The End of Prophecy: A Comment on Pryor's Study

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ABSTRACT. This comment is in response to Frederic L. Pryor (2000). "The Millennium Survey: How Economists View the U.S. Economy in the 21st Century." The American Journal of Economics and Sociology. 59 (January), pp. 3-33.

This paper criticizes the tendency to take seriously or at face value prophecies by economists about future economic indicators: people develop knowledge as they go along, and this makes for the unpredictable nature of the future. Extrapolations are often erroneously presented as prophecies. The article finishes with an appeal for utopian thinking. There is a cognitive dimension to utopias or dystopias in that they make one reflect upon the previously tacit assumptions of our present, and make one aware of other choices.

Laurence Moss asked me to reply to Pryor's article in the same issue of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Pryor's article "The Millennium Survey: How Economists View the U.S. Economy in the 21st Century" summarises how a group of economists expects some aspects of the US economy to evolve in the next 50 years. The research was based on a random sample of members of the AEA. The economists were asked a number of questions regarding the future development of key economic indicators, such as, for instance, GDP, economic globalisation, and so on.

I find myself in a difficult position. On the one hand, I acknowledge the technical sophistication of Pryor's survey. It is a highly competent piece of research, and furthermore Pryor is aware of some of the technical limitations which are intrinsic to this kind of study. On the other hand, I have to admit that I do not share some of the presuppositions that may underpin this type of survey. I do not regard professional economists as particularly able (or more able than non-economists) to provide accurate prophecies about our (relatively distant) economic future. This is not to say that prophecies by economists are not a worthwhile subject of study. Social psychologists may have a particular interest in studying any recorded set of expectations (including expectations by economists regarding the future) as it may throw some light, for instance, on how people in general draw upon the past in order to make inferences about the future. Nor do I wish to imply that professional or academic economists do not have anything substantial to say about the economy. They may well do. But what I wish to challenge is the view that we ought to take seriously (Or at face value) what economists have to say about the future of some economic indicators.

The reason is simple. People themselves develop knowledge as they go along, they incorporate that knowledge into their actions, and this makes for what the American philosopher G. H. Mead called the "incurably contingent" nature of the future (Mead 1959; 1963/4; 1972, pp. 312 ff., pp. 650 ff.). It has often been said that one of the upshots of this is that any prophecy about the future is bound to have some impact on what it is prophecising: like the oracle of Delphi, a prophecy may lead to actions that make for the falsehood of the very same prophecy. The phenomenon of self-denying prophecies already throws some doubts over the activities of the economist-cum-prophet, but it only captures a small aspect of what I am trying to get at. My point is that laypersons continually gather knowledge and incorporate that knowledge into their actions so that any prophecy about the future is necessarily problematic. In a different context, some philosophers of science have already pointed out that if the future is depen dent on the growth of knowledge (which it is), then one can never know that future because to know it is to anticipate that knowledge (and to anticipate it would be to have that future knowledge now) (Popper 1991). This is not to say that economists cannot infer some laws which may allow them to make some predictions (of the kind 'if A, then B'). …


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