The problem with predictions: Speaker says peering into future remains an imperfect science

Apr 26, 2013 by Aaron Lester
Photo by Beatriz Leon

People have always yearned to see into the future, to peek around the corner and make sense of what's going on, according to author and mathematician David Orrell. But predicting the future is difficult. And what's more, the search for the "perfect model" of prediction often reveals as much about people's sense of aesthetics as it does about the future, Orrell said last Thursday during "Perfect Model: The Past, Present, and Future of Prediction," a talk sponsored by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

The ability to predict trends has grown over the centuries, he said, but not as much as people might think, especially in a few important areas.

Climate change prediction, for example, is no better now than it was 30 years ago, he said; nobody predicted the 2008 ; "and even though the is now mapped, we still can't predict the spread of like or ."

What's the common tie among these problems? "They're connected to our worldview of how we think about prediction," he said, and that can be traced back to the .

The Greeks believed that the cosmos was ruled by "mathematical harmony," and followed the classical ideals of unity, stability, symmetry, elegance, and order, Orrell said. These ideals were reflected in architecture like the Pantheon in Rome, with its elegant geometry.

Today, are largely governed by these same classical ideals or .

So how has the classical model worked to foretell the kinds of things that people are interested in predicting now, like economics, weather, or climate change? Not so well, Orrell said.

Weather forecasting hasn't improved as much as anticipated over the centuries, despite huge advances in computing, observational power from satellites, and demand from agriculture, he said. "Predictions may be good for a couple of days, but things like precipitation or remain particularly difficult to predict."

And as it turns out, it's even harder to predict the economy than the weather.

The neoclassical theory of economics was developed in the 19th century, inspired by Isaac Newton's "rational mechanics." The theory assumed that individuals act independently and rationally to maximize their own happiness.

But does the economy act effectively, like a machine? Does it behave rationally? Does it conform to a "perfect model"? No, Orrell said, it doesn't. Large deviations frequently occur, as seen in the economic collapse of 2008.

Instead of finding a new way to think about modeling—either for weather or market forecasting—the old models simply get adjusted.

The butterfly effect, for example, became the default explanation of why a weather forecast went wrong. That theory says that something as inconsequential as a butterfly flapping its wings can affect the weather on the other side of the world. In economics, the efficient-market hypothesis was used to explain away unpredictability. The theory holds that though markets cannot be predicted, risk can still be calculated using normal distribution, or "the bell curve," another geometrically elegant solution influenced by classical thought.

Perhaps the original models are simply wrong, said Orrel. Then the question becomes, "If we can't predict the economic crisis, then how can we predict something like an environmental crisis?

"We have to acknowledge that some things aren't predictable," he said. "We need to acknowledge the uncertainty of living systems."

New models are emerging from the life sciences that view the world as a living organism rather than a machine. "These models are coupled with a new aesthetic, which finds beauty in the complexity of life rather than the elegance of symmetry," Orrell said.

People need to stop trying to project their values onto the universe, he added.

Currently, we model world systems based on stability, symmetry, order, and logic, he said. "We model people as if they were perfectly rational. We model the economy as if it obeyed [the Greek notion] of 'harmony of the spheres.'" But the world is far wilder than that, he said.

"Can we predict the exact timing of the next business, health, or climate crisis or opportunity?" Orrell asked. "No. But can we use available tools to better prepare ourselves, and make our businesses and institutions more flexible and robust? Yes. I think we can."

The lecture, held at the Geological Lecture Hall, was the seventh in a yearlong series about divination (from the Latin divinare, "to foresee, to be inspired by a god") and the many ways humans attempt to understand the present and divine the future. It was sponsored the Peabody Museum of and Ethnology at Harvard University.

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3 / 5 (3) Apr 26, 2013
If I could correctly predict the future and told people the prediction, they could change it. If I can see the future as it is without interference then I should be able to see the future that results after a prediction interferes with it. This means a true prophetic would have to be wrong sometimes if he makes a prediction and would know it when he makes the prediction. He can't say the true future because the moment he utters the prediction, the prediction changes the future.

The only way a true prophet would be able to predict the future without interfering with it is to have the prophesy be incomprehensible until it can no longer interfere with the prophesied events or only give the prophesy to someone who won't interfere.

An example is the prophesy that Israel would be a country again. The prophesy was known and it was consciously fulfilled because of that so it's not a valid prophesy.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 26, 2013
"Speaker says peering into future remains an imperfect science"
I could have told you that! :)
4 / 5 (2) Apr 26, 2013
Actually, plenty of people predicted the 2008 financial crisis although I don't know what he counts as a prediction(in terms of how many years previous to an event qualifies as 'predicted'), and predictions of climate have dramatically improved, although 'weather' remains pretty stubborn its not that we haven't gotten better it just that we have discovered that its far more complex than we assumed to predict those individual events. Individual events are always and forever unlikely to be very predictable(at least far from the event), trends and patterns though do emerge from the 'chaos'(butterfly effect) and those trends can be predicted, i.e. moore's law, and the law of accelerating returns. Many businesses use those predictions to invent and prepare for growth. Human beings are where they are because we have predicted the future better than any other species, and though perhaps the limitations of an un-enhanced human may be reached, we are continually extending our reach by evolving.
1 / 5 (2) Apr 27, 2013
WOW! Amazing! Who'd have thought that? What not a waste of money!