Forecasts That Missed by a Mile

Article excerpt

It's easy to be wrong about the future, and there's a plethora of bad predictions to prove it.

From my earliest days I have bad a keen ear for bad predictions.

There is a story that my parents like to tell: When I was four years old, my family lived in a small house with an even smaller yard. To extend my play area I would often venture into the road. When my parents saw me out there they would shout, "Get out of the road--you'll get hit by a car." My reply was invariably, "But I didn't get hit by a car!"

Normally it takes awhile for a prediction to ripen into a bad one. Something has to happen, or not happen, first. If I predict, for example, that you will buy THE FUTURIST, and you fail to buy it today, my prediction is still valid. You could buy the magazine tomorrow, or the next day. As long as you are still around and THE FUTURIST is available, there is a possibility my prediction will come to pass. Eventually, though, you will die (unless some of the predictions about immortality come true) or the magazine will disappear completely, in which case we would have a failed forecast on our hands.

A Good Time to Be Bad

Thanks to its round numbers, the year 2000 has held a special place in the world of forecasting. For the past century, scientists, writers, philosophers, and social scientists--everyone, it seems, but computer programmers who thought two digits were enough to represent a year--have been looking forward to the big 2-0. Between 1888 and 1900 alone there were 150 novels set in the year 2000. Now, here we are, living in the future so many envisioned. Is it all we imagined it would be?

In some ways, yes. Scientists of the past predicted widespread use of fax machines, personal computers, and credit cards. Today there are televisions and telephones in almost every American home. Supersonic jets cross the Atlantic in three hours. Forecasters envisioned it all many years ago.

But I am interested in the people who got it wrong: the prophets who said man could not fly, that nuclear war would destroy the world by 1980; the people who said that no one would sit still for television, and who rejected the Beatles because guitar bands were on the way out. The world has no shortage of bad predictions.

There may be those who think it unfair to quote bad predictions out of context. When "a railroad executive says airplanes will never work, shouldn't we explain the obvious vested interest he has in the status quo? And is it really a "bad prediction" when, in a time of war or depression, a politician tells the people what they need to hear to avoid a panic? ("The economy's fine, there's nothing to worry about, go out and invest now.")

The criticism has merit. There are many good reasons to make a bad prediction. My parents, for example, had a purpose in predicting I would be hit by a car--to get me out of the street. As Paul Dickson wrote in his 1977 book, The Future File: "A prediction that does not come true is not necessarily a bad prediction. For instance, predictions that have foretold environmental catastrophe may be avoided in the long run because of those very predictions." The terrible effects of the Y2K bug may have been avoided because people were frightened into action by doomsday predictions. Pollution legislation, caution over the use of nuclear weapons, and environmental protection efforts may be similarly fueled.

My intention in examining bad predictions is not to make the prognosticators look foolish (even if some do). Some of their pronouncements are isolated missteps in otherwise insightful books and articles. And when we examine some of the things that didn't happen, we may wonder why such good ideas were abandoned. But I leave it to others to explain some of the predictions that people have made. My only criterion for a "bad prediction" is whether it came true or not.

The Traps of Prediction

I have the greatest affection for the experts whose clouded crystal balls allowed them to be included in the ranks of bad predictors. …