. The biggest phonies are those who don't know much of anything, but claim that God gave them some special gift that enables them to predict the future. Some are very dangerous phonies, especially when they are given power over others.

If what I am saying makes you think of fortune tellers, medical quacks, witches and David Koresch, it was supposed to.

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