Monday, August 29, 2011

It's tough to make predictions ...

Especially about the future. (That quote is from Yogi Berra, if you didn't recognize it.)

And prediction seems as hard for the experts as for the rest of us. Consider two current events. No one predicted the recent 5.8 earthquake in Virginia. Lots of people predicted the course of Hurricane Irene -- but what practically no one got right was Irene's ground speed up the East Coast, or that the storm would significantly weaken before it reached NYC.

Or consider some ten-year anniversaries. AFAIK, the CIA did not predict the 9/11 attacks, or events anything like them. Or the sudden collapse earlier that year of the USSR.

What about between ten years ago and last week? Who predicted that in Spring 2011 a despairing Tunisian produce vendor would set off regime change across North Africa and into Asia Minor?

What these things have in common, IMO, is complexity. When we deal with chaotic systems like the atmosphere, or with the free will of millions of people, we're forced to simplify our analyses. People and weather may often behave according to probability and statistics -- but they don't always. In our daily lives, the Law of Large Numbers is more a suggestion than a rule.

It's often said that science fiction is in the prediction business. Sometimes SF authors are spot on. It's happened with elements of (near-Earth) space travel, organ transplants, and ubiquitous computer networks. So? Genre fans can as readily -- or, perhaps, more readily -- identify stories that got the future spectacularly wrong.

That's okay -- because SF isn't in the prediction business (though authors, being human, are happy to take a bow when they get something right). SF is in the "what-if" business. In the hard SF business, where we try to get the science and tech right, we do so to focus our thinking. It's harder to work through the consequences of technology X without some idea if X is even possible or how X might be brought to fruition.

I've written stories about, for example, what if the government began to track people through the RFID tags more and more commonly found in our cars, wallets, and clothing. That's not a prediction or -- even less --  a recommendation. I've written about time travel, because its feasibility has never been disproven -- yet I'd give long odds that travel to one's own past is impossible. I'm sure you get the picture.

Yogi had it right about prediction, as we who live on the East Coast learned anew over the past few days. I'll leave you with three parting thoughts:
  • I'm glad I'm not in the prediction business. 
  • Prediction being such an inexact science, the what-if business is at least as vital to our planning.
  • Having gone through an earthquake and a hurricane in the last six days, I wonder when the blood, boils, and locusts will arrive.

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