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The Predictor's Paradox

[Written in October 2002 for the November/December issue of The Voyageur. Copyright © 2002 Peter de Jager.]

Predict: to declare in advance

Can we predict the future?

In many ways that's a loaded question (it's also redundant, since we don't "predict" the present or the past). There's an implicit assumption that the question means "predict accurately," and when we make that assumption explicit, most people answer that predicting the future is impossible. That's where the "paradox" starts to creep in.

We make predictions all the time, from the incredibly mundane ("if I throw this coin up into the air, it will fall back to the ground") to the more interesting ("if we build a dam here, water levels will rise there, and within five years, the economy will improve around this region").

The coin example is so incredibly boring, most people won't even allow us to call it a real prediction. They'll respond with, "Of course it will fall to the ground! You're not 'predicting' anything; you're merely stating the obvious!"

At the other end of the spectrum, if we dare to declare the result, heads or tails, in advance...then we're told that's impossible to predict.

Between stating the obvious and voicing the impossible, there's an interesting category of predictions. Let's approach them from the perspective of how impressive an accurate prediction appears to the reader.

The Predictor's Paradox: The impression made by an accurate prediction is more a function of the reader's ignorance than of the writer's ability to predict.

Consider the following thought experiment. With some solid knowledge of how to calculate eclipses, travel back in time a bit more than 2,000 years and use your knowledge to "predict" an upcoming solar eclipse. Chances are you will be either killed or raised up as some sort of wizard or sorcerer. Good luck in either case; I doubt godhood is all it's made out to be. There are reportedly far too many people asking for mutually exclusive and contradictory favours.

Now come back to today and calculate the next solar eclipse. The response will be a general "ho hum." It's not that readers will necessarily know how to perform the calculations, but they'll know that such things are readily doable and/or accessible.

From one situation to the other, your prediction generated general wonderment to sheer boredom. The only variable was the audience's knowledge of eclipse calculations.

In other words, a prediction is only impressive if the audience doesn't know how you came to that conclusion. This is the same concept underlying every stage magician's act. Come to think of it, it's almost a corollary to Clarke's Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Why do we make predictions? To impress, or to inform?

If we make them to impress people, then we must recognize that the degree to which an accurate (or reasonably so) prediction makes an impression is directly proportional to the amount of disbelief it engenders when they first hear it.

The question arises, what is the use of a highly accurate prediction if nobody believes it in advance of the event? If you did "predict" Sept. 11 [2001] but nobody believed you, what good did you achieve?

If, on the other hand, we make predictions in order to inform the listener, perhaps in order to change behaviour, then the less the prediction looks like a rabbit pulled out of a hat, the better.

Here's the paradox in full bloom: if you could have predicted Sept. 11 and gotten everyone to believe it in advance, then it would not have been seen as a would have been perceived as a statement of the obvious.

In other words, the best soothsayers make predictions which sound obvious, sometimes to the degree that neither the prediction nor the predictor registers on the listener's consciousness as something extraordinary.

Once more with feeling? We'll believe anything if we also believe we thought of it first...and give no credit to the one who convinced us it was our idea.

Send feedback to Peter de Jager.

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