The end of the world is nigh; 21 May, to be precise. That's the date when Harold Camping, a preacher from Oakland, California, is confidently predicting the Second Coming of the Lord. At about 6pm, he reckons 2 per cent of the world's population will be immediately "raptured" to Heaven; the rest of us will get sent straight to the Other Place.
If Mr Camping were speaking from any normal pulpit, it would be easy to dismiss him as just another religious eccentric wrongly calling the apocalypse. But thanks to this elderly man's ubiquity, on America's airwaves and billboards, his unlikely Doomsday message is almost impossible to ignore.
Every day Mr Camping, an 89-year-old former civil engineer, speaks to his followers via the Family Radio Network, a religious broadcasting organisation funded entirely by donations from listeners. Such is their generosity (assets total $120m) that his network now owns 66 stations in the US alone.
What does the future hold? To answer that question, human beings have looked to stars and to dreams; to cards, dice and the Delphic oracle; to animal entrails, Alan Green span, mathematical models, the palms of our hands. As the number and variety of these soothsaying techniques suggest, we have a deep, probably intrinsic desire to know the future. Unfortunately for us, the future is deeply, intrinsically unknowable.
This is the problem Dan Gardner tackles in “Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better.” Gardner, a Canadian journalist and author of “The Science of Fear,” takes as his starting point the work of Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Beginning in the 1980s, Tetlock examined 27,451 forecasts by 284 academics, pundits and other prognosticators. The study was complex, but the conclusion can be summarized simply: the experts bombed. Not only were they worse than statistical models, they could barely eke out a tie with the proverbial dart-throwing chimps.
The most generous conclusion Tetlock could draw was that some experts were less awful than others. Isaiah Berlin once quoted the Greek poet Archilochus to distinguish between two types of thinkers: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin admired both ways of thinking, but Tetlock borrowed the metaphor to account for why some experts fared better. The least accurate forecasters, he found, were hedgehogs: “thinkers who ‘know one big thing,’ aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains” and “display bristly impatience with those who ‘do not get it,’ ” he wrote. Better experts “look like foxes: thinkers who know many small things,” “are skeptical of grand schemes” and are “diffident about their own forecasting prowess.”
To his credit, Gardner is a fox. His book, though, is somewhat hedgehoggy. It knows one big thing: that the future cannot be foretold, period, and that those who try to predict it are deluding themselves and the rest of us. In defense of that theory, Gardner dips into the science of unpredictability and the psychology of certainty. And he provides case studies of failed prophets — a kind of hedgehog highlight reel, in which the environmental scientist Paul Ehrlich, the historian Arnold Toynbee and the social critic James Howard Kunst ler come in for a particularly hard time.
This schadenfreude-fest can be good fun. Gardner leaves plenty of prognosticators squirming on history’s thumbtack, like the British journalist H. N. Norman, who argued, in early 1914, that “there will be no more wars among the six Great Powers.” And throughout this terrain, Gardner is an able tour guide. That’s a common analogy in reviews, but I mean it here as literally as a figurative claim can be. Like the guy who leads 200 people a day around London, Gardner is knowledge able about the major attractions, cheerfully conversational, deliberately inoffensive and fond of jokes pitched at the chuckle range.