Unfolding history is a sneaky devil, with mystifying feints, setbacks and misdirection. Seeming triumphs insist on confirmation after the fact. While complexity puzzles our brightest, brash prophets barge in to "explain" away (thus reduce) perplexity. Hard to disprove what is yet to come. Confident predictions don't just laugh at proof but presume a soothsayer with more certitude than accuracy. Thus Laurence Peters' quip, "an economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn't happen," applies to seers far and wide
Prophecy is a paradoxical businesses where the greater the failure, the more boundless the new offering. If yesterday's forecast goes bust, here's a new one fits the future to a tee. And perhaps Eric Hoffer explains the predominant tone of doom and gloom, "We are more prone to generalize the bad than the good. We assume that the bad is more potent and contagious."
How many oracles get fame, money and hit show ratings with "Don't worry. Be happy"? What good is prophecy without fear and trembling, invoking penalty for sinners who won't mend their ways? Ultimately, this prophetic "contagion" depends on a double reach, trusting not just the message but messenger. Are seers not presumptive high priests into whose ears some god whispers? "Handwriting on the wall" at least implies visibility, giving us mere mortals something to go on.
Making predictions about open-ended consequences, especially in religion, history and politics, is a fool's game, especially if reliability counts. When novelists fabricate, they deflect indictments of lying with a default to make-believe. Fiction that does not affirm cannot lie. But prophets are nothing if not serious, emboldened with the conviction of truth. That spurs annoying skeptics to keep asking, "does Crimea mean war, and will it be nuclear?" Or "what, America, today's arch-villain, is not yet a failed state?" Google "spectacularly wrong predictions" and chuckle at a score of discredited posturing, especially the fiascos of political predictions.
When Prophecy Trumps Revelation
When forecasting fails outright, or waxes irrelevant, rivals gloat over your tomfoolery, discrediting your other worthwhile insights. And hitting the mark, once in a blue moon, is a mixed blessing. Your friends must disregard countless misses while resentful foes attribute a lucky bullseye to membership in a satanic cult. Considering the blatant statistic of prognostication is deviance from reality, I side with Peter Trucker: "Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window"?
If the past and present weren't so mystifying, historians wouldn't work so hard to find patterns of meaning. In retrospect, the former Soviet Union didn't "bury" us, bomb shelters went unused, and fortunes beyond imagining have been lost (and gained) arming ourselves to the teeth against phantom enemies. Equally telling are misguided 1950's projections: an economy without serious booms and busts, affluence lifts all boats, mechanized marvels replace constant work with leisure, and medical miracles obsolete our most chronic diseases. That worked out well.
What clairvoyant years beforehand foresaw the speed of the Soviet Union's disintegration, or the Chinese lurch to ardent, state-controlled predatory capitalism? Who in 1945 imagined the winning American super-power would entangle itself, absent direct, military attacks, in a wasteful madness of unwinnable wars? Only the deranged foresaw the bizarre, presidential shocker of 2000, or serial catastrophes inflicted by the double-down loser-in-chief. No deity (or novelist) would have dared concoct that Dubya's installation answered to manipulation by the state election staff of the winner's brother, before defaulting to history's worst Supreme Court. That chronology still beggars belief, 14 years later. And more came to pass in '08 that confounded prophecy: a neophyte, minority lightweight named Obama dispatches the odds-on party heavyweight, only to crash and burn, the epic disappointment of the era.
In short, reliable interpretation of accepted knowledge is hard enough. Do not prophetic blunders, omissions and distortions look like stomping heavy skates on thin ice in the late Spring? My message today: beware all predictions, good, bad, or indifferent, especially from those you deem heroes. Too often such predictions are less about what's to come than what we already believe, feeding either wish fulfillment or the spate of world weariness, even despair.
Why then does modern prophecy, hardly more reliable than past excesses, command attention? What if the presumption of knowing the future is what sets our species apart? Humanity doesn't alone boast complex social organization (compare socialized ants and bees). Or teamwork, for roving packs (wolves, lions, orcas) starve absent co-operation. Nor using tools (thanks, primate cousins), nor species communication (birds and mammals vocalize all the time). Nor is purposive altruism unique to mankind (beavers enrich landscapes, mammal mothers risk all to save offspring, even Douglas fir trees nourish heavily-shaded newbies).
Nor does tracking the past set us apart, as genetically-engrained instincts honor a multitude of adaptive predecessors far away and long ago. Many nominate higher thinking, but research proves tribal dogma, unconscious bias and visceral emotions defy reason and experience. That leaves one fallback: we alone can imagine the future, our own death, even propose life after death. That ability produces one all-important positive -- collective planning -- alongside its darker cousin, prophecy.
Nothing raises us above lower animals like divination, the root word itself speaking volumes. "To divine" reinforces our kinship with something eternal, the stuff that ultimate dreams are made of. Prophets mimic deities who transcend time. Of course, strategic planning anticipates the future, but checked constantly by assumptions confirmed by experience, thus we trust someone or enter contracts. Science looks ahead, too, not with prophecy but narrow predictability about testable variables. Acknowledging, even reversing, climate change isn't fortune telling but understanding the massive evidence driving clear trends. As Nassim Taleb of Black Swan fame argues, "We know from chaos theory that even if you had a perfect model of the world, you'd need infinite precision in order to predict future events . . . we don't have anything like that."
Failure is Success
Should we not end by recollecting the magnitude of "confirmation bias," wherein all favor information that confirms what we already think or believe? And, further, that a myriad of "cognitive biases" afflict our noble species. A sense of limitation, if not skepticism, warns us that permanent knowledge is never absolute. That's a lesson that far-ranging prophets have yet to learn, blithely ignoring the future forever looms as the endless "known unknown."