Irrefutable Predictions

by F.

A week or so ago, Richard Haass wrote a piece in the FT entitled “A troubling Middle East era dawns.” In it, he makes a number of interesting statements that seem to be about the future. In other words, they are forecasts or predictions. For instance,

  1. “The price of oil will stay high…”
  2. “Regional institutions will remain weak.”
  3. “Militias, both a product and a cause of weak states, will emerge throughout the region wherever there is a perceived or actual deficit of state authority and capacity.”
  4. “Terrorism will grow in sophistication.”
  5. “Tensions between Sunni and Shia will increase.”
  6. “Islam will fill the political and intellectual vacuum in the Arab world and provide a foundation for the politics of a majority of the region’s people.”

How could any of these be wrong?

Take “The price of oil will stay high.” Until when? Two-weeks? A year? And how high—roughly? Or take “Regional institutions will remain weak.” How could that be wrong? How would we know if they became strong? And I’m not saying I need exact numbers or anything. But think about how any of these statements could be shown to be false. Very tough to do, and this is by design. Here are some more words of wisdom:

  1. “No viable peace process [with Israel] is likely for the foreseeable future.”
  2. “The US will continue to enjoy more influence than any outside power, but its influence will be reduced from what it once was.”
  3. “Washington will increasingly be challenged by other outsiders, including the European Union, China and Russia.”

The first statement is hedged: “viable.” If a peace process started, it might not be “viable.” And how long is the foreseeable future? A decade? A century? It is hard to see how the second statement could be wrong, too: US “influence” will be reduced from what it once was—when? What was its influence? How was it measured? Isn’t it already in decline—if so the statement is already right. It just looks like a forecast. Looking down at my hands, I can see that I have ten fingers. Tomorrow, I predict, I’ll have ten fingers. I’m freakin’ Nostradamus.

OK, enough already. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former Bush administration official. He knows what he’s doing. But, like most predictions about the cloudy world of global affairs, his predictions have more or less no meaning. This phenomenon is well described it Tetlock’s book Expert Political Judgement. This piece just jumped out at me as a particularly egregious example of what Tetlock was discussing.

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