Monday, August 27, 2007

The fallibility of predictions

Predictions are problematic. The former Senator and presidential candidate, Gary Hart, once wrote that if you asked someone at the turn of the twentieth century to predict the next hundred years, you would have heard a lot about the Czar and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (I’m paraphrasing). He was correct in principal, and I have actually found proof of it.

In 1881, Henry Hartshorne, a successful physician closing in on 60, wrote 1931, A Glance at the Twentieth Century.

The premise is that sometime in the future some thoughtful person keeps a diary in 1931 where he records major events. He began thus:

“The contents of the following pages are taken from a diary, supposed to be written in 1931, by a gentleman of leisure and good opportunities for observation.

Should any reader be inclined to hold the editor and author responsible for what is thus recorded, be it remembered that very little is expressed concerning what ought to be; the chief purpose being to show rather what will probably occur.”

He died before the turn of the century and had no opportunity to see just how off he was in his predictions for 1931 (at which time he would have been 108 years old). For the most part, he wasn’t even close. Out of the dozens and dozens of predictions, he fared no better than those ballyhooed fortune tellers and fake mediums who make predictions around every new year in the newspapers. He only got a few right, and only one that seems prophetic (although not real important).

It makes no difference that these predictions were made for 1931 and not for an indefinite time in his future. There were a few predictions he made that came true later than 1931 and he should get credit for those too.

Here’s a list of only some of his many wrong predictions, written by him as if they had already taken place in 1931:

Queen and King of England were forced to resign and leave Britain. The House of Lords was abolished (that might happen some day) and the Church of England disestablished.

A motion was soon to be made in Congress to make Mexico a State. Cuba, Hawaii, Labrador, San Domingo, Greenland and three new States from Canada were already states. At least he got Hawaii correct. 1 out of 9 isn’t bad?

Instead of just D.C., our capital would be rotated among D.C., St. Louis and San Francisco.

There were 8 black Senators (there have only been three from Hartshorne’s day until now) and 15 “colored” congressman (the number is approaching proportionate to the population now, but not in 1931).

The creation of the United States of South America, which apparently did not include the kingdom of Brazil.

Spain annexed Portugal and became anti-Catholic, banning priests for 5 years.

But the Catholic Church does all right itself, pretty much absorbing the Orthodox Church and Church of England, with the Pope settled on as number one religious honcho.

France bought Alsace-Lorraine from Germany, which then cedes to it all of the Rhineland. He totally missed out predicting the Germany of the Kaiser and Hitler and foresaw a submissive one.

Austria, Brazil (both in name only), India and China are ruled by Emperors, and the Czar became something between a King and president.

However, some good news. The Communists lost the war in Russia at the turn of the century thanks to the loyalty of the free serfs. Too bad he was wrong on that one.

All the great powers agree to limit their armies to 50 thousand troops (well, they talked about it).

South African became a joint Dutch/English Republic.

Palestine was bought by three families of wealthy Jews, but, the Jews (obviously seeing the light) convert in large numbers to Christianity and even the remaining Jews debate accepting Jesus as the messiah. Apparently, the Muslims are not a concern in Hartshorne’s world.

Camels became common in our South West, the ostrich in South America
gazelle, springbok, oryx and kangaroo in Argentina.

Tennessee, Georgia, N. Carolina, Virginia and California have started growing tea and coffee, while Himalaya and Iran -- cocoa.

The American People became predominantly sober. No one would think of having more than a glass of wine (women a half) if any.

Tenement houses disappeared in New York and Boston forever.

Half the vegetables in Baltimore are grown on roofs.

The problems stemming from slavery disappear in two generations.

Mail transportation is by hydraulic tubes and people carry pocket-magneto electric lamps with them (this was before electrification, so, in his world, that would be an important invention).

Trains are powered by cable.

The “Tatars” invade Persia and a terrible war ensues.

Capital punishment was abolished worldwide except in Spain, Russia and Portugal.

Jails are no longer training camps for crime.

Now that I’ve had some fun with him, he did get some stuff right, like coeds, the Chunnel (off by decades, but close enough), Australia becoming a republic, some minority Senators and Congressmen, English becoming near universal, the United State’s citizens life span greatly increasing (although to 50, which seemed good to him), California and New York making competitive wines (and Missouri – oh, well), phone calls becoming cheap (also off by decades), African wars with Western weaponry, news viewable on building walls and color photographs. None of these are too impressive, and some fairly easy to predict. If the right predictions seem comparable in number to the wrong ones, note that I left many incorrect predictions out, so as not to bore you to tears. They all weren’t that interesting.

However, one prediction Harshorne did make was somewhat uncanny, even if not earth shattering.

At the time Hartshorne wrote there had been predictions of finding a new planet beyond Neptune for decades. Hartshorne not only predicted it would be discovered in 1931 (he was off by only 1 year) but also predicted that it might be named “Pluto.”  According to most sources, the name Pluto was suggested by a young girl (see my 4/5/07 post on Pluto). Perhaps she wasn’t so clever after all, or the story is apocryphal.

I make lots of predictions, many of them in these postings. Some come true, lots don’t. It’s not easy, as Hartshorne shows us, and he appeared to be a highly educated person. Hartshorne’s predictions may be his wish list in many respects – the advancement of peace, technology and Christianity. Most of the world seems destined to happiness except for Africa and the Near East.

Although he apparently did not intend it, Hartshorne’s poor and sometimes entertaining effort cautions us all against hubris in our predictions.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .