The danger of political predictions

Why do we keep on trusting pundits when they constantly get it wrong?

By Dr Matthew Ashton

In the next few days all of the newspapers will be filled to bursting with various pundits making political predictions for 2012. These range from the future of the Euro to the American Presidential election in November. The only thing one can say with any certainty is that many of them will be wrong.

Of course some predictions are easier to make than others. In the case of the US election it's got to be one of two people who wins so making a prediction is as easy as flipping a coin. In the case of others like the fate of the Euro you're choosing one possible future out of thousands so the chances of predicting the right path is inherently pretty low.

As we all know, predictions are incredibly difficult to make, so why are we still so beguiled by them? Most of us who read the papers on a daily basis can think of dozens if not hundreds of examples of so-called experts getting it wrong, yet we continue to follow them.

In 1991 respected foreign policy analyst George Friedman wrote a book predicting that Japan would go to war with the USA in the next few years ('The Coming War with Japan'). Of course no such thing happened, yet this minor hiccup didn't stop him writing another book of predictions. Likewise in the year 2000 a book came out called 'The Long Boom' predicting that we were halfway through a 40 year period of unprecedented economic growth that would last until 2020. Instead, we're currently teetering on the brink of the worst depression since the 1930s. Or should that be the 1990s? In 1987 Ravi Batra published 'The Great Depression of 1990'. It didn't happen. However this didn't stop him from having another go at emulating Nostradamus a few years later with the 'The Great Crash of the Millennium'. His supporters have since claimed that he was right all along as the credit crunch of 2008 was what he'd been predicting and he'd just been out by two decades. At the risk of sounding cynical, a prediction of global catastrophe that's wrong by twenty years is not particularly helpful.

Of course optimistic predictions can be just as prone to error. A few years ago James K Glassman and Kevin A Hassett wrote a book predicting that the DOW would soon hit 36,000, while David Lereah authored a guide to 'Why the Real Estate Boom will not Bus't (it came out in 2006 which in retrospect possibly makes it the worst timed book ever). This isn't even listing the dozens of titles that were coming out until quite recently predicting that Ireland's economic boom was never going to end.

The one thing all these attempts at political and economic predictions have in common is a refusal to acknowledge that events will always occur that will completely flip the world on its axis and challenge our most basic assumptions. The fall of the Berlin Wall happened despite thousands of political scientists and commentators not seeing it coming. Equally the world was completely unprepared for the events of September 11th. While events of this magnitude probably won't be occurring in 2012, we should be open to the fact that they might. Therefore any predictions should come with huge caveats admitting this. That said, we can fully expect to see Twitter ablaze this week with people guessing at what the future will hold. Humans crave certainty and a hundred wrong predictions will be quickly forgotten in the face of one correct one.

Bearing all of this in mind, the one reliable prediction for 2012 is that the world won't end, despite the best attempts of Hollywood blockbusters and certain sections of the media to convince us otherwise. It's a solid dependable prediction and the best thing about it is, if it's wrong there won't be anyone around to say so.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.