Grading The “Experts”

In our modern world, we’re bombarded with the opinions of “experts.”  Virtually every news story about a development or an incident features a quote from an “expert” who interprets the matter for us and, typically, makes a prediction about what will happen.  “Experts” freely offer their forecasts on specific things — like the contents and results of the Mueller Report, for example — and on big-picture things, like the direction of the economy or geopolitical trends.

d36a6136-6dfd-425a-b7f7-2b2a1b446b1eThere are so many “experts” giving so many predictions about so many things that it’s reasonable to wonder whether anyone is paying attention to whether the “experts” ultimately turn out to be very good at making their predictions.

The Atlantic has a fascinating article about this topic that concludes that so-called “experts” are, in fact, dismally bad at predicting the future.  That’s not a surprising conclusion for those of us who’ve been alive, paying attention, and recalling some of the confident forecasts of days gone by.  Whether it’s the “population bomb” forecasts noted in The Atlantic article, or the predictions in the ’80s that Japan would soon own the world, or the prognostications about how elections will end up or whether one party or another has that elusive “permanent majority,” recent history is littered with failed expert predictions.

Why are would-be “experts” so bad at their predictions?  The article notes that academics and others who focus on one field tend to be especially wrong in their foretelling because they typically ignore other forces at work.  They also are often so invested in their specialty, and their belief in their own evaluations, that they react to failure by doubling down on their predictions — like doomsday cult leaders who tweak their calculations after a deadline has passed to come up with a new day the world will end.  People who are less invested in the belief in their own infallibility, and who are less focused on one discipline or area of study, tend to be much better at making predictions about the future than the “experts.”

Does the consistent thread of “expert” predictive failure mean that we shouldn’t try to see ahead at what the future may bring?  Of course not.  But it does mean that we should take the dire forecasts of “experts” with a healthy dose of skepticism.  Keep that in mind the next time a talking head says we need to make some dramatic change in order to avoid certain doom.

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Dire Forecasts Of 2015

This 1975 UPI article has been making the rounds lately.  It predicts, based on then-current usage rates and the reserves of petroleum known to exist at that time, that the “last barrel of oil” will have been pumped from the “last well on earth” in 2015.

Back in the ’70s, these kinds of dire forecasts and disaster scenarios were pretty commonplace — and all of them, incidentally, made predictions of what life would be like about 40 years into the future.  Whether it was oil crises, the “population bomb,” world-wide food shortages, air and water pollution poisoning the environment beyond redemption, or the ever-present possibility of global nuclear war leaving the Earth a dead, irradiated husk, there were catastrophes galore just waiting to happen a few decades into the future.  As a result, some of the popular fiction and movie scenarios of the day were pretty grim, with bestsellers like The Late Great Planet Earth and movies featuring Charlton Heston shouting to the world that “Soylent Green is people . . . people!”

So, here we are in 2015, at about the time when some of the worst stuff — overcrowded people penned up like goats in soulless camps being fed algae as the only reliable food supply, mass starvation, “nuclear winter,” a return to the Dark Ages due to lack of energy sources — was supposed to he happening.  Instead of pumping the last barrel of oil, however, we’ve discovered so much new oil and natural gas that the price of oil is plunging.  Instead of dirty-faced people overrunning the planet, we’ve seen a steady overall decline in global growth rates and, in some countries, concern that birth rates are so low that new citizens aren’t fully replacing those that are dying.  And while there is still hunger in the world, the Earth is producing an abundance of food.

You know, when you compare the calamitous predictions to the modern-day reality, 2015 really is pretty sweet.  Now, if only there were flying cars and cheap space travel . . . .

The Fertility Factor

On Friday former Florida governor Jeb Bush — who apparently is entertaining notions of a run for the White House — gave an interesting speech on immigration in which “fertility” came into play

Bush is a proponent of immigration reform who believes that immigration is good for the United States.  (Of course, it’s hard to argue with that proposition, in view of the fact that the vast majority of Americans trace their family trees to hardy, self-sacrificing, risk-taking immigrants.)  In making the economic case for reform, Bush noted that immigrants start more businesses, have more intact families, and are more “fertile” — leading to a younger population.

Odd to hear politicians talking about “fertility,” isn’t it?  It’s a subject that makes people uncomfortable.  Those of us who lived through the “population bomb” era remember the dire predictions of mass starvation, food riots, and other threats from overpopulation, so how can having large families suddenly be a good thing again?  There are socioeconomic and religious and other factors at play as well.  Unmarried teenagers are fertile, but we aren’t encouraging them to have babies to help the country grow.  “Native-born” Americans, to use Bush’s phrase, are fertile, too — in the sense that they are physically capable of having children — but many of them have taken steps to control that fertility in order to end up with manageable families they can provide for.  Those families think they are being responsible.  Is Bush suggesting, instead, that they are being selfish and unpatriotic?

The mathematics of population growth, maintenance, and decline are indisputable.  Around the developed world, there are countries that are shrinking, with birthrates that are too low to fully replace those who die.  The demographic reality has a devastating political impact, because without young people to pay for the generous retirement and health care and housing programs for the aged, the social welfare model becomes unsupportable.  That’s why many countries with low birth rates are taking steps to encourage young couples to have larger families.  Have more children, so they can grow up, get jobs, pay taxes, and help those long-lived seniors enjoy their comfortable retirements!

Perhaps America will join the list of countries that provide economic incentives for larger families — or perhaps we’ll achieve that result through policies that welcome more of those “fertile” immigrants.  Either way, look for “fertility” to be an increasing topic of national conversation in the years to come.