Monday, January 01, 2007

Hazard of Snap Predictions

Yesterday, my local paper (The Providence Journal, or ProJo as it's known locally) published an opinion piece by Paul Greenberg:
Imagine the progress Franklin D. Roosevelt might have made as commander-in-chief of American forces during the Second World War if only he could have had the benefit of advice from James Baker, Lee Hamilton and the other members of the Iraq Study Group. Today’s column applies its lessons – indeed, whole sections of its text – to that earlier quagmire...
The piece is an interesting and clever bit of writing and is worthy of commentary on its own. But today the Journal uses it as a jumping off point to editorialize about the hazards of making predictions in today's fast-paced, information age:

It is difficult to be ruminative in a culture with so much communication that it’s difficult to remember anything more than about five minutes old. Thus the tradition of looking back and looking forward at this time of year seems an antiquated custom.

But actually, we would do well to look far back, at least by current standards. For instance, yesterday Paul Greenberg, a thoughtful and very well read guy (whether or not you agree with him), had a column on this page speculating on what the Iraq Study Group report would look like if its sort of analysis had been applied to a review, in early 1943, or 1942, in the middle of World War II. Things didn’t look good, of course, and a negotiated settlement with the Axis powers would have seemed reasonable. Of course, the full horror of the Holocaust was not yet known, nor were the Allied victories to come, although there had already been a few. More recently, in the 1970s, it seemed as if communism would continue to spread; the Fall of the Berlin Wall within a decade would have seemed close to unthinkable.

The editorial continues, making the point that we still don't know how the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan will turn out and that "the confident-sounding predictions from all sides of the issue don’t mean all that much."

Government officials and professional pundits are paid to sound confident. And when they are wrong and move to a new position they sound just as confident. But the vagaries of human society mean that it’s impossible to predict with any precision what will happen in war or in most other manmade dramas. Indeed, the predictions may be becoming more inaccurate because of the superficiality and speed with which they’re made amidst increasing cultural illiteracy and computer keyboard speed. Getting back to Paul Greenberg, they are made with a remarkable lack of knowledge of history, which in America seems to be spreading rapidly.

And then there is the short-attention span problem of today's modern society:

There is also the human tendency to think that just because something just happened, it’s important, and to ignore events’ connections to historical continuums. In other words, to lose all perspective – including that, as Keynes liked to say, “in the long run, we’re all dead.” People in the news business lose such perspective all the time...

So as we go through another eventful year (actually, they all are), let’s try a little humility when we predict what’s going to happen, or even say what’s happening now. And as for those in public life who make the big decisions, let’s remember that they don’t know everything but have to make decisions anyway.

The importance of most events this year will be exaggerated – mostly on the negative side but also on the optimistic side. Time will fairly swiftly cast a more nuanced light on these things. Happy New Year, and let’s slow down.

1 comment:

mcns said...

Can you imagine anything as sensible running on the editorial pages of the Boston Globe? Oh, how I wish I could get the ProJo delivered.