Sunday, July 30, 2006

Forecasting and Science Fiction

When you read science fiction that looks at the near future, one usually notices what the author got wrong more than what he or she got right. The work I do now is involved in forecasting, and I have both respect for the challenges of forecasting, and some negative feelings about actual forecasts—ranging from sadness to contempt. The reason is that forecasts—especially long term forecast—are almost always wrong. And when they’re right, it is often by accident. The issue is a tautology: forecasts can’t take into account unpredictable events. Consequently forecasts tend to project that the future will be more or less like the present. A hilarious example is this forecast of oil prices by an economist at the Bank of Montreal from 1999.

Science fiction writers are surprisingly susceptible to this. I say “surprisingly” because of all forecasters (if I may rope science fiction writers into that category), science fiction writers seem most open to the idea that changes in technology will greatly change future events, and that the future is likely to be affected by random events. Standard forecasters, whether scientists or economists or financial forecasters, rarely are willing to include technological change in their forecasts because it’s impossible to guess where changes in technology will occur and what effect they’ll have. We can make educated guesses. And that’s what science fiction writers do.

I recently read The Ocean of Night (1977) and Across the Sea of Suns (1984) by the great science fiction writer Gregory Benford. These two books cover a period of time from 1999 to 2086. Two things strike me as I read them: Benford fails to anticipate the pervasiveness of computers, and he assumes that the Soviet Union survives for nearly 100 years longer than it actually did (this is a curiously common error in science fiction books from the past half century). A character gets a telegram in one scene set in 2018! I don’t mean to make fun of Benford—actually, I think he is an amazing science fiction writer. And he gets some things surprisingly right (China becoming a rich capitalist country, for instance). And critically, forecasting is not the point of the books—future history is the setting for the events of the books.

The great novel Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon (1930) is a poignant example of this problem with science fiction. It is a history of the future of humanity—through 18 species—until its extinction two billion years in the future. Anyone reading it today will recognize its many scientific errors, but for modern readers, perhaps the hardest part to get past is his anticipation of the near future of humanity. Despite this, he imagines a world where the U.S. and China are the two world powers, which may come true, if by different path than Stapledon imagines.

A reader has to accept that science fiction writers are going to get it wrong. You don’t read Last and First Men for its predictive power. You read it because it is thought-provoking and because it is beautiful.


Anonymous Sarah B. said...

Rob, People will read your forecasts because they are thought-provoking and because they are beautiful. Forecasting is more of an art than a science, and you are an artist! Love you -- Sarah

10:05 PM  

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