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Book Reviews

Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe Them Anyway

by Dan Gardner

That we cannot predict the future with any certainty is not all that shocking a revelation. Nevertheless, Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner provides an engaging tour through the recent history, science, psychology, and economics of prediction in this Malcolm Gladwellesque primer, explaining why the metaphorical reading of tea leaves remains such a popular pastime.

The core of Gardner’s account comes courtesy of the research of Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of California. In a nutshell, Tetlock determined that “experts” in any given field were just slightly better at making predictions than a dart-throwing chimp. In addition, the more certain an expert was of a predicted outcome, and the bigger their media profile, the less accurate the prediction was likely to be.

Looking at the results of a variety of psychology experiments and some of the more spectacular flame-outs from recent years (population doomster Paul Ehrlich is given a particularly rough ride), Gardner examines Tetlock’s paradoxical findings and shows why being forearmed doesn’t protect us much against those seeking to forewarn us. Topics covered include why and to what extent the future must always be uncertain, why smart people make dumb predictions (and how they rationalize their mistakes), and why we are so easily conned by glib “hedgehogs” (experts who are certain of one big thing) and less impressed by thoughtful “foxes” (experts comfortable with their doubts and limitations).

The book is a fast and informative read, which helps hide the fact that Gardner’s ultimate point – that we need to cultivate skepticism and engage in cost-benefit analyses based on the probabilities of future outcomes – is rather banal. All of us know the future is uncertain, so most of what passes for prediction in the media – from market forecasts to political punditry to picking the winner of the Super Bowl – is just a form of harmless entertainment. Still, Gardner gives us a fascinating look inside this silly aspect of human nature.