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The future might not be like the past

Posted By Russ Roberts On February 14, 2007 @ 5:05 pm In Data | Comments Disabled

Public discourse on global warming reached a new low recently with this assessment by Ellen Goodman [1]:

By every measure, the U N ‘s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change raises the level of alarm. The fact of global warming is
"unequivocal." The certainty of the human role is now somewhere over 90
percent. Which is about as certain as scientists ever get.

I
would like to say we’re at a point where global warming is impossible
to deny. Let’s just say that global warming deniers are now on a par
with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies
the present and future.

Where to begin in analyzing that last sentence? The moral vulgarity of it? Or just the scientific inaccuracy? True, Holocaust deniers deny the past. Global warming deniers are denying the reliability of statistical models of the past being used to forecast the future. My understanding of the science is that the models of the past aren’t quite theory-free but they’re not exactly theory-robust, either. That is, we don’t fully understand the causal relationship between human activity and global temperature, so much of what is being predicted about the past is an extrapolation.

(Mark Steyn [2], on the other hand, knows where to begin. He is brilliant. HT: CHCH, Don Boudreaux)

Gregg Easterbrook at ESPN [3] (and the author of The Paradox of Progress [4]) has a very nice summary of bad predictions made in the past year, reminding us that in many areas of life, the future is not like the past. Most of them are sports predictions, but he throws in some nice gems from outside the sports world:

Bad Hurricane Predictions: The year of Katrina and Rita,
2005, obviously was awful for Atlantic cyclones, with a record 15
hurricanes. Both the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric
Administration, and media-favorite hurricane forecaster William Gray of
Colorado State University, predicted 2006 would be bad, too. In
December 2005, Gray predicted for 2006 nine hurricanes, five of them
intense; there was an 81 percent chance a major hurricane would strike
land in the United States in 2006, Gray and CSU said with ridiculous
pseudo-precision. In May 2006, NOAA forecast eight to 10 hurricanes,
six of them intense. The 2006 hurricane season would be "hyperactive,"
NOAA declared: "The main uncertainty is not whether the season will be
above normal but how much above normal it will be." Actual: In 2006
there were five Atlantic hurricanes, two of them intense — pretty much
smack on the 20th century average for the Atlantic basin. None made
landfall in the United States.

Easterbrook also gives this beautiful example of a really bad prediction from 1986:

In June 1986, Newsweek ran its infamous "Marriage Crunch" cover story,
which pronounced that a college-educated career woman of age 30 had
only a one-in-five chance of winning a husband, while an educated
professional woman of age 40 had essentially no chance. At a time when
this must have sounded funny to someone at Newsweek, the magazine
declared that a single 40-year-old career woman was "more likely to be
killed by a terrorist" than to find a man who would say "I do." Twenty
years later in June 2006, Jeffrey Zaslow of the Wall Street Journal
checked to see how these predictions stood the test of time. Women aged
30 to 40 in 1986 when Newsweek declared them unmarriageable are aged 50
to 60 now, Zaslow reasoned. Crunching Census Bureau stats, he found
that 90 percent of college-educated American women between the ages of
50 to 60 have married at least once. Zaslow tracked down the 10
career-shark single women who were named in the 1986 Newsweek cover
story as certain spinsters: eight later married.

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URL to article: http://cafehayek.com/2007/02/the_future_migh.html

URLs in this post:

[1] this assessment by Ellen Goodman: http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2007/02/09/no_change_in_political_climate/

[2] Mark Steyn: http://www.suntimes.com/news/steyn/251601,CST-EDT-steyn11.article

[3] Gregg Easterbrook at ESPN: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=easterbrook/070213

[4] The Paradox of Progress: http://www.amazon.com/Progress-Paradox-Better-While-People/dp/0812973038/sr=8-1/qid=1171490492/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/102-5411793-6800900?ie=UTF8&s=books/invisiblehear-20

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