We’ve all been trained to view the confident prediction as evidence of expertise. The expert commits to a prediction — “Blazers win by two, “Biden wins New Hampshire,” “We’ll all be riding driverless cars by 2019” — and we’re supposed to be impressed. “If he’s so confident, he must know what he’s talking about” we are supposed to think.
He doesn’t. The only statements about the future worth considering are those hedged with uncertainty and margins of error, where certainty is approached gradually through many people studying the facts. That’s the long, slow, misunderstood process by which we got to the consensus on climate change. But most practitioners of that craft don’t call this work prediction. They speak more humbly (and accurately) of projections and scenarios. They tell us that things are moving in a direction, or that some outcomes are more likely than another, or that “if nothing changes” it will look something like this in 2050.
Prediction isn’t humble in this way. Often it’s just a sales pitch: “Buy this product and you will be happy.” “Thanks to our product, public transit will soon be obsolete.” Ignore these claims utterly. They are not trying to make you smarter. As always when you hear any statement about a patented new thing, lean into the wind. The more you detect self-interest behind the prediction, the more you should doubt it.
When I say prediction-like things in my role as an expert, they are of two kinds. Either I am predicting the continued existence of physical facts, (“In 2100, an elephant still won’t fit inside a wineglass”1) or I’m offering if-then statements that point to the listener’s power: “If you do this, it will have this effect”. I’m careful to stay in those bounds, where I’m certain. When journalists ask me “what will cities be like in 2030?” I decline.
Here’s the thing: Prediction — by which I mean any non-trivial assertion about the future — is the opposite of moral thinking, because it implies we are passive receivers of the future instead of creators of it.
Predictions tell us that we will happen anyway if accept the future passively, doing nothing to change it. But all credible, properly hedged projections about that future are dire. So we will act, and our action will disrupt all the models and assumptions and prejudices that make prediction possible.
To feel powerful, then, you must resolve to reject all confident predictions that you hear. Honor the projections and scenarios that reflect decades of humble work. But don’t let anyone tell you they know what the future will be. Nobody knows, and it would be cause for despair if they did.
(A much expanded version of this argument is in my Journal of Public Transportation paper here.)
1 A more relevant insight about urban planning than you might think, as I explain near the beginning of most of my public speeches — this one, for example.
I agree with this — but with a caution: I am sensing a trend that the future is so unknowable that planning is futile. Instead, short term reflexive thinking predominates. I’m seeing more “action plans” of near-term ideas brainstormed without data, and fewer carefully considered plans that try to anticipate needs in the future. With a ten-year-plus horizon for funding and delivering transportation projects, that’s simply a formula for inaction, and by failing to plan we miss opportunities to shape development and transportation in a positive way. We need to be honest about uncertainty, but still do our best to prepare for the range of futures possible.