DEBATE OF THE DAY: Is predicting the future a skill we can learn?
IN THE NEWS: Is predicting the future a skill we can learn? Another disaster has shaken some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Some think we can use science to predict and prevent them.
On Friday 3 February, a Dutch researcher, Frank Hoogerbeets, tweeted out a map of southern Turkey. In the caption he wrote: “Sooner or later there will be a ~M 7.5 #earthquake in this region”.
Just three days later, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 tore through the area, devastating large swathes of Turkey and Syria. The final tallies will likely show around half a million lives affected by the disaster.
Hoogerbeets became an overnight legend. He now has almost a million followers waiting for him to predict the next catastrophe.
But experts say he just got lucky. Hoogerbeets believes earthquakes are correlated with the alignment of the planets. Critics say this is no more scientific than astrology.
So why are so many people willing to believe in him? Some think that the more disasters we face, the more we cling to the promise of certainty.
Recent years have seen wild instability around the world. Covid-19 shut much of the world down. Russia invaded Ukraine and triggered a global economic meltdown. China and the USA are still inching closer to conflict.
In the face of so many catastrophes, there is little wonder we want to believe that we might have a chance of predicting and even averting them.
One of the most influential groups claiming it can see catastrophes coming is the superforecasters.
Superforecasting is the science of using statistics to predict what is going to happen in the future. And it has had some successes. A research unit at the University of Pennsylvania predicted Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016 using their methods.
But critics think this is all just an intellectual fad. They say superforecasting is really just guesswork dressed up as science.
Is predicting the future a skill we can learn?
Nothing ever comes completely out of the blue. There are always signs that we can use to predict things that will happen. We should go about this scientifically.
The universe is a random place. However much knowledge we collect about how our world works, it will always find ways to surprise us.
We can never say anything more than “x is more likely to happen than y”. That can be useful, but we need to make sure we do not put too much faith in our predictions, as there will always be random, unforeseen events.
Turkey-Officially the Republic of Türkiye, a country that lies partly in Europe and partly in Asia at the east of the Mediterranean. Syria-A Middle Eastern country that was the site of much of the fighting during the Crusades. Astrology-The study of the movements of the sun, moon and planets and the belief that they affect people’s personalities and lives. Averting-Stopping something from happening. Fad-A craze, or intense enthusiasm that does not last for very long.