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Last Updated: Friday, 30 December 2005, 14:52 GMT
Risky business
A POINT OF VIEW
By David Cannadine
Historian

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Predicting the future is an inexact science, yet that is what each new year brings - and Number 10 is watching.

As one year ends, and as another begins, the temptation to predict what will happen during the next 12 months is something that many pundits find hard to resist. New Year resolutions tend to be made between consenting adults in private; but New Year prophecies are a much more public matter.

So far as I know, I've only ventured into predicting the future twice. In 1989, when I was reviewing Hugo Young's brilliant interim biography of Margaret Thatcher, I rashly concluded that she would "go on and on and on", and that she would certainly triumph for the fourth time at the next general election. Within little more than 12 months, she had been driven from office by her own erstwhile supporters.

Three years later, in 1992, when the royal family was having a rather bad time of things, Philip Hall published a remarkable book about recent royal finances, and I more presciently suggested that the Queen might soon feel obliged to pay income tax on her private fortune. Very soon after, she began doing just that.

Such has been my short-lived career as a prophet, and you can draw two very different conclusions from it. From one perspective, I did quite well in foretelling the future, since I was at least as much right as I was wrong. And this puts me substantially ahead of the predictions recently analysed by an American professor named Philip Tetlock, which had been put forward by people who make their livings commenting on present and future politics.

From top left, clockwise: nuclear symbol, traffic, drought and pensions campaigner
What will our pension, transport, energy and green needs be?
By the end of 2003, Tetlock had accumulated more than 80,000 predictions from his sample of nearly 300 pundits. But they did very badly in foretelling the future course of events: in fact they would have been better off, and more accurate, if they had been blindfolded, and if they had selected from among the possible outcomes being predicted by randomly sticking a pin in a piece of paper.

Compared with them, I did quite well; but it's equally true to say that in the course of my brief career as a seer, I was wrong as often as I was right. So you might conclude that, like all historians, I should confine my attention to the past, and leave the foretelling of the future to... well, to whom, exactly?

History of telling future

As the size of Professor Tetlock's sample suggests, there are plenty of people willing to foretell the future now, and there have always been plenty of people willing to do so in the past. In fact, there have been so many that what has rather pretentiously been called the history of futurology is now a booming academic business.

DC
The gift of foresight has been highly valued in many societies - the future is the most exciting place to be and the past is thankfully over
David Cannadine
Much of the Old Testament was concerned with predicting when the Messiah will come, and what He will do when He does. Just in case you've forgotten, there were four major prophets (Ezekiel, Isaiah, Daniel and Jeremiah), and 12 minor prophets, whose names, alas, I don't have time to list.

Later there was Nostradamus, the 16th Century soothsayer, who drew his inspiration from ancient writings predicting the end of the world, and who published an almanac every year from 1550 until his death in 1566.

As these examples suggest, the gift of foresight has been highly valued in many societies, and it's easy to see why. From one perspective, the future is the most exciting place to be. The past is thankfully over, and we dump in it things we don't like, as in the recent campaign to "make poverty history"; but the future hasn't happened yet, it's all to play for, and so maybe we can make of it what we want. Hence David Cameron's jibe at Tony Blair: "you were once the future".

Bob Geldof at Live 8
Poverty is yet to be history
But from another perspective, the future is a very worrying place to be heading: the past is over, and we know what it was like; the present is here and now and we do the best we can with it. But the outlook is dark and uncertain, with the risk of war, famine, and earthquakes for our society, and of illness, bereavement, and death for ourselves.

So is it any wonder that we want to know what might happen next; what the good things will be that we might be able to accomplish and enjoy, and what the bad things might be for which we need to be prepared.

Political tool

Not surprisingly, then, the most artful soothsayers have always hedged their bets. The Delphic Oracle, for example, was famously ambiguous in her predictions. When King Croesus of Lydia was threatened by a Persian army, he sent an emissary to Delphi seeking advice as to whether he should fight or surrender. He was told that if he took on the Persians, a mighty empire would be destroyed. That was good enough for Croesus, and he duly went to war. The trouble was that it was his army that was defeated, and the Lydian Empire that was destroyed, but the Oracle had been right.

Macbeth - BBC's 1977 production
Follow advice at own risk
Croesus was not the only person to be let down in this way. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, the central character is urged on to murder and battle and kingship by three witches telling him that he cannot be harmed by any man born of woman. Thus inspired, Macbeth duly seizes the crown; but he eventually encounters Macduff, who, to Macbeth's dismay, "was from his mother's womb untimely ripped", by what we would now call a Caesarean procedure. Macbeth is duly done for, in what has always seemed to me to be one of the most contrived endings in any Shakespeare play. But the witches had been right.

Such can be the hazards of listening to those who claim to foretell the future. Yet the capacity to predict what is going to happen, and the capacity to make such predictions come about, is a precious gift for any politician.

One of the reasons why Winston Churchill was listened to in the late 1940s, when he warned about the Communist menace, was that he had spent the late 1930s warning about the Nazi menace - correctly as it turned out, but he had been ignored then, and no-one was going to make that mistake again.

And in the 1960s, Martin Luther King had a dream that one day blacks and whites in the United States would be equal - an aspiration which he himself did much to promote and help bring about.

BBC NEWS: AUDIO

As these two examples suggest, politicians frequently elide the past, the present and the future, so it's not surprising that journalists often do the same. A great deal of what passes for news is in fact no such thing. Far from being an account or analysis of recent past events, it's often speculation and stargazing about things that have not yet happened. Will Charles Kennedy be forced out as leader of the Liberal Democrats? When will Blair resign as Prime Minister? Will Gordon Brown succeed him? And so on.

Educated guesses

There's also a deeper point here. These days, many political decisions have to be taken on the basis of predictions about the future that it would be foolish to ignore - but which it is impossible to verify.

  • How much is road traffic in Britain going to grow during the next decade, and how many more lanes should we add to the M25?
  • What is the average life expectancy going to be in 20 years time, and how can we ensure a sustainable pension scheme as old people live longer?
  • How rapidly is the earth heating up, and what more should we be doing about global warming?

These are pertinent questions. But we do not have, and cannot have, definite answers to them, because we cannot predict the future with sufficient accuracy.

Tony Blair speaks, with magazine featuring Gordon Brown on the cover
The Blair-Brown guessing game
Yet this government, or any other, has to have a policy on motorways, on pensions and on global warming - all of them ultimately based on little more than educated guesses as to what might happen at some far off date when most of today's politicians will long since have vanished from the scene, and won't have to take responsibility for their decisions.

This may help explain why, in recent years, there has been a proliferation, in government, in management and in academe, of what is called risk assessment, which begins with a simple question: what are the risks any organisation faces, and how well placed is it to deal with them?

The way to answer this is to use something that's called the Turnbull Matrix, named after the civil servant who invented it, to try to establish the balance between the likelihood of something unpleasant happening, and the impact if it did. A nuclear explosion, for instance, is relatively low likelihood (we hope), but very high impact (we fear), and there are many, many other permutations.

As such, risk assessment may seem novel; but it's just the latest way of trying to manage and predict an uncertain and unknowable future. On the subject of which, I do hope you'll still be here next week. And I hope I'll still be here, too.


Below is a selection of your comments:

"As such, risk assessment may seem novel; but it's just the latest way of trying to manage and predict an uncertain and unknowable future." Maybe you should take a look at Daniel Bernoulli's "Exposition of a New Theory on the Measurement of Risk" on the economic theory of risk aversion, risk premium and utility... written in 1738! I think Mr Turnbull may have been guilty of putting a new gloss on some very old ideas!
Rich Lewis, Coventry, UK

In my profession (Chartered Accountant) I have been wrestling with this octopus for over 35 years. Pin one arm down and two more proceed to throttle you!
Jon Smith, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The comparison between old testament prophecies (which were very accurate, for example Jeremiah's prophecy on the exile to Babylon) and modern day prophecies does not take into account observable trends. For example, we can see that fuel consumption is going up and make assumptions on future use based on today's figures, although that can be flawed. I remember in the 80s the government predicted zero growth in energy demand by 2000. This prediction was so far off that we are now dependent on imported electricity and gas. The "pensions crisis" is also based on the assumption that birth rates will remain at the current unsustainable levels. This may change if a future government starts giving tax breaks for having large families, as the French do. We may well see that in the future the largest group of Europeans will be French.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

Successful politicians hopefully do what is suggested in policy making. The problem starts when they overweight the short term view in decision making for advantage in their own "political" lifetime and disregard the longer term.
Robert, Tyne & Wear UK

There's a neat way to predict the future back home in Bulgaria. You go up to the gypsy fortune teller and his/hers magic wise guinea pig. You give some cash. Then she lets the guinea pig nibble at a box of charms (things written on notes). The rodent niblles one - what it says on the paper is what's gonna happen to you. There is also a variation on the subject- the guinea pig starts eating vegetable and the way it's feeding remains are scattered on the plate apperantly tells you (via the owner of the animal) if you live or die. Or get a new bride or whatever. Happy New Year, suckers!
Alex, Cambridge, MA, USA

I know that Arthur C Clark makes money out of futurology. It'd be interesting to see what his accuracy rate is.
Francisco, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

Very interesting article. I hope we hear more from this chap in the er... well, you get the idea.
Ralph, Guildford, UK

Pensions, as we live longer we will need to work longer. Transport will become more efficient. Energy - ah the politics of energy are once again appearing under the world media spotlight. Energy will become a more important science in the future. The need to be as self sufficient as possible is highlighted by the pipe line dispute. The need for a basket of generating technologies and improved storage is evident. The problem of global warming - still not fully appreciated - will be further thrust apon the world stage. As for green issues, we need to adopt more radical planning to cover such issues as planning law. We must build more energy efficient plant, houses and transport; to reduce energy use and increase efficieny and to recycle more. Areas liable to long term flooding must not be employed for long term structures without suitable adaptation such as stilts. A need exists to bring in nations such as China and India to help reduce the problems of global warming. Technology transfer will help to help nations worldwide to reduce the problem of global warming.
Keith, London

I read another article recently that looked at predictions by major philosophers and great thinkers of the past 150 years. In most cases their predictions of the economy and society fell through. Why? Because all tended to use straight-line thinking. The world is moving in this direction so we will be here in 10 years. But what they can't account for is unforeseen events, inventions, etc that ultimately change the world's direction and keep it totally unpredictable.
Suzanne W., Texas, USA

Thank you Mr Cannadine for an interesting and important(as usual) story. I wonder which oracle told Napoleon to attack Russia which ended in retreat. Instead of looking at history Hitler must have consulted the same oracle instead of boning up on history.
Peter, Republic of Panama

Well I do not know how about the UK, but in Lithuania there is quite a literal practice for foretelling the political future. And that is in the news! Around Christmas time one starts seing segments in the evening news where forecasts of famous foretellers are quoted, like "the X party is Taurus, therefore the next year..." and so on. Evidently no risk assesment has reached the minds here :)
Greta, Vilnius, Lithuania

Cameron's joke was "he was the future once" and not "you were once the future".
David Stewart, Glasgow.

Don't forget about the Self-fulfilling prophecy, such as the ancient Greek legend of Oedipus.
Ross, Ealing

Somehow, I just knew the BBC magazine would do an article on predictions.
Gordon, Whitley Bay

Often these predictions seem unrealistically specific. Taking weather forecasting as an example - very specific forecasts are only made for the next few days, and anything further is far more general, with diminishing accuracy. In the same way, the predictions most useful to politicians are probably more about broad trends than the precise details.
Paul D, Bristol, UK


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