Prescience

Think Tank

Big Idea for 2012: Prescience is Overrated

This idea was submitted and written by Ali Wyne, researcher at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

What is your pick for the most significant idea of 2012 and why? 

Many have asked why analysts of geopolitics failed to foresee the uprisings that are convulsing the Middle East and North Africa.  Some have responded that they did anticipate such unrest, and indeed believed it to be inevitable.  Considering, however, that the factors that are alleged to have made the uprisings “inevitable” have been present in that region for decades—autocratic governance and large youth populations, for example—why did they only converge now, beginning in Tunisia of all countries? 

That which we know or believe to be inevitable surprises us not because it eventually occurs, but because, at any particular moment, it seems improbable, even inconceivable.  Analysts should accordingly be pushed to imagine alternative futures, not to double as psychics who can divine when and how those futures will manifest.  While we should hold them to account when their forecasts prove incorrect, we should not make predictive accuracy the mark of analytic skill—lest we disqualify some of the world’s foremost thinkers.  Consider Francis Fukuyama, who argued that the end of the Cold War would usher in the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”  That he rendered this judgment—one that seemed plausible two decades ago—does not make his insights into social order less deserving of consideration.  Indeed, to the extent that his proposition stimulated a debate of growing importance—which model of political economy is most viable in the long run?—he deserves much credit. 

In truth, forecasting models will never be sophisticated enough to incorporate the chief determinants of that which is to come: the hopes, the fears, the convictions, the whims, and so forth that define human beings.  This reality is not grounds for despair, but for reassurance: we should be grateful to live in a world that is interesting enough to elude prediction and, notwithstanding globalization’s relentless advance, still within the individual’s capacity to shape.  

Where can I learn more about this idea?

  • Roger Cohen argues that “[n]obody predicted the Arab Spring because nobody can predict the human spirit.  We have formulas and equations for many things, but not for the point at which fear breaks.”
  • Carlos Lozada observes (p. 58) that Fukuyama continues to be “dragged out for ritual flogging” for predicting the “end of history.”  Fukuyama, for his part, is “resigned to the fact” that he will continue to be associated with that judgment.  
  • Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner explore the possibility of market “incentive[s] for keeping the prediction makers honest.”
  • The Economist offers a nuanced take on the “perils of prediction.”

Help us spread this idea.

Follow Ali Wyne on Twitter @Ali_Wyne

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