How to predict the future – the super-forecasters

The year is coming to an end and in the thoughtful Advent season we frequently begin to look back in the past and speculate about the future. If we take a step back from our personal lives and look at the big picture of humanity, then we wonder where society is going and what are the great surprises and challenges laying ahead of us.

Humanity has been always in search of magical future predictions that satisfy our curiosity and our urge of organizing ahead and plan. One of the most well-known seers, already famous during his life time for his prophecies, was Nostradamus.

Although largely imprecise and mostly undated, his predictions have been interpreted as fulfilling by many people for centuries. If you are a friend of wild speculations or a puzzle fan look at his 10 most famous quatrains that have been connected to historical events like Hurricane Katarina or the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

However, not only occult figures glance into the future. Scientists have also compiled lists of probable future events. The Chief-Editor of Discover, Stephen Petranek summaries the 10 ways the world could end and the science behind these terrible options in his TED talk.


The modern “super-forecasters”

Predicting the future sounds rightly dubious, but let’s think for a second seriously whether it might be possible to use historical knowledge to predict near future trends? Actually, this is what happens in everyday’s news show on TV when prognosticators predict political and global incidents. One might think, specially politicians and advising experts have first hand knowledge and profound experience in hand to correctly estimate prospective global affairs. The psychologist Philip Tetlock investigated this claim already in the 1980ties in a study in which he systematically questioned 284 political experts, using questions like whether a country would go to war or if a political leader would resign soon. The outcome? Well, the New York Times charmingly cited the result as follows:

Chimps randomly throwing darts at the possible outcomes would have done almost as well as the experts.

So if professionals are not able to accuartely predict prospective incidents, can somebody else do it then? The in 2011 launched “Good Judgment Project” sets out to scan for persons with high prediction skills among people from different backgrounds in form of a tournament to learn how forecasting can be improved. In this four year project, 2% of the participants were selected as super-forecasters due to their superior performance showing that certain people can persistently perform well in the task. They were grouped into teams for the rest of the still ongoing tournament and at the end of the second year they predicted four times more accurately than other participants.
Furthermore, people seem to differ in their thinking style and they can be divided in foxes (self-critical, flexible thinking) and hedgehogs (top down approach).


How to predict the future?

  • be open-minded: In psychology this reflects how well you can deal with uncertainty. Handling the unknown well, lets you see problems from all angles and you more easily throw preconceptions over board in the light of new evidence.
  • Inside versus outside view: The crucial approach for accurate predictions is to take a step back and look at the problem from the outside. For example for answering the question of whether the government in Egypt will fall, most people immediately read up on everything that happened in the past in Egypt (inside view). But more wisely, one should rather ask what percentage of middle east authoritarian governments fall yearly (external perspective).

For more tips watch the video here:


How good forecasting can change the process of decision making

Embracing open-mindness and identifying personal biases can help to “increase the intellectual honesty of predicition”, as Tetlock says. Seeing into the future is mere a probability judgment and not knowledge. Besides acquiring a better prognosis of the future, Tetlock and collaborators hope also to change the political culture with their findings. Following the new insides, politicians, liberal as well as conservative likewise, and policy makers would need to leave their comfort zone of general notions and tackle problems based on an external view backed up by statistics and data.


Header image credits royalty free

Share this post

About Lisa Landskron

Being a scientist in the field of molecular biology & leading the TEDxVienna Blogger team, Lisa loves to do biochemical as well as digital experiments to create and spread ideas.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *