The year 2020 has not been a very good year for those who predict. The most disastrous outbreak of disease, the coronavirus - COVID 19, when it first showed up this past spring, was predicted to go away and disappear when the weather started warming up in April.
As we all know now, it didn’t go away and wishing didn’t stop it. It has killed tens of thousands and continues to rage on. Our subject today is not disease, it’s about forecasts and predictions.
When should we pay attention to predictions and who should we listen to?
The pandemic issue gives us the answer. The predictions of President Donald Trump were based on political wishes and hopes. He hoped he could ignore the symptoms and the economy would not be impacted. On the other hand, we had medical experts, like Dr. Stephen Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who advised a stringent mitigation program of masks, personal separation, crowd avoidance, etc., and predicted a 1% fatality rate if we failed to act. Trump ignored his advice. In July, the president said “We are in a great place
and I disagree with Dr. Fauci.”
Without detailing the actual numbers, Dr. Fauci (who received death threats because of his advice) could read the handwriting on the wall and was right while Trump was wrong. S
o whose predictions do we listen to and who do we ignore? The answer seems obvious: when the advice is based on science, we should listen. When it’s based on wishes, hopes and politics, it’s bogus.
In my opinion, the most reliable information we get is from the meteorologists who give us the weather forecast every day. In the past generation, the accuracy of these forecasts has improved hugely. They tell us which days the weather will change, what time the wind will blow, how hot or cold it will get and what we can expect with a reasonable degree of certainty.
Why? Because they are scientists. They were probably geeks already in high school taking courses in advanced math, chemistry, physics, geometry, calculus, trigonometry and computer classes. In college, they studied climatology, atmospheric dynamics, astronomy, more physics, geophysics and geochemistry. They may be dull, but they are highly competent professional scientists. They always see handwriting on the wall and they know how to read it.
Where else do we get scientific forecasts? In the controversial area of climate change we get advice from the scientists (though not 100% of them) pointing to melting polar ice, carbon dioxide levels, 19 of the last 20 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000, extreme weather, hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters, rising tides and insist on the need for changes, worldwide, to avoid permanent damage to the globe as a place for human beings and God’s creatures to live. But the U.S. has dropped out of the Paris Accord (saying the science is “nonsense” and cooperation would be a disruption and expensive). D
Do we listen to the scientists or the politicians who oppose them? Are the scientists giving us bum advice? The scientists are reading the writing on the wall. We’re running out of time to make corrections. The rest of the world thinks we are sleeping. Shall we wait until New Orleans and Miami are under water and polar bears are extinct?
Now we have voter polls that tell us Biden is favored by 10 points over Trump for the upcoming election. But those polls aren’t conducted by scientists and polls are not science.
They are not handwriting on the walls, they’re only a glance of about three months down the road when much can happen. I don’t trust them. They are not even forecasts, just glimpses.
The geniuses on Wall Street make predictions about what the economy might do. But again, they’re not scientists, and economic forecasting is not science. Look at the crippled economy at the end of July. Nobody saw a pandemic coming a year ago and nobody knows how long it will last. What handwriting there is on the walls on the economy is uncertain and not reliable.
Every year the gamblers in Las Vegas establish odds on major sporting events like the World Series and the Super Bowl. These odds are more than guesses, but not much more reliable. They’re not scientific and you can’t count on them. For every bet there is a winner and a loser. That means half the gambling public are losers. Remember that.
The moral of the story is that we all need to consider the source when somebody advises us of the future. As Yogi Berra said, “Never make predictions, especially about the future.”
Scientists have science to help them see what’s ahead. Politicians have hopes and dreams.
Don’t bet on them.