“Everybody knows everything anyway,” muttered old Jack Kerouac. Wrong: Nobody knows anything, writes Ottawa Citizen columnist Gardner (The Science of Fear, 2008), least of all the experts.
When it is possible to be wrong, people are wrong. There’s no news in that. What is news is that nearly every expert prediction about the shape of future things is off the mark. By the accounts of the experts of the time, anyone born in the Great Depression was doomed to a life of want and scarcity, though instead they got peace and prosperity—indeed, writes the author, “there has never been a more fortunate generation.” So why can’t the pundits get it right? Gardner is strong on the observational but weaker on the whys and wherefores, relying on—yes—expert testimony that analyzes a body of “27,450 judgments about the future” to suggest that most forecasters are generally wrong, no matter what their politics, their relative pessimism or optimism or their experience. Those who succeed are “comfortable with complexity and uncertainty”—in other words, they’re seasoned enough to qualify and hedge their predictions enough to escape criticism. Gardner takes a few jabs at such pundits as Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who claims a 90 percent correct prediction rate (see The Predictioneer’s Game, 2009), which Gardner heartily doubts. The author also revisits famed prognostications concerning peak oil and coming world famine. Yet, in the end, the book lacks hard data and phrases big questions to come up with the answers it seeks—just in the manner of your run-of-the-mill futurist.
Here’s an expert prediction: This so-so book, despite its modest merits, will sink like a stone. Now watch it hit the bestseller lists.