By Other Means

Known Unknowns

Why even bad predictions are good for America.


Every four years, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) produces a hefty report on global trends likely to shape future events, and every four years, pundits gang up on its semi-anonymous authors. The main accusation? You guys can’t predict jacksh*t.

I say: lay off. It’s true that the NIC’s predictive track record isn’t particularly impressive, but so what? We put far too much store on "predicting the future," and not nearly enough energy into shaping the future — or developing the capabilities that will help us respond with speed and agility when events take an unpredictable turn.

The Case Against the NIC’s Global Trends Report

It’s easy and fun to diss the NIC’s Global Trends Report, the most recent of which came out this week. The NIC prefaces the Global Trends 2030 report by insisting that it does "not seek to predict the future," but this disclaimer satisfies no one: after all, to identify a trend is to imply directionality.

Generally speaking, NIC predictions fall into three categories: there are concrete predictions, there are vague, hedged predictions, and there are contradictory predictions.

Concrete predictions — being concrete — are easily falsifiable, and as Michael Horowitz and Philip Tetlock wrote in September, a lot of those predictions don’t look so good when "the future" turns into the past. Horowitz and Tetlock cite, for instance, the NIC’s 1997 prediction that "The next 15 years will witness the transformation of North Korea and resulting elimination of military tensions on the peninsula."

Hmm, not so much. Horowitz and Tetlock are stern: "Needless to say, the Stalinist regime, though hardly the picture of health, remains untransformed….and relations between North and South show little sign of improving; military tensions are high." To Horowitz and Tetlock, prediction tends to be a chump’s game — or, perhaps, a chimp’s. "Predicting events five years into the future" — much less fifteen or twenty years — "is so difficult that most experts perform only marginally better than dart-throwing chimps." Joshua Foust is similarly skeptical: "any specific prediction in these texts will almost invariably be wrong."

Then there are the vague and hedged predictions: it is "virtually certain" that we’ll see a diffusion of power among countries! Demographic trends will pose challenges as some populations age and others remain characterized by youth bulges! "[L]ook at the ‘megatrends’ and ‘game-changers’ of the NIC study and you see only a rehashing of the past decade or so of Davos meetings and McKinsey studies, the dross of popular futurism," laments FP’s David Rothkopf. Such vague predictions offer little specificity, which makes them both tough to falsify and tough to know how to use. Global Trends 2030 daringly predicts, for instance, that migration and urbanization "could put new strains on food and water resources." Since "new strains" can cover just about anything from minor disagreements to famine, epidemic disease, and world war, this is hard to dispute.

Finally, the NIC offers contradictory predictions, or "scenarios that represent distinct pathways." On the "food, water, energy nexus," we’re informed that "there is as much scope for negative trade-offs as there is the potential for popular synergies." And in general, says the NIC, many "alternate futures" exist: the "risk of interstate conflict [could] rise owing to a new ‘great game’ in Asia," but on the other hand we could see the United States, China, and Europe collaborating to prevent conflict from spreading, "leading to worldwide cooperation to deal with global challenges."

Basically: bad stuff could happen, or good stuff could happen, or in-between stuff could happen. Concludes Rothkopf: "[R]eports about the future seldom do much to illuminate our understanding of what is yet to come."

Of course, NIC reports are hardly the only predictive efforts to come under fire. Micah Zenko, for instance, suggests that predictions made by the military are just as bad as predictions made by the NIC: "The U.S. military has a terrible record of predicting where conflicts will emerge and where they will be deployed to fight," he argues, and offers a discouraging array of examples to prove his point. He quotes former Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right…"

The Future Will Be Unpredictable

If you want to stay on safe ground, you can always predict that the future will be unpredictable.

Admittedly, in a purely theoretical sense, the future is not unpredictable: the number of possible permutations is vast, but not infinite. So if you had, hypothetically, a powerful enough computer, and could load it up with data about absolutely everything that is happening or has ever happened, you might conceivably get that hypothetical computer to generate some solid predictions, with numerical probabilities attached.

This, however, is not a feasible proposition. Literature buffs may recall Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, "On Exactitude in Science," about a map built on a one-to-one scale: "[T]he Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it… [But]…. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless."

For us humans — with our cognitive biases, limited information, and limited processing power — it will always be impossible to reliably predict the longer-term future, and all the more so as the complexity of our global ecosystem grows. All we can predict with confidence is that the future will — probably — be full of surprises.

Get Over It

But as I said, so what? Contrary to popular belief, predicting unpredictability has real value. The NIC’s Global Trends Report is still valuable, because it reminds us of two important things: first, that there’s a tremendous amount we don’t know about what’s going to happen in the future, and second, that the unknowable future will nevertheless be shaped by the choices we make in the present.

This isn’t chopped liver. On the contrary: this information has logical and distinct implications for us as we make choices in the present.

Contrast the implications of concrete future predictions with the implications of predicting numerous possible alternative futures. If we have a concrete future prediction — say, for instance, "a resurgent Russia will pose the greatest long-term threat to the United States" — we will naturally focus our energies on preventing and preparing for possible conflict with the Russians. Like all choices, this will have opportunity costs: if we calibrate our investments and actions based on our knowledge of Russian capabilities, we won’t be able to prepare fully for various other potential threats.

If our predictions about Russia are correct, this doesn’t matter. But what if our predictions about Russia are wrong, as future predictions tend to be, more often than not? What if, say, China turns out to be the real threat, or a Latin American dictator acquires and threatens to use nuclear weapons, or, for that matter, the earth is invaded by space aliens? Well…we’ll be in trouble. We’ll have spent decades preparing for one thing, and it will be hard to pivot to face another. Path-dependency is a natural human tendency, and it’s magnified by bureaucracy.

But let’s say we accept the deeper message of the NIC’s latest Global Trends Report, which I take to be this: there are many plausible alternative futures, and right now we can’t really say which is most likely. We can’t say which is most likely, in part, because all sorts of things are unknowable or beyond our control, and in part because life is like one of those "choose your own adventure" books — our decisions will contribute to shaping the future. This has concrete implications for what we should do now.

Forget Predicting: Focus on Shaping and Responding.

Start with the first proposition, the proposition that most human predictions are no more useful than those of dart-throwing chimps. We don’t know if the gravest future threats will come from Russia, or China, or al Qaeda, or climate change, or some state or organization or phenomenon not yet on our radar screen: an "unknown unknown." This doesn’t give us "nothing to prepare for." On the contrary, it tells us that we need to prepare to respond to anything — we need to prepare for uncertainty, for challenges and opportunities that will mutate and surprise us.

We talk about the need for agility so much that it’s becoming a cliché, but like most clichés, it got that way because it reflects truth. When you believe the future threat is the Russian Army rolling in massed tank formations across the plains of Eastern Europe, you focus on training and equipping your military to fight back against massed tank formations. You don’t bother training for counterinsurgency or stability operations, and you don’t worry too much about making every corporal a strategist. But when you believe the coming threat will surprise you, you prepare to respond to surprises.

That means you focus on creating creativity and resilience. You train your corporals to be strategic. You develop equipment that is versatile. You invest both in small cadres of specialists with the skills to combat the likely near-term threats, and in larger groups of "utility infielders." Finally, you seek to develop adaptive, dynamic institutional knowledge-building and decision-making structures and processes: if surprises come fast and furious, you don’t want it to take six months to tee up the most minor decisions for the president.

This is what you do if you expect surprises, and it’s distinctly different from what you do if you think you’ve got a good handle on the future.

The second proposition — that our decisions and actions will shape the future — also has consequences. (This is not to be mistaken for the proposition that we can control the future: as Karl Marx warned in 1852, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please.")

If we like some possible futures more than others — if we think that a multipolar world with robust international mechanisms for addressing global challenges is better that a multipolar world of great powers in conflict, for instance — then we should get a move on.

You want effective and equitable international institutions in the future, at which time U.S. preeminence can no longer be assumed? Then we need to jump-start these institutions now, while we still have outsized credibility and power. You want a future world in which climate change doesn’t cause mass refugee flows, resource competition and conflict? Then get cracking on emissions control and the development of alternative energy sources.

Leave the NIC Alone

"You’re defining the future today, whether or not you intend to," writes David Rothkopf, "and thus the very best way to ensure a good 2030 is to focus on making the right choices in 2013." But this has an unstated corollary: to make the "right" choices in 2013, you have to have an opinion on what would constitute a "good" 2030.

The NIC’s predictions are offered in terms of plausible alternative scenarios for the simple reason that this is about the best anyone can do. And it’s far from useless: by outlining starkly different alternative futures, the NIC reports can help us figure out what we want to achieve and what we want to avoid.

We know the future is uncertain, but we know we have at least some ability to shape that future, providing we have a vision of what we want…and we know we can improve our national ability to respond to even the "unknown unknowns" with creativity, agility, and resilience.

So: quit beating up on the NIC, and let’s get to it.

 Twitter: @brooks_rosa

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