Our mission at almanis is to harness and champion a fundamentally better way of forecasting events – of determining ‘the likelihood of things’. We believe in the science of crowd-sourced forecasting: that through harnessing the power of the crowd, we can create a prediction market more accurate than any that has come before, capable of producing insights more accurate than those of the traditional ‘experts’.
As a species, we certainly need to do better. From war and politics through to economics, technology, business and even the weather – our history is littered with terrible predictions, many of which came from exceedingly clever people, the foremost experts of their time.
Selecting ten of the worst examples is a thoroughly subjective affair, but we’ve given it a shot with a view to exploring the types of bad predictions that crop up time and time again. Below is the first, and we’ll put up a new one each day. We’d be delighted to hear your thoughts in the comments section: which were the most disastrous, and where did they go wrong? Which others have we missed, and have we been too harsh on any them?
- “My vas pokhoronim!” – Kruschev predicts that the Soviet Union will outlast the Capitalist West
“My vas pokhoronim!” (“We will bury you”) – a phrase famously used by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 while addressing Western ambassadors in Moscow (who said diplomacy is dead!?).
While the capitalist West remains (more or less) intact today, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved – along with the Marxist ideology underpinning it – in 1991. We buried them.
Of course, Khrushchev was merely parroting a central tenet of Marxism. Marx held that human history is a purely deterministic affair, characterised by the dynamics of class struggle. According to Marxism it is inevitable that capitalism will lead to crisis after crisis, tensions growing ever larger and more violent, until the global proletariat seize the means of production through revolution and usher in a new era of socialism as old capitalist structures wither away. So perhaps instead of poor Nikita there should be a picture of Marx up there?
Or perhaps not. Our system here at almanis only works for closed questions that are formulated in a certain way: they need to have a definite cut-off point in time, at which point the truth or falsity of any predictions become unambiguously known. Marx’s predictions, as failed as they look, never came with any definite timeframe. Marx could yet be vindicated. Khrushchev’s prediction also didn’t carry a timeframe, but it does imply conditions under which it could be falsified (which came to pass).
This brings us to a quite interesting aspect of what almanis is all about. Because it isn’t just about making forecasts in response to questions: learning which questions to ask, and formulating them in such a way as to maximise insight, is half of the challenge. We need skilled question-crafters as much as we do forecasters. We also need people who are good at framing narratives around the answers we get. And what makes for a good questioner or storyteller isn’t necessarily the same as what makes for a good forecaster. Marx himself is a good example of this: he was great at asking original and cutting questions about the economic structures surrounding him, and explaining the problems inherent in capitalism – he just wasn’t any good at predicting what it would all result in. We’d love to have Karl on board, just not as a forecaster!