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Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better Hardcover – March 17, 2011

4.3 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Gardner, a columnist and senior writer for the Ottawa Citizen (The Science of Fear), examines the misguided trust people place in media forecasters and "legions of experts" who make meaningless predictions about the future. He reviews the findings of psychologist Philip Tetlock, who had 284 experts from a range of disciplines make 27,450 predictions on political and economic trends, concluding they produced about the same results as random guesses. Biologist Paul Erhlich is one of his main targets. In 1968's The Population Bomb, Ehrlich predicted mass famines. In fact, Gardner points to America's "epidemic of obesity" and growing calorie intake worldwide. Gardner also probes economic and environmental worries, and warnings of wars, climate change, the Y2K hysteria, and the weather, which he says can be forecast with accuracy only at most two days out. Successful predictions are celebrated, Gardner says, while the wrong ones are forgotten. Yet he might have done well to remember more of those accurate predictions, and to focus more on Tetlock's conclusions about those experts who show greater accuracy and on how the public might recognize them. Instead, he writes off accurate predictions as "likely... a coincidence." (Mar. 17)
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From Booklist

We humans have an apparently insatiable appetite for predictions about the future, but the �experts� to whom we turn for predictions often do an exceedingly poor job of forecasting. Why? Drawing upon the research of psychologist Philip Tetlock, whose 20-year study of expert predictions suggested that experts were about as accurate in predicting the future as dart-throwing monkeys, as well as insights from cognitive science, Ottawa journalist Gardner argues that the problem is not lousy experts so much as our deeply rooted human need for certainty. Wanting definite, unqualified answers about the future, we encourage experts to make bold, unconditional predictions that often turn out to be wrong; but we are quick to forgive and forget. (Recall, for example, the many predictioneers who forecast clear economic sailing through the fall of 2008). Like his earlier work, in which Gardner also explored the challenge of dealing with uncertainty (The Science of Fear, 2009), this selection urges (and demonstrates) a calm, rational perspective; a healthy skepticism; and an effort to make peace with life�s uncertainties. --Brendan Driscoll

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton (March 17, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0525952055
  • ISBN-13: 978-0525952053
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #377,110 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Kevin Currie-Knight VINE VOICE on April 2, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Future Babble is about a phenomenon that every one of us is familiar with but routinely ignore: experts get things wrong as much as they get things right when it comes to predictions. All of us know it; we complain about the weather man, scoff at the analysists who predict the winner of the Super Bowl before the season starts, and like to have good laughs over those expert predictions that we know now were wildly off the mark. But we routinely ignore it; we listen to the weather man, are intrigued by listening to anaylists predict Super Bowl winners, etc.

The "why" question can be broken into three questions: WHY do experts (who are, after all, experts) get things wrong, WHY do we listen to them despite knowing that many have gotten it wrong in the past, and WHY do experts persist in making predictions even though they (and we) know that expert predictions often go wrong?

Dan Gardner attempts to explain all of these and the answers take us through such fields as evolutionary psychology, behavioral economics, and (very, very basic) chaos theory. First question: why do experts get things wrong? Simply put, the world is very, very complicated and our brains are evolved to seek patterns. Especially when dealing with the social world - human history, politics, macroeconomics - the more we find out about how the world works, the more we understand that minute factors can have major and very unpredictable effects. Wars can start based on politicians slips of the tongue during speeches, the price of oil can be effected by civil wars breaking out in oil-producing region, which in turn can be affected by any number of things. Etc. Etc. But, experts are experts for a reason: they try to understand the world.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Gardner's "Future Babble" is a much needed antitode to the endless stream of nonsense that we hear from pundits who claim to be able to predict the future. Broadly speaking, Gardner distinguishes between two types of experts: Hedgehogs, who know a given subject extremely well, are very confident about their predictions and are almost always wrong, often spectacularly so; and Foxes, whose opinions about the future recognize the difficulties and complexity of forecasting and are nuanced accordingly. The Foxes are only a bit more apt to be on target than the Hedgehogs, but they will at least acknowledge their errors, recognize the limitations of their art and adjust their opinions to account for new facts. They are also routinley ignored because they are boring.

Unfortunately, people crave certainty, so they lionize experts who make bold, articulate predictions about what will happen five, ten, fifteen, even fifty years from now, a proposition that is inherently suspect when you consider that chaos theory shows that even small changes in initial assumptions will dramatically change long-term outcomes. Fortunately for the experts and their livelihood, listeners do an incredibly poor job of holding experts accountable for their gross errors. We remember the rare hits and ignore the many, many misses, a point that Gardner illustrates elelgantly and repeatedly.

With wit and broad knowledge of his subjects, Gardner skewers numerous still famous "experts" who have routinely been wrong about things like the price of oil, the scarcity or abundance of commodities, population growth, Y2K, the collapse or persistence of the Soviet Union, and a host of other problems.
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Format: Hardcover
William Holmes in his review did a wonderful job of summarizing what this book is all about and since I agree with that summary I won't repeat it. I bought this book because the topic was appealing to me and I had read Gardner's previous book "The Science of Fear" and loved it.

Future Babble is hilarious and that makes it a wonderfully enjoyable read, but that's just a bonus because thesis itself is powerful and very well supported. It matters because the topic is incredibly important. What more could you ask for?

His case is devastating and frightening at the same time. How people like Paul Erlich and his supporters (to take one example) can continue to insist they were right in the face of the total failure of their predictions is a testament to human hubris. That we can be so blind to our own thinking is bad enough. What makes it worse is that apparently the more you know the worse it gets.

This book belongs in the library of every thinking person. We can sit around and rationalize why this expert or that expert is likely to be correct in their predictions of the future (such as both sides on the climate debate), but we need to face some facts. The historical record in this regard is a so bad it is actually funny. Gardner does a better and more enjoyable job of explaining why than any other author I've encountered.

Big thumbs up for this one!
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Dan Gardner eloquently illustrates that Socrates was correct in saying the wise know what they don't know but that most people will ignore the wise if provided a confident sounding alternative.

Gardner provides an up to date summary of research in psychology and many, many well documented examples of both the failings of over confidence and the human propensity to fall for the confident story, especially ones own.

An excellent read and resource for anyone needing reminding of the madness of crowds or a counter to over confident forecasters.
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