Most predictions are wrong.  Not because the people making them know too little, but often because they know too much.  People with a deep understanding of a subject know how difficult some things will be.  Projecting from what you know is error prone.

  • In 1901 Wilbur Wright predicted that heavier than air machines would not fly for at least 50 years.
  • Margaret Thatcher once estimated that no woman would be prime minister in her lifetime.
  • Albert Einstein in 1932 opined that there is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable.

Knowing too much causes predictions that things cannot happen.  People who say something will happen are more likely to be right than ones who say it will not happen.  Humans are surprisingly ingenious at making things happen.

Predicting with a time commitment is often impossible.  I talked with a serious fund manager in late November.  Oil was about $70 per barrel and he thought it might get down to $55 by spring 2015.  It is under $50 now and I can assure you that it is not spring.  -29 degrees predicted for the overnight low.

I have predicted that the Dow-Jones, as presently constructed, will someday be at 1,000,000.  It is presently around 17,500.  1,000,000 seems a long way to go but it is just 57 times more.  The same 57 times as from 1953 to now.  Those familiar with exponential growth know that to be fewer than six doubles.  If the index grows at 7%, then it will be 1,000,000 in about 60 years.  If the growth rate falls to 5% then it will take the rest of this century.  This is a trivial prediction.  It adds nothing.

There is a way to make productive predictions.

Look around for things that would be useful and which do not yet exist.  All future invention and services will solve some problem or exploit some opportunity that is inadequately solved today.

How those will be solved is mysterious, but they will be solved.  It is very unusual today for a problem to be well defined and unsolved for a long time.  The Riemann Hypothesis and Goldbach Conjecture come to mind.  The Unified Field Theory, too.  Maybe understanding women.

There are some indicators of what will be next.  All technology and most social issues take about 30 years to come to fruition.  If you look at the latest lab results, you will likely see some of them available inexpensively 30 years from now. High precision full body scanners, binary drugs, high capacity batteries, Applied DNA, quantum computing, and many others.

Social issues from 1990 are going to be front and center soon.  Maybe with better communication, like the internet, they will be a little quicker than the traditional 30 years.

I have it on my to-do list to reread “The Great Reckoning”  It published in the early 90s and predicted social change across several parameters.  It will interesting to see what really happened.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario. Contact:  

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