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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 malnutritionfertility 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.