Category: General

Predicting the Future

What does it take to predict the future and can anyone really do it? There is an article on the BBC website that claims some people are much better at predicting the future than others. It can be a range of different people, not necessarily the ones you expect, so who knows, you might have this talent.

What Have You Predicted?

We are not saying that people can predict when there will be a tornado or something like that. We are talking about looking at and evaluating things involved with humans. The article asked if you foresaw the election of President Obama early on in his first campaign before he was even nominated by the Democratic Party? Did you have a sense of what was happening with the Arab Spring before it broke wide open? If so, you might have the knack.

People with Extraordinary Talents

People with exceptional talents were at one time not believed or considered outliers but now they are being studied. These include people with amazing memories who can remember what happened almost every day they have lived. There are others who are considered super tasters with a finely tuned sense of tasted. Then there are people called super recognizers who only need to see a person once to be able to remember their face years later. It is thought that these talents might be aided by genetic differences.

Genetic Differences for Super Forecasters?

It is thought that unlike these other talents, super forecasting is not aided by a genetic trait but is more a learned skill and experience helps with this. However, Philip Tetlock from the University of Pennsylvania found that top political forecasters had a record only slightly better than random chance and probably not that different from chimpanzees throwing darts.

Military is Interested

The military is very interested in predicting political change so they can be prepared and not be caught off guard by unrest, revolutions, or terrorism in different parts of the world. ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Activity) sponsored a four year project called the Good Judgment Project to find improved methods for political forecasting.

They took thousands of people and they came from a wide range of backgrounds. It gave them all questionnaires and asked them to make predictions. Not just yes or no, but asked for possibilities of something happening in percentage terms. Things like will Greece remain in the EU or will the president of Zimbabwe stay in power.


After one year, they analyzed the results from over two thousand people. Out of all these, they took the best 2% and put them on teams going forward. By the end of the second year, this super forecaster group was as much as four times better than everyone else in the experiment.

Political expertise didn’t necessarily help although it might have in some cases, but a pharmacist was one of the top forecasters.

What Makes a Good Forecaster?

The top forecasters usually scored higher on intelligence than other participants. Another key to their ability was that they were very open minded. Some make the mistake of interpreting open mindedness as being liberal but psychologists have come to view it as an indication of your ability to deal with uncertainty.

Being open minded means that these forecasters can analyze the problem from all sides and not get stuck in a narrow point of view that will affect their predictions. It also means they can change their mind when new evidence comes up.


Also open mindedness means they are more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. This helps them from making mistakes. However, Tetlock found even the best forecasters can stumble. He has done a bit of training to see if it makes a difference.

They have found that if you get into the details and try and get an inside view, it can lower performance. Stepping back and looking at broader sets of data and historical trends can often be a better way to evaluate. Also, by remembering that people tend to over estimate the risk of frightening events like terrorist attacks. If you look at a best case and a worst case scenario, it can open you to more possibilities and balance your view point.

Teams are Better or Worse?

Some people feel that if you have teams of people, you will get group think and the results will be worse than individuals would do on their own. However, with the right training, Tetlock found the teams performed better than individuals. They got training on the best way to critique the viewpoints of others and the need to respond in a positive manner to other viewpoints.

1493 and the Future

OK, so what does 1493 have to do with the future? You might say it is like the flap of the butterflies wing causing a tornado miles away. Hopefully you are familiar with that analogy and it doesn’t need to be explained. 1493 is a book that talks about events in human history and the unforeseen ecological impacts they had, and the unforeseen impacts that these ecological changes had on humans. It is a rather amazing book.

But the general point is, that even with all the scientific tools we have now, we don’t have perfect knowledge of what our current actions will have on the future. Either for the environment or for humans. It would be nice if the doubters of global warming would read this book and realize how devastating unintended consequences can be. It would be better to be prudent even if you don’t believe in global warming even though all the science points in that direction.


When Europeans started moving around the globe, they brought hitchhikers. In many ways, these hitchhikers had more of an impact on the newly discovered parts of the world than the humans did. Between the two, it was often a lethal one two punch.

Who were these hitchhikers? Insects, pigs, cows, horses, bacteria, viruses, worms and more. The one with the biggest impact were probably malaria and yellow fever. Yellow fever is caused by a virus and malaria by a parasite called Plasmodium which single celled but is not a bacteria. Neither existed in the Americas but mosquitoes who could harbor them did exist. So when the Europeans came, and also brought some African slaves, the mosquitoes bit them and then started transferring the diseases throughout the Americas.

Conquering the Americas

Before these diseases, many parts of the Americas were more densely populated than much of Europe. The native people aggressively farmed and shaped the land but in ways that were different and therefore not familiar to Europeans so they didn’t always recognize what they were seeing. By some estimates 90% of the native population was wiped out by disease and the culture was altered by this disaster. There weren’t many people left to fight the Europeans when they showed up.

Why Africans were chosen for Slavery

On top of that, it became so deadly for everyone that it caused a number of changes in the way the colonization proceeded. Some of the native population had been enslaved and used for labor. Sometimes these slaves were purchased from other natives in exchange for knives, guns, and other metal implements. They also brought in indentured servants. However, the death rate was up to 80%. It was much lower in African slaves, so the importing of African slaves exploded.

Little Ice Age

One odd twist was know as the Little Ice Age. It was global warming in reverse. It is surmised that the Little Ice Age occurred because of the malaria and yellow fever and other diseases killing so many of the native Americans. Many fields which once existed grew over at this time because no one was around to tend them. So all over the Americas there was a large increase in the amount of forest and this led to a cooling of the planet.

Social Institutions

The development of social institutions such as government, legal, administrative and anything else you can think of also seemed to depend on where malaria was and wasn’t. In New England, Europeans settled there and developed strong social institutions. In Central America, many of the colonies ended up being solely extractive. The Europeans tried to settle the lands but it became such a death trap that most just managed the properties from afar and saw it only as a place to get profit from. They did nothing to build up the institutions. In one Central American country, when it gained independence in the 1970s, its first university had only been founded a few years before and all the other institutions were equally shaky.

And all of this is just the effect from diseases. We haven’t even gone in to the other creatures and plants’ impacts. We will do that another time.



Saving the Past for the Future

They say that history always repeats itself. But, what if we are losing our history? How can that be with all the data floating around. Some people commemorate loved ones, both relatives and pets with photos and paintings. Dottie Dowling (see Facebook page) does wonderful photos, especially of animals and Carol McClees,,  is frequently commissioned to paint people’s pets so they have a memory of them.

Bad Future Predictions

The Huffington Post had a funny article about predictions of the future that didn’t quite work out.

1859 – People that Edwin Drake knew thought he was bonkers for trying to drill in the Earth to find oil. Whales were plentiful and would do just fine.

1873 – The Queen’s surgeon said that it would be crazy to do surgery on chest, abdomen and brain and that no one would ever do such an inhumane thing.

1878 – An Oxford professor thought the electric light was a gimmick for the grand Paris Exhibition and that it would fade away and never be heard of again.

1883 – Of all people, someone as intelligent and learned as Lord Kelvin thought that x-rays were a hoax.

1888 – Possibly his proof was that no one had so far been successful but a professor Joseph Le Conte felt that this proved that a self propelled flying machine was impossible.  Good think most inventors don’t listen to this kind of logic.

1903 – A bank president told Henry Ford’s attorney not to invest in Ford Motor Company because cars were a fad and we would always use horses.

1912 – The Syracuse Herald was a bit too fast with their reporting on the Titanic. They claimed that all passengers had been saved and the ship was damaged but making its way to Halifax. Wrong!

1919 – Hall of fame baseball player, Tris Speaker, said it was a supremely dumb idea to convert Babe Ruth from the best left handed pitcher in all of baseball to a right fielder. However, the Babe went on to hold the record for the most home runs in one year for 34 years and the most career home runs record for 39 years.

1920 – The New York Times decided that a rocket would never be able to get out of Earth’s atmosphere. Maybe their descendants were the ones who said the moon walk was a hoax staged on a Hollywood set.

1944 – A modeling agency told Marilyn Monroe that she should get a secretarial job or get married.

1948 – A radio pioneer declared that TV was just a “flash in the pan”

1955 – Variety magazine proclaimed that Rock n Roll would disappear by June of that year.

2005 – And of course since this was in the Huffington Post, the last is that the LA Weekly said when the Huffington Post was launched that it would not survive.


History of Predicting the Future

Many people have tried to predict the future. It seems deeply embedded in various religions. Jesus was part of a group predicting the apocalypse. However the meaning of the word has changed. It originally meant a revelation of God’s will rather than the end of the world as it has come to mean now.

Jewish Predictions

Jewish belief in the apocalypse is that the current world is ruled by evil and that a Messiah will come and deliver believers to a new era that will by ruled by God. Predictions of when the Messiah would come were discouraged so that people wouldn’t lose their belief if the prediction was wrong. We have been waiting 2,000 years.

There have been many false predictions over the years. You would think that people would look at the track record and avoid making predictions of the end of the world. Here are some of the ones.

The final battle was going to be fought in the year 66-70 as the Jews battled the Romans. Then Hilary Poitiers said it would end in 365 and Martin of Tours said it would happen before the year 400.

Christian predictions

Then the year 500, 793 and 800 and a waffle by Gregory of Tours saying 799-806. Have you noticed that a lot of the predictions are for turn of the century and turn of the millennium. They probably didn’t stop to think that telling time in this way was a human construct and there was nothing special about these dates.

Then there was 848, 992-5 by an assortment of Christians, January 1, 1000 and 1033. We skip the 1100s and the end of the world predictions start up again in the 1200s. and 1300s, skip the 1400s and then more in the 1500s. (There might have been some in the 1100s and 1400s but they weren’t mentioned in the article we read.

The Demise Gets More Frequent

There were many predictions of the end of the world in the 1500, 1600s, 1700s and 1800s. Some reworked their calculations when the world didn’t end after the first date they predicted. Cotton Mather tried 3 times. It is not clear if the increase was because with a greater population and therefore more people who might make predictions or that historical recordation improved and we just will never know the true extend of predictions in earlier times.

Aliens enter the picture

In the 1900s the bad predictions did not let up. Jeane Dixon got this one wrong. Unfortunately for Jim Jones’ followers in Guyana, Jim Jones decided not to wait for the apocalypse and created his own. Then Charles Manson murdered people to start a race war that would create an apocalypse. The Heaven’s Gate Cult believed an alien spacecraft was in the shadow of Halley’s comet and we were supposed to die as it came by so that our souls could get to the spacecraft. Thirty nine of them committed suicide so they could get to the spaceship.

And the hits just keep on coming. It seems like they are getting more frequent. When will people learn?


More on Cars

Are we in for a future of the Jetsons with flying cars? Or as mentioned in a prior post, most people not owning cars, but instead, doing taxis, limo rental, uber type services and the like. Will the cars drive themselves or will we still be at the wheel?

The Future is Global Cooling

An Ice Age is coming! Crazy? If you were alive in the 1970s you might remember that people were worried about global cooling and a new Ice Age in the future. What happened and where did they go wrong?

Well, part of it was that there was some cooling between 1940 and 1970 which was part of normal long term temperature fluctuations. You actually need to look a longer term trends to see more accurately what is going on. Plus, there was another group of scientists who were working on global warming theories who eventually won out.

Part of the problem was the media, which is often the case with science stories. They ran stories about ice ages etc. but they didn’t run any corrections or opposing views of the global warming scientists. Ninety percent of scientists in the 1970s felt that there would be global warming and 10% thought there would be global cooling.

Why was there a cooling period from 1940 to 1970? There were two reasons put forward and one of them is now considered to be the main reason. This was the effect of aerosols. These are particulates that are put in the air by power plants and other sources. Whereas greenhouse gases trap the heat, the aerosols / particulates reflect sunlight so less of it reaches the earth.

The other was called orbital forcing. Orbital forcing are the changes in climate changed by slight changes in the earth’s tilt and orbit. Apparently, this is the main cause of the ice ages and has a cycle of 20,000 years or so. Since geologists frequently deal in millions of years, 20,000 years is soon. But when the media heard soon, they took it to mean right around the corner.

More recently, a professor by the name of Don Easterbrook has claimed that we were about to have global cooling. He claims the data support this and uses in part the 1940-1970 cooling. But he also says more recent data shows cooling. Most scientists don’t understand how he is intrepeting the data since they feel that the data strongly shows a warming trend. There are others besides Easterbrook, but they are in the distinct minority.



Future of Cars

At an automotive conference people were talking about how cars were changing. Then someone brought up the elephant in the room. It is likely that people won’t buy cars in the future, just rent them when they need them and they will be self driving. It will be almost like having a limousine at your beck and call. I wonder what that will do to car prices and limo prices?

Will We Recognize the Future?

If aliens make contact with us, will we even recognize it or them? Presumably, as in movies such as Contact, a simple form of math will be the key to unlocking the communication if it is possible.

But the problem is, if they have figured out a way to visit us, they are far more sophisticated and advanced than we are now. And if we receive a communication, how long has it taken to get here and how long will it take to send a message back. Will their civilization even still exist when we send a return message?

Think about our history. We began the stone age about 2.5 million years ago. It took until 5,500 years ago to begin to move to the bronze age. Then the iron age about 3,000 years ago. Then the first steam  engine was invented about 300 years ago. The first electric motor was created about 150 years ago.

The first train and the first car were just after 1800. The first plane flew in 1903. We landed on the moon in 1969. So it only took 66 years from the first time we were able to figure out how to have powered flight to landing on the moon. One lifetime!

The first general purpose computer was built in 1945 (ENIAC) and the first integrated circuit was in 1958.

The speed of knowledge accumulation seemed for the longest time like it was on a straight line. But the last several hundred years have shown that it was just the beginning of an exponential curve. Could people from 200 years ago understand today’s technology? It would be difficult. A lot of people living today don’t understand today’s technology.

In another 200 years at the present rate of increase, where will we be? Most of this change has happened over 5,000 years and the bulk of the change has happened over the last 200 years. When compared to geological times scales, this is less than a blink of an eye. So if another civilization on another planet in another solar system got started 10,000 years before us, which is essentially at exactly the same time in geological terms when you look at the age of the universe, galaxy and solar system, there is little chance we would understand anything that was 10,000 years more advanced than where we are now.

Is it more likely that as knowledge accumulates that it will be an S curve and start slowing down with time? Or is it likely to keep rapidly expanding. If it is an S curve, we have a chance of catching up enough to understand. If not, which is more likely, they might consider us as pets the way we treat dogs and cats. Or at least as curiosities. Any real communication might be difficult or impossible. Do we really want to have contact with aliens considering the likely technological differences?

Welcome to the Future

This blog, Future Sense,  is about the future. It is not about palm reading or tarot cards or anything like that. It is about anything from the near term to far in the future. That may seem a stretch, but physics allows some fairly accurate predictions about the far future. and things like demographics make some near term predictions fairly accurate. But of course, most prognostications of the future are hopelessly off base because they can’t take into account new discoveries that change the direction of speed of innovation.

We aren’t living in the world of the Jetson’s but modern cell phones are getting more and more like tricorders. Life is endlessly interesting. We look forward to you coming back on a regular basis in the future to check out the latest articles about the future.