DAVID BRIN's world of ideas


By David Brin, Ph.D.

"The secrets of flight will not be mastered within our lifetime... not within a thousand years."

This prognostication, singularly famous for its irony, was reportedly uttered by none other than Wilbur Wright, in 1901. Looking backward from a century later, we can safely assume that he made this remark during a foul mood, after some temporary setback. Smiling with the benefit of hindsight, we know Wilbur and his brother would prove his forecast wrong just two years later.

Anyway, the Wrights were much more interested in transforming the future than predicting it.

Most efforts at prophecy seem to shrivel under close and skeptical scrutiny. It happens so consistently that one has to wonder humans keep on trying. Yet we do keep attempting to look ahead. In fact, the persistent habit of prediction may be one of our species' most salient traits. Let me put it another way. No goal entices humans more than forecasting ways to improve our success in an uncertain world.

Of course, in its pure or traditional form, prophecy is -- and always has been -- just a lot of hooey. If any psychic could do true divination, she would not be seen hawking her wares on late night TV. She would be a mega-billionaire, taking a large role in running the world. (To see sterling examples of online prophecy, see notes at the end of this article.)

Even sophisticated new computerized techniques that have made progress in areas such as weather and climate seem to promise only narrow, short-term benefits in a few well-defined systems. Complexity Theory shows that intricate models grow increasingly chaotic or difficult as tiny perturbations propagate through time.

Nevertheless, we spend a lot of time and money trying to make educated guesses about future events, with much of our economy dedicated to variants on the same theme. Economists struggle to improve their conjectures, shooting at an ever-moving target as markets rapidly adjust to each new model. Stockbrokers, politicians, and diplomats all seem eager to pontificate about what might happen next. Pollsters claim insight to coming waves of citizen opinion. Commodities and hedge fund traders are geniuses, as long as their luck holds... till statistical chance catches up, and they lose the bank. In fact, any business manager is, in a sense, primarily charged with estimating trends and allocating resources accordingly. When you get right down to it, any advice or decision made in a human context is a kind of bet, favoring some guess about outcomes.

[image from synch-blog.com]

The Bio-Evolutionary Perspective

Oversimplifying a bit, many neuro-scientists picture the human brain having evolved through a process of layering. It still uses nearly all the same sub-organs as the nervous system of a reptile, from cerebellum to hypothalamus, to control autonomic functions as well as both instinctual and learned reflex responses. But atop those ancient circuits for quick action and simple emotion there later spread the sophisticated mammalian cortex, so talented at visual and manipulative imagery. Upon this, primates later added further strata in the frontal zones, for more advanced styles of coordination and basic planning. Finally, in humans, prefrontal lobes appear to be the latest additions, perhaps a few hundred thousand years old. When these tiny organs fail -- as following a surgical lobotomy -- patients experience a variety of deficits, not the least of which is lessened ability to meditate upon the future. They no longer exhibit much curiosity or worry about tomorrow. In other words, they have lost something that uniquely makes us human.

For the unimpaired, no topic can seem quite so captivating as the vista that lies ahead, in the future's undiscovered country. One of our favorite pastimes is the thought experiment -- Einstein and Mach called it "gedankenexperiment" -- dwelling on some planned or imagined action, mentally considering likely or possible consequences. By exploring potential outcomes in the tentative world of our thoughts, we hope to cull the most obviously flawed of our schemes, perhaps thus improving our chances of success.

Nowhere is this need to prognoticate more true than in science. The eminent philosopher Karl Popper held that prediction is the one true test of any theory. It's not enough to offer a hypothesis that explains past observations. To gain respect, your model must explore unknown territory, calculating, estimating, or otherwise foretelling observations not yet made. Only by exposure to potential falsification, can a theory prove its worth and become accepted as a useful "working model" of the world. For instance, despite the wishful yearnings of millions, "cold fusion" was tested in the late 1980s by open-minded investigators who held fast to objective procedures -- the same procedures that vindicated other "rebel" theories about black holes, plate tectonics, punctuated evolution, and new treatments for AIDS. Some pragmatic forecasting tools, e.g. probability theory and weather modeling, saves countless lives and billions of dollars, while the hot new field of Risk Analysis is helping researchers understand how real humans act to preserve their own safety.

Indeed, two of the highest human virtues -- honesty and skill -- are routinely tested in the same way... by making open, accountable assertions, then observing the effects of time. Few statements can enhance one's credibility with a spouse, subordinates, or colleagues more than the cheerful proposal -- "Let's check out your objections, and find out if I'm wrong."

My favorite aphorism for this process is CITOKATE... or criticism is the only known antidote to error. You'd be hard pressed to find any major success of western civilization that does not somehow depend on this.

Of course it's one thing to predict a mass for the Top quark, and test your theory by experiment. It is quite another to claim you can divine future trends in culture, commerce or politics, especially when the thing at stake is no longer a single reputation (as mine is, in writing this article) but the future of a project, a company, or an army in the field.

How will the Russian electorate react to the next expansion of NATO? What will be the next target of irrational, anti-western terror? Might the unstable North Korean regime launch a desperate war? Should your consortium launch a communication satellite, or will the falling price of fiber optics make such a venture untenable? Will this bridge design stand up to an earthquake? Will more customers buy personal computers, next year? Will increasing penalties deter crime? Will more people be lifted out of poverty via racial preferences, or by exposing them to harsh discipline of the marketplace?

Modern institutions of government and private capital are deeply concerned over the murkiness of their projections. Each summer many of them hold workshops, encouraging high managers to consult with outside experts, futurists, and even science fiction authors, pondering the longer view. Yet, the management of great enterprises ultimately comes down to the judgment (in other words, guesswork) of directors, generals, and public officials. What other choice do we have?

In fact, an alternative seems to be at hand. Perhaps not a better way, but a chance to improve the ways we already have.

[image from nytimes.com]

In 1991, a junior officer in the State Department caused a ruckus, predicting noisily that Saddam Hussein was planning to invade Kuwait. In months, this fellow grew so irritated with his bosses -- and they with him -- that they parted company.

A while later, Saddam invaded. Was the young prophet vindicated? Did he get his job back, with a promotion?

Or was there any reward for analysts at the CIA who dissented, in 2002, from the US administration's insistence that Saddam Hussein had acquired massive systems for delivery of Weapons of Mass Destruction? The dissenters later proved right. Events proved them to be skillful. And a few demonstrated courage by speaking up. Did these traits result in an increase in the extent to which decision-makers heeded them?

Of course not! In real life, social skills and face-saving count for a lot... almost as much as who you know, or where you went to school, or whose personal interests you seem to be serving. Would any normal person choose to hire back a fellow whose presence each day will be a living reminder of how wrong you once were?

It is easier to rationalize that he was just lucky one time.

The same holds for those who called for a different doctrine in dealing with airline hijackers, before the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

Besides, nobody keeps records of who was right, how often, or when.

Until now, perhaps.

[image from ImpactLabs.net]

Lately, modern media have begun (crudely) to keep track of predictive successes and failures, by making available to journalists the complete record of statements made by public figures. All through the late 1980s, for instance, John M. W. Moorlach had been largely ignored by the Board of Supervisors of Orange County, California, when he criticized their risky strategy for investing public funds. Later, when the county went bankrupt in one of America's biggest financial scandals, Moorlach's earlier jeremiads were called up on journalists' computer screens. He was hailed as a visionary.

The idea of a predictions registry may have had its start when Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) attempted to perform experiments statistically measuring the efficacy of prayer. (He discovered what skeptics now call the "placebo effect.") In the 1970s efforts were made to catalog predictions using the crude technique of mailing postcards to a post office box in New York City, but sorting through shoe-boxes did not prove an efficient or comprehensive method of correlating results, and the effort collapsed.

The Internet may offer just the tool that's needed. For example, a "predictions market" has been set up by Robin Hanson, a researcher at the George Mason University, in Washington D.C. In his web-space, visitors bet against each other about future trends in science, much like Vegas odds-makers, or gamblers on the Chicago commodities exchange. Winners are those whose guesses (or sage insights) prove correct most often [1].

The next step could be a more general predictions registry. Anyone who claims any form of special foresight might be judged by the same standard that applies to any other field of endeavor -- success or failure. Those who prove right with some consistency will merit more attention, while predictors with records no better than average can be justifiably ignored [2].

The first use of such a registry might be to debunk psychics and social vampires who now prey on the gullible, by offering a skeptical clearing house to score their wins and losses. With entries logged by scrupulous volunteers, purported seers might be held accountable for all their predictions, not just those they later choose to remember. Moreover each forecast would receive a specificity multiplier, increasing its value if the prediction gives names, places and exact dates. By this standard, Jean Dixon's famous warnings that a youngish Democrat would be elected President in 1960 and die in office -- and that Robert Kennedy would later be assassinated in California -- should receive major credit... perhaps enough to compensate for a myriad failures she swept under the rug. In contrast, all the vague arm-wavings of Nostradamus would rightfully score near zero, no matter how often adherents claim to see success, since sheer obscurity lets them be applied almost anywhere, any time [3].

This is transparency in action. Just as citizens now rely on laws requiring Truth in Advertising laws and accurate product labeling, a time may come when we expect all would-be prophets to show accuracy scores before demanding our attention. Only predictions registries may come about privately, without any need for government involvement.

A registry may go beyond debunking scam artists. It could also reveal anomalous positive scores -- individuals who have a knack for being right noticeably more often than chance. However these few achieve this -- whether by using clever models or unexamined intuition -- it will be in society's interest that they be noticed, for whatever insight their methods offer.

The predictions most deserving of attention are warnings.

Elsewhere I talk about one of the key ironies in human nature -- that criticism is the best known antidote to error, yet individuals find it so painful that we routinely try to avoid it. Leaders, especially, are naturally inclined to snub critics, and have been known to slay them just for speaking up. Where are those who heroically warned about the dangers of Chernobyl-style nuclear reactors? Brezhnev sent them to Gulags. Now that Brezhnev is gone, are the heroes in positions of influence?

[image from BoingBoing.net]

A Predictions Registry as a Potential New "Accountability Arena"?

In a very general sense, what we are talking about is finding yet another way to accomplish the great miracle of the Western Enlightenment, which has been finding ways to ensure that competition among human beings is far more a generator of creativity and wealth than it is a provoker of chaos, cheating and oppression.

Look across 4,000 years of human history and it is easy to see that humanity's penchant for competition mostly had the opposite result. Freedom and open markets and fair courts were as rare as hens' teeth, in part because those who were powerful tended to cheat those who were too weak to complain. It took a whole new class of institutions for society to start fine-tuning human interactions, not by preaching that we should all be nice to each other all the time! (That never worked at moderating the behavior of cheaters.) But instead by making sure that rules of fair play had a chance to work.

And the tool that made it work is called accountability.

Not perfectly! All four of today's great "accountability arenas" -- science, democracy, markets and law courts -- have flaws that demand relentless re-tuning. Still, it is amazing (in the light of human history) how much they have accomplished so far.

(For a rather intense look at how "truth" is determined in science, democracy, courts and markets, see the lead article in the American Bar Association's Journal on Dispute Resolution (Ohio State University), v.15, N.3, pp 597-618, Aug. 2000, "Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit," which I've reprinted on this site.)

Is it possible that a fifth accountability arena... or many new ones... will emerge from today's internet? Offering new ways to spread creativity and problem-solving wherever there is presently darkness?

A predictions registry -- or something like it -- could be a good start. Applying the tool of accountability where it's needed most.

[image from DallasNews.com]

Of course there are no guarantees in life. The more complex our undertakings become, the more we'll face unexpected repercussions. Edward Tenner's book, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, lists example after example of well-meant endeavors that had disagreeable side-effects.

Disagreeable, yes. But wholly unanticipated? In how many cases did someone warn in advance against the very unpleasantness that eventually happened? Someone who might have seemed irritating at the time, received scorn or maybe banishment. Would it serve any useful purpose to grant high prediction scores, after the fact, as consolation prizes to Cassandras whose original dire warnings were ignored? Or might it simply give them a forum to cry, "I told you so"?

The answer is -- it couldn't hurt.

Consider the intriguing possibility of a "policy-maker's dating service." It is a simple fact of life that certain charismatic types of individuals (e.g. Kennedys or Bushes) are likely to have exceptional influence in our world, by virtue of social skills or family connections. This will happen, because human beings have always been swayed by such things. Unfortunately, charisma and connections have little positive or negative correlation with being right. On the other hand, there are lots of people out there who have excellent track records for accuracy and good judgement, who will never get anywhere near a position of power because they are also irksome, funky-looking, or hard to get along with.

Our hypothetical predictions registry offers a unique possibility of matching these two types of individuals. Imagine if the charismatic could be paired up with those who've proved astute! What service could better help society than to unite those who are destined to be powerful with advisors who will help them to be right! Or at least steer them away from the most egregious blunders.

(See notes below for some recent partial attempts to implement this concept.)

In my novel, Earth, I describe a single predictions registry. But no doubt there will be scores of them, maintained by both august institutions and private aficionados. One might even envision a time when prediction becomes a captivating spectator sport as fans suspensefully follow champion seers competing for prizes and honor, staking their vaunted reputations on one of the most valued human skills -- being right! [4]

All kidding aside, the point is that predictions registries will happen. In their awkward beginnings they may be objects of fun or ridicule, until their utility grows clear. Then we'll wonder how we lived without them. In effect, such forums represent just another tool for accountability in a world that can no longer afford vague murkiness, or leaders who blithely dismiss their mistakes with arm-wavings and eloquent non-explanations.

As society becomes more transparent, we must all learn how to be more forgiving of each others' blemishes and flaws, for nobody is perfect, or on target all the time. On the other hand, whenever someone makes bold pretensions at having some special insight, it seems only fair to arm people with the means to verify such claims.


Notes: Some Small Nibbles at the Edges of This Idea

  1. See Wikipedia's Prediction Registry for a recent stab at creating a self-sustaining registry.

  2. One fun and diverting endeavor in publicly accountable prediction on the Web has been "Long Bets," managed by polymath seers Kevin Kelly and Stewart Brand. Part charitable fundraiser and part futurist exercise, the Long Bets Foundation attracts some high tech movers and shakers to make public wagers about the near, long and intermediate future. It is fun, a bit exclusive, and not at all functional as a registry that could digest large numbers of predictions -- both voluntary and involuntary -- in order to score individuals according to their earned record of credibility.

  3. Marketocracy Data Services does this, in part by narrowing the focus down to stock equities. It is a research company whose mission is to find the best investors in the world and then track, analyze, and evaluate their trading activity. (I am sure Robin, at least, already knew about these guys. I'm going to get my son an account.) At Marketocracy.com, folks compete to become the best investors. For over 3 years they have tracked, analyzed, and evaluated their virtual trading activity and have accumulated a massive database; following over 10,000 stock positions at any one time and more than four million trades. These guys appear to be the closest to the real thing so far. You could squint and imagine their software and approach being applied on a much broader scale to predictions across a huge range of topic areas, from politics to sports... and even to science. If I ever find time, I may try to contact them about this possibility. I can think of few endeavors that have greater potential for helping a society in flx, than to come up with methodologies for identifying people who are right a lot... and those who are too often wrong to deserve our credibility and trust.

  4. Informal but fun, the Technovelgy Site is a cool attempt to cite technological predictions made in sci fi novels. This is nothing like the systematic approach to registering predictions that I am urging but it certainly is a step... and it cites perhaps 1% of my own predictions in novels such as Earth.

  5. In a very general sense, the tool of empowering the citizenry to create their own predictions analysis sites would be socially very powerful, meriting a place on the "Eye of the Needle" catalogue of potentially transforming philanthropic innovations.

  6. What if some people start appearing in the registry with anomalously high scores? Scores that cannot be explained by mere intelligence, data and skill? Will that start to aim serious study toward fields of extranormal mentation, like "psi"? Would that be a bad thing? Elsewhere I have a large essay-rumination on the topic of parapsychology, reaching some rather surprising conclusions that maintain fealty to science, while explaining why this concept so enthralls us. In any event, if 999 so-called psychics get debunked... and one shines through to receive intense and openminded scientific scrutiny, possibly shedding light on new ways to be right, would that not classify as a win-win situation for everybody?

  7. A disclaimer about self-interest. Is Brin pursuing this matter out of some confident expectation that he will get a notable core from any effective predictions registry? Well, take Earth. That novel scored (as of 2005) at least 14 predictive "hits," culminating with one that I wish had not come true: the breaking of levees and flooding of New Orleans. Others have pointed to an eerie/creepy passage in The Transparent Society that seemed to presage the tragedies of 9/11 and the subsequent USA PATRIOT Act. In all honesty, I haven't a clue which items arise from extrapolation, insight or pure imagination. But then, that's the point. Even if we do not succeed in getting a firmer grasp upon processes of foresight, the effort ought to help our children to do so.

[image from Don'tPanicOnline.com]


1. ...a "predictions market"... Robin Hanson calls his system a 'betting pool' on disputed science questions, where the current odds-on favorites are treated as the current intellectual consensus. Ideas futures markets let you bet on the future settlement of a scientific controversy. But the method may have wider applications. Indeed, a form of predictions market was depicted in John Brunner's wonderfully prescient science fiction novel, The Shockwave Rider, back in 1974... a work that also invented the terminology -- and possibly the very concepts -- of computer "viruses" and "worms." return to where you left off

2. In management, the yearly Performance Review is supposedly a kind of Predictions Registry, attempting to further the careers of those who have done well. In fact, this is basic to almost all forms of accountability, as humans strive to tell the difference between those who are credible and those who, despite their superficial charismatic allure, are not. return to where you left off

3. Regarding the "specificity score" of any prediction being scored by a registry, it might be noted that, way back in 1798, the authors of one of Europe's most popular books claimed to show how every verse and phrase of the New Testament's Book of Revelations meticulously related to Napoleon Bonaparte and his contemporaries. Today we see the same level of blithe certainty in countless millennialist treatments of the very same biblical passages. In not a single case does the writer ponder why protean vagueness should be a desirable trait in prophecy. return to where you left off

4. Entertainment Weekly reports on a growing hobby of "celebrity markets," in which fans bet on the relative values -- rising and falling -- of movie stars. A concrete (if trivial) example of ad hoc registries becoming a participatory sport, as well as catering to spectators. return to where you left off