The Future Sure Looks Hazy from Here January always brings predictions about the new year. Many of the guesses don't pan out, says Laura Lee, author Bad Predictions.
NPR logo

Laura Lee, author of 'Bad Predictions'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/17804504/17804478" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Future Sure Looks Hazy from Here

The Future Sure Looks Hazy from Here

Laura Lee, author of 'Bad Predictions'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/17804504/17804478" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

January always brings predictions about the new year. Many of the guesses don't pan out, says Laura Lee, author Bad Predictions.

MIKE PESCA, host:

People make a lot of predictions, especially at the start of a new year. I think I've figured out why. You get to say something interesting that isn't wrong. You can be right and obvious. That's an easy thing to do to note about the weather. But right and interesting, that's the trick, that's half the reason why people open their mouths. And so a prediction allows you to do that. Now, of course, you may wind up eventually being wrong, but that's way off in the future. And there's this tendency people have of never following up on predictions.

To take one example, there's a political consultant named Dick Morris, maybe you heard of him. I remember listening to a radio show in WNYC, here in New York, five years ago. I still remember his quote, and I dug it up. This is from five years ago, Dick Morris' prediction.

Mr. DICK MORRIS (Political Consultant): The questioning about the weapons of mass destruction if fully appropriate. I expect that those that are questioning are going to be red-faced in a few weeks when, I think, we find those weapons.

PESCA: No one called Dick Morris on this prediction. Everyone forgot about it. We have a tendency never to check up on things.

ALISON STEWART, host:

But he predicted that they'd be red-faced if they found them. They didn't - he didn't really say they'd find them.

PESCA: Oh, I…

STEWART: So I think they would be red-faced if they found them.

PESCA: Oh, really? It was all dependant on an if?

STEWART: Yes.

PESCA: He also…

STEWART: Oh, he's a political consultant, Mike.

PESCA: He also constructs sentences to trick guys like me after hearing it three times. I thought he said we were going to find them in three weeks. But I - there's this great Dick Morris prediction. It's a blog-only prediction. It will make your head spin. So go to npr.prg/bryantpark. You won't believe this one.

But what I wanted to do was I wanted to check up on all the predictions where people in the past said, by the year 2008. So I went back and I did a big Nexus search. I looked for the phrase by the year 2008, and I also went back to 1988 and I looked for the phrase, in 20 years time. And I found all these old articles with a lot of predictions. And so your day of reckoning is here. Let's review some of those predictions, Alison. Take us off.

STEWART: Okay. The OC Register in 2003: California could see a 23 percent spike in the rate of teen births, more than 66,000 by 2008, according to a study released by the Public Health Institute. In fact, there's actually been a decline. According to the latest figures, in '04, about 50,000 teens gave birth in California, down a percentage point from '01.

PESCA: In - the Arkansas paper had a story about the "Beeny Babies Handbook," which not only told you how much beeny babies were worth, they predicted how much they'd be worth by 2008. To take one example - remember these toys? The Purple Princess Bear in fuzzy memory of Princess Diana, originally 5 to $7, at that time it was worth something like $50. Prediction by 2008, it would be worth $600. Just looked it up yesterday. It's worth $6.99.

STEWART: Beeny Babies, J&J Stock - I don't know where you're going to put your money.

In September 2003, Treasury Secretary John Snow talked optimistically about cutting the federal deficit in half by '08. Fact: He got it right. I was $374 billion in 2003. The federal budget deficit was $163 billion for fiscal 2007.

PESCA: But the wrong predictions are a lot more fun, like the Canadian economist Sherry Cooper. She warned that the Loonie's long slide in value from, you know, it was - as related to the U.S. dollar. She said it was only going to get worse. This is the Canadian currency. Quote, "The Canadian dollar is on pace to be $.50 by U.S. 2008, this is the equivalent of a national pay cut." And she said the Loonie would never fully recover. Oops. The Loonie's worth the same as a dollar.

STEWART: Yup.

PESCA: In fact, it's a little more valuable, last time I checked.

Laura Lee is the author of a book called "Bad Predictions," a collection of bad prediction, pearls of wisdom like man will never fly.

Hi, Laura. Are you there?

Ms. LAURA LEE (Author, "Bad Predictions"): Yes, I am.

PESCA: So what I wanted to tall to you is not just to talk about different bad predictions, but why, and different categories. What did you find out? Is there a main reason people go wrong on bad predictions?

Ms. LEE: Well, I think the main thing that people do is that they - they'll take into account that the future will be in the future, and that it won't be like today. So they project out and they only look at one variable.

PESCA: Right.

Ms. LEE: So they're thinking that the future will be exactly like today, except for this one thing. And they don't take into account that other things will change as well.

PESCA: You got a good example of that?

Ms. LEE: Well, take the case of the year 2000 bug that was going to destroy the earth. I mean, I had a whole collection of people who talked about cities shutting down and everything grinding to a halt. And that one, it's hard to say whether all of the hype made people fix it, or whether it just, you know, they failed to take into account that it wasn't that big a problem.

PESCA: Right. That is a category of prediction where it's - if nothing is done type predictions, where the predictor doesn't really want it to happen. I got a good one. Miss America testified before Congress in the year 2000. And she said liver transplant shortage due to Hepatitis C would be a serious problem. Researcher predict by 2008, current cases of chronic Hep C will result in a 528 percent increase. It turns out that nationwide, it actually went down. The United Network for Organ Sharing said the number of liver transplants cause by Hep C has gone down since 2000. But what she was trying to do there was say if nothing is done, here are the calamitous effects. And so sometimes, predictors fault that - I don't know if you call it trap, but that's why they make their bad predictions.

Ms. LEE: And sometimes there's a little self interest involved in what - as well. Like when people who were involved in the railroad industry talked about how calamitous automobiles would be, or airplanes because, you know, they wanted that to be true.

PESCA: Right. And just like the one that we read - well, this gets into the press, but the one Alison talked about, where a group concerned with teen pregnancy said it was going to go up. And the newspaper wrote about, and in fact, it went down. Sometimes the newspapers, the media, will jump on a prediction because it sounds bad and says, you know, and they say, oh, we should all pay attention to that. It's a little bit of a PR stunt to make a prediction, right?

Ms. LEE: It is. And it goes the other way. It's not always negative, either. People who have new inventions or things that they want to happen, they'll make very bright predictions. And people tend to forget those more than they forget the negative predictions. If you say man can't fly and someone flies, they'll remember that. But if you say as the Right Brothers did that flight will bring out about world peace, people tend to forget that.

PESCA: Right. The - is there any kind of prediction guide that you would give to predictors whose interest isn't to get attention for themselves, but to be accurate, other than to say be really conservative in their predictions? Like how would you tell someone to make a bold prediction, but one that could possibly come true? What would you say?

Ms. LEE: Well, I like the predictions that are likely to fail better than the ones that are designed to be accurate. Actually, while I was researching my book, I did read a lot of predictions by scholars.

PESCA: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LEE: And scholars tend to be very good at couching their language in such a way that they can't ever actually be wrong.

PESCA: Oh, well, then that's the horoscope aspect of things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEE: They'll use a lot of like if this and that. And they're not as interesting. So I like the person who says, you know, we will get to the moon by this date, and you don't.

PESCA: Yes.

Ms. LEE: But, you know, they have some imaginations, though. I enjoy…

PESCA: I like the out-on-the-limb ones. Now, another common reason why people make bad predictions, I just constantly found that predictors - I went to this magazine Futurist, and they make predictions every year. And for instance, here's this one from 1993. So it's 15 years old. It says high-speed rail systems could be carrying 8 million people between Southern California and Las Vegas by the year 2000.

Now, that didn't happen. But what they do is say, hey, it makes sense. Hey, it should happen. And they totally forget human fallibility and politics. You must have seen a lot like that.

Ms. LEE: Yeah. I think right now we were supposed to have the paperless office…

PESCA: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LEE: …for example. And we were supposed to have all these leisure time. I mean, the big problem right now was supposed to be that we wouldn't know what to do with all of our free time. And both of those things failed to take into account on what people do when they have a labor-saving device, which is, oh, I could work harder now. I can get more done.

PESCA: Right. So…

Ms. LEE: And oh, I have this computer. I better print out this lovely report because I can. And so you end up with an office with even more paper and even less leisure time.

PESCA: Laura Lee is the author of the book "Bad Predictions."

Thanks a lot, Laura. I predict sales won't really go up that much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: But thanks for coming on.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.