Magazine article The Futurist

Discovering the Future: H.G. Wells Might Be the Greatest Forecaster of All Time. So How Did He Make His Predictions?

Magazine article The Futurist

Discovering the Future: H.G. Wells Might Be the Greatest Forecaster of All Time. So How Did He Make His Predictions?

Article excerpt

For good reason, H.G. Wells is sometimes considered to be the "father" of futurism. In the September-October 2007 edition of THE FUTURIST, I discussed some of the amazingly accurate predictions of Wells in his nonfiction book Anticipations of the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought, published in 1901, In that seminal volume, Wells attempted to analyze and describe the probable sequence of developments over the course of the twentieth century in a number of pivotal areas, such as transportation, cities, societal relations, government, education, and warfare. He achieved an overall predictive success rate of 60%-80%.

Many of these predictions were specific and detailed enough to preclude guesswork and luck as explanations for his success. Though he had a few misses, mostly in terms of predicting social and demographic changes, his accomplishment must nonetheless be judged as an amazing achievement and one that begs for further investigation into how he managed it. His 1902 address to the Royal Society of England provides some startling clues. Among the tools in the Victorian futurist's arsenal:

* CLOCKWORK UNIVERSE ASSUMPTION. One pillar of Wells's argument in his speech to the Royal Society, "The Discovery of the Future," is the nineteenth-century concept that all future events are predetermined by past events. If we knew all that happened in the past, strict cause and effect principles would allow us to predict the future, like a fall of dominoes. Quantum physics and chaos theory would later invalidate this theory of an absolutely knowable correspondence between past and future events, but in 1901, Wells's postulate that the past and the future were determined was an orthodox scientific view.

* INDUCTIVE THINKING. Wells argues that inductive thinking allows one to build up an understanding of the broad outlines of future history in the same way that archaeologists slowly build up an understanding of the history of previously unknown societies of the past--i.e., by "the comparison and criticism of suggestive facts." Instead of looking at an array of archaeological facts and relationships and inferring what the past must have been like, Wells suggests using existing or researched information to infer a future state of affairs. Aside from really unknowable large-scale events--an asteroid impact being one of his examples--Wells proposes that such inferences can be reasonably accurate.

* LAW OF LARGE NUMBERS. Forecasting the future can make use of statistical probability. While discrete human actions and very detailed events may not be individually predictable because we do not know all about the present or past, on a large scale involving many people and events, a broad trend becomes more apparent and historical aberrations tend to even out. As Wells scholar Patrick Parrinder says of Wells's use of this idea, "We are concerned with something like the 'actuarial principle' used by insurance companies in determining their premiums. Though individual outcomes are wholly unpredictable, certain sorts of average outcomes in human affairs can be predicted with fair accuracy."

In arguing for the law of large numbers and broad historical forces, Wells is careful to add that he doesn't believe in the "Great Man" theory of history. He believes that even individuals in authority react to events more than drive them. Humanity, Wells believes, can influence the details of history but rarely if ever alter major historical trends.

* SCIENCE AS A PREDICTIVE DISCIPLINE. Scientific procedures, principles, and results provide a basis for prediction, says Wells, pointing out that scientific knowledge is inherently predictive. He argues that science is not science unless it allows one to successfully predict phenomena--the course and timing of planetary movements, the diagnostic course of disease, the result of chemical combinations, etc. In "Discovery of the Future," he advocates a general expansion, codification, and joining together of predictions from the various scientific disciplines. …

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