Created: 10/14/11 (Fri) | Topic: Education
Beware the dire predictions
By Stewart Truelsen
Here is a prediction: American farmers and ranchers will be able to feed this nation well into the future if given access to land, water, capital and scientific advances. If you’d like the prediction to be more specific, let’s say the nation’s food supply will be secure until at least the year 2061.
There’s an excellent chance this prediction will be true, but it’s hardly the stuff books are written about. A prediction like this would only bring a yawn, and the reader would go back to worrying about dire predictions of economic collapse or the 2012 apocalypse.
Finally, someone has written a book about expert predictions: “Future Babble” by Dan Gardner. The author claims so-called expert predictions are next to worthless, and we can probably do better ourselves.
The expert predictions that catch our eye are ones predicting doom and gloom. One such book was “Famine 1975!” Written by William and Paul Paddock in 1967, the book predicted food scarcities so severe that food aid would have to be cut off from a few nations leaving their populations to starve. India and Egypt were said to fit this description.
The Paddocks underestimated the Green Revolution and other advances in production agriculture around the world, but they weren’t the only ones. Paul Ehrlich predicted a similar fate when he said, “The battle to feed all humanity is over,” in his book “The Population Bomb.”
In a 1982 book, “Encounters with the Future,” respected futurist Marvin Cetron and co-author Thomas O’Toole forecasted that the Soviet Union would invade Australia within 10 years for its natural resources. They missed the part about the Soviet Union crumbling.
Why do we pay attention to expert predictions in the first place? In “Future Babble,” Gardner gives several reasons. Most people love certainty, so if someone says they know what will happen in the future, it attracts our attention.
We jump to conclusions about the future because we tend to look for patterns where none exist. Randomness and chaos limit our ability to see very far ahead.
We also are attracted to experts who are bold and confident about their predictions despite the fact that Gardner says they have the worst track records. In his words, “Reliable forecasting is a challenge on a par with climbing Mt. Everest barefoot.”
Life is unpredictable and uncertain, but that isn’t as bad as it seems. Gardner believes an accurate prediction isn’t necessary to make good decisions. A rough sense of possibilities and probabilities will do fine.
That’s why we can stick by our prediction that American farmers and ranchers will meet our food needs for at least the next 50 years. They’ve done it in the past despite all kinds of obstacles and dire predictions. There’s every reason to believe they can do it in the future.
Stewart Truelsen is a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series for American Farm Bureau Federation.