Viewpoint: Why Predictions Fail but Prophecies Don’t

We should be less concerned with how things will be and more with how they should be

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Jemal Countess / 2009 WireImage

Paul Krugman (with Arianna Huffington and Elizabeth Warren) at the TIME 100 gala in 2009. Of a survey of 58 pundits, Krugman's predictions proved the most accurate.

Everyone loves to make predictions and almost everyone is bad at it. Not only are we enchanted by our own forecasts, but people in all fields — journalism, politics, tech, marketing — make a nice living off fawning over the future, pretending to know which gadgets will sweep the next decade and whether the economy will recover and when. But a 2011 survey of morning talk shows came to the remarkable conclusion that the pundits featured were no more accurate than a coin toss. The realization that most predictions fail has been elaborated upon in Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise, and has even inspired Philip E. Tetlock, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to launch a project seeking to improve punditry’s abysmal record.

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That we are wrong far more often than we are right can be explained by the odds alone; for every way of being right there are thousands of being wrong. There are always more variables than can be calculated, and we barely know what is going on in our own heads, never mind the world at large.  Still, each time an expert rears up to proclaim a new prediction we forget the previous errors.  When someone hits, we are fantastically impressed. When they don’t, the backup strategy is to explain why the prediction hasn’t come true yet. But mostly, we just count on each other to forget.

But instead of trying to improve our ability to see the unforeseeable, maybe we should reframe the entire exercise. The prophets of the bible are thought of as predictors, but far more often they are moralists, less concerned with how things will be than how they should be.  Yes, occasionally a biblical prophet would venture a prediction that was inaccurate as a sportswriter in spring training. It has been a long time and neither repeated invocations that “the day of the Lord is at hand” (Joel, 4:14) nor cosmological speculations, “No longer shall you need the sun for light by day nor the shining of the moon by night” (Is. 60:19) have panned out all that well.

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Yet most of the time prophets strained not to see the future, but to see the present. They extrapolated from moral trends. So rather than saying the poverty index will rise or fall in the coming year, Amos talked about the rich buying the poor for silver or a pair of sandals (Amos 8:6) and Isaiah denounced the corruption of the city: “Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” (Ch. 1:23).

So much of what we hear in the media is prediction of the most ephemeral sort — this person might run for office, that person’s remark gained or lost support. What we do not hear from pundits is what we would hear from prophets — the poor continue to languish, work is often unrewarded, there is still, even in our country, sexual slave trade, families are struggling to survive, we consume without wanting to know where or how our goods were produced.

(MORE: America’s Forgotten Economic Challenge)

Prophecy in this sense does not require you to believe yourself on a mission from God. No matter your beliefs, society is ill-served by endless predictions about the trivia of tomorrow and silence on the urgencies of today. We risk being morally neutered by our love of analysis and trends.

Technology is a tool whose utility is entirely dependent on the values that drive it. This is not a call for self-righteousness but for moral seriousness. Don’t devote yourself to idle guesses that will be disproved next week. Listen, someone is crying now.