Experts Suck at Predicting the Future – ‘They predicted disaster and got dramatic improvement’
SPOTLIGHT: 50 years ago, Paul Ehrlich made predictions about the future that weren’t slightly wrong – they were off by a country mile.
BIG PICTURE: Experts know a great deal, but only about their own area of speciality (and even then, many of their ideas may rest on ambiguous evidence and subjective judgment).
American biologist Paul Ehrlich attracted media attention in the late 1960s by forecasting imminent ecological collapse, resource depletion, and widespread famine. “By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people,” he declared. “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”
In a 1971 interview, he similarly insisted that matters were “already stretched to the breaking point…it’s going to be downhill from now on…it’s clear we are going to have to turn back our levels of technology.”
Personal computers, ubiquitous smart phones, the Internet, Google, Skype – Ehrlich imagined none of these. He had no inkling how they’d improve business efficiency, enhance safety, democratize information, enrich ordinary people’s lives, and place powerful tools in the hands of environmental activists.
Standards of living have improved considerably since 1970. The UK continues to be a thriving economy that people born elsewhere are eager to join. Since the 1970s, billions have been lifted out of abject poverty. Where malnutrition, fertility rates, child mortality, the education of girls, and air pollution are concerned, overall trends have been positive for decades. In other words: Ehrlich had no clue. He knew nothing at all about the miracles around the corner.
TOP TAKEAWAY: Being an expert in a particular field doesn’t make you smart about the big picture.
- Alex Epstein’s book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels
- Ehrlich’s 1969 comments concerning the UK were reported in the New Scientist
- his 1971 remarks appear here (see highlighted quotes)
- The scientific community is so unperturbed by Ehrlich’s spectacular misfires that, in 2012, he was rewarded with membership in the ever-so-prestigious British Royal Society.
- This article describes how a gathering of Nobel laureates were woefully ignorant about basic, real-world trends. More details in: Our Ignorance is Breathtaking – We Should be Humble
- Is Everything Really Getting Worse?
- Forty Years of Drama Queen Scientists
- A Historical Perspective on Hysterical Rhetoric
- The Scare Story of 1881
- It’s Always Something (the 1924 edition)
- Eco Narcissists & Their Last Chances
- The UN’s Environmental ‘Holocausts’
- Pointless Predictions
- Two Population Predictions
- Future Babble
- more on failed predictions here