Sunday, October 28, 2012

In Defense of Futurology

Anyone who looks into futurology quickly encounters the enormous skepticism surrounding the whole discipline, denunciations like Max Dublin's Futurehype: The Tyranny of Prophecy reflecting common sentiments.

It would be pointless to deny that there is much to critiques like Dublin's. It is indisputable that futurologists do not often get things right, least of all when the predictions are of the dramatic, headline-making kind. It is equally indisputable that not all of the mistakes have been made in good faith; the public constantly has unfounded, dishonest and astonishingly arrogant predictions being foisted on it, which have often originated in or become the tools of vested interest. These have often diverted our attention away from real and immediate problems to phantasmic ones (as with so many proclamations about foreign military threats). They have also been used to deflect calls for meaningful action on pressing matters with illusions of cheap, easy fixes if one only waits (the apparent attitude of many Singularitarians to poverty and ecological problems), or even things working out for the best all by themselves (like the promise that speculative bubbles may have burst disastrously in the past, but this latest one is different). In short, predictions have often been worse than useless, doing a great deal of damage.

Yet, the fact remains that prediction is unavoidable. It is unreasonable to expect that self-conscious, time-conscious beings will not not consider what lies ahead of them--and even were this possible, their refraining from doing so would be undesirable. Intelligent action requires presumptions about outcomes, which necessarily involves prediction, explicit or implicit, especially when planning is involved. As the range, scale and complexity of the requisite planning grows, so does the requisite predictive effort. Given the realities of a thoroughly globalized industrial civilization, there is a genuine need for the kinds of elaborate, specialized efforts that have made an industry of forecasting.

Moreover, just as we have to be mindful of the harm caused by bad predictions, it is well worth remembering that the failure to heed those sound predictions eventually validated by events have also done much harm, and threaten to do much more, as with the dismissal of Ivan Bloch's predictions about what a general European war in the early twentieth century would be like, the warnings about financial speculation run amok again and again down to the meltdown of 2008, the problem of climate change today. Seen within a larger context, the problem seems to be less a particular intellectual tool for understanding the world (unique as its influence may be in respects) than the corruption of our intellectual life by political agendas, the failure of the media to lucidly present the issues of the day, the inadequate training of even the better-educated parts of the public to think critically and cope with nuance.

Alas, these quite obvious sides of the issue seem to carry little weight with the knee-jerk detractors who seem to see something intrinsically wrong with this activity--a view which in most cases says more about them than it does the failings of futurology. Some regard predictability as excluding the possibility of freedom (apparently not worrying that freedom in a totally random universe would deprive choice of its meaning), or are simply suspicious of the exercise of human reason, especially when applied to the human sphere (a position which has run throughout the conservative tradition, all the way down to today's postmodernists). Libertarians in particular seem to dislike prediction because of its association with planning, which they associate with impiety toward the Market, and with government intervention in it (while they conveniently overlook the ways in which private actors must plan). I suppose, too, that there is a considerable amount of plain old anti-intellectualism in the sentiment (as those who make the more influential or nuanced predictions tend to be experts). And the truth is that in many a case an individual's level of contempt tends to reflect their gut response to what a particular futurologist happens to be saying. (I have found that climate change "skeptics" get quite nasty toward the whole field when they encounter predictions about this particular subject.)

Rather than writing off futurology (something we simply cannot do), the only viable approach is to strive to get better at making predictions, and to get better at making use of them. We need to critically examine the claims we get, not just the "what" and "when" and "where" of them, but the "how" and the "why." Along with a genuine diversity of views--and a readiness to call out those who really are the venal mouthpieces of special interests--this is far and away the best protection against those who would seek to monopolize real debates, or manufacture fake ones by sowing pseudo-scientific doubt (like those who would have us believe there is no connection between tobacco and cancer, or carbon emissions and climate change).

We should not look to the field for a precision or a certainty beyond what it can actually give. Especially when the distance between the present and the point in the future is considerable, we should expect to get just the rough outline of "things to come"--which is, in the end, what the most successful predictions generally seem to strive for, perhaps because that is all we can detect through the noise. We need to think less in terms of inevitabilities than spectrums of probability robust enough to survive life's frictions, surprises and the range of choices that may appreciably affect them; to think less in terms of simplistic projections of the present than the ways in which trends peter out, and accelerate, and interact with one another; to recognize the attached caveats and respond accordingly--to not shy away from committing to this or that expectation, but be able to react with something better than dumbfounded stupidity if events take a different course.

And even where predictions do fall short, it is well worth remembering that asking the large questions has a way of yielding insights that might not otherwise emerge, a not inconsiderable prize in itself.

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