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What Could Go Right? Beware Prediction Journalism

We are much better at recognizing sketchy positive conjecture than negative.

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

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Beware Prediction Journalism

An illustration of a man at sea in a small boat looking through a spyglass

A popular nugget that gets passed around a lot is that in 1903, The New York Times published an article that scoffed at the idea of manned flight, saying that it would take one to ten million years for mathematicians and mechanicians to figure it out. Nine weeks later, the Wright brothers flew for the first time.

The progress community—a loose circle of thinkers and their followers who spread awareness about human progress—refer to this as an example of how humanity in general is often overly pessimistic, particularly of technological innovation, and the media an enthusiastic messenger of such assumptions.

From the comfortable hindsight of over a century, it’s easy to look back and laugh at the Times’ naivete. Oh, journalists of little faith! How little you know of the possibilities man creates. To be fair to the author, though, what would an article have looked like stating the opposite? 

The Wright brothers’ achievement was so contrary to expectation that they had a hard time convincing the press, and even fellow flight experts, that it had happened at all. What would have been, back in the fall of 1903, the evidence marshaled that two bicycle shop owners were about to change the course of human history? Anyone who thought that would have been a laughingstock, even if they did turn out to be right.

Predicting the future is a famously difficult business. The ancient Greek prophet Cassandra, whose prophecies were always true but never believed, was not some extraordinarily gifted human. Her foresight was gifted to her by Apollo as a bequeathing of a godly power. (He then cursed her after she reneged on her promise to become his lover in return.)

These days, even professional forecasters with the might of mathematical models behind them are right less than a quarter of the time. Two thousand years later, we haven’t gotten much closer to divine capabilities.

Today, both the modern media and consumers of it are impatient with wildly optimistic predictions of the future. They should be. It would be irresponsible and ridiculous to say with confidence at the moment, for instance, that Israel and Palestine will find their way to a peaceful coexistence, that climate change will be solved, or that the United States’ democracy will soon emerge stronger—even if all those things one day turn out to be true. 

And even when there is good evidence to anticipate a positive outcome, people still risk ridicule trying to point it out. Just take a look at the What Could Go Right? podcast reviews for a sample.

And yet we are hardly as impatient or discerning when it comes to wildly pessimistic predictions of the future. In the news today, there are many. Take, for example, an article I mentioned a few weeks ago when writing about Senegal’s recent presidential elections. It was published in The Guardian with the title “Is democracy dying in Africa? Senegal’s slide into chaos bodes ill in a year of key elections.” It was written at what was indeed a low point for Senegal, while the country was being rocked by mass protests and there were indications that the current president was trying to stay in office for an illegal third term.

Of course, the author couldn’t have known that what would end up happening is that that very same president would announce an election date, release his political opponents from jail, and be voted out less than a month later. Senegal’s turnaround was legitimately surprising, much like the Wright brothers’ flight was in 1903. 

But to tie the reasonably fair expectation that Senegal’s political crisis would continue to the fate of democracy not just there, but on the entire continent, is a leap of logic that we would never accept in the other direction. While it’s great that Senegal has turned itself around, of course that doesn’t mean much of anything for the close to 20 other major elections that are occurring on the continent this year. Why would its downfall have meant the opposite?

Indeed, if you read the article, most of it is reporting about Senegal itself, with some mention of the “coup belt” and inconclusive discussion about how Africa’s youth view democracy. The two experts on Africa quoted actually say that while they are worried, they are also optimistic about democracy’s future on the continent in the long run.

I have no idea how this article was commissioned, edited, or titled. But I do know that stories, particularly about countries that aren’t world power players, are difficult to pitch, sell to editors and higher-ups, and get readers to pay attention to. A previous editor of mine used to ask when evaluating essays, “What’s at stake?” It’s drummed into writers that they should make it clear why a story matters. That’s good practice. The problem comes, however, when we have to stretch something’s influence in order to do so, or hide what’s essentially prediction journalism behind a question. (Or two—the article also asks whether in some places in Africa democracy is “already dead.”)

The author never says explicitly that xyz will happen. But the average reader can’t come up with a mental picture of the democratic outlook of Africa as a whole, much less of each of the 54 countries there. So the overall takeaway for most is going to be profoundly negative, whether it deserves to be or not. (Democracy on the continent really has diminished recently, but not so much as to return to the state of things pre-millennium, and no one has a crystal ball for the next 10–20 years.) It will be one more “ugh, everything is awful” thought to add to the pile.

This is why I say, especially in a media ecosystem awash with doomerism, we should beware prediction journalism. One reliable indicator that you’re about to read something in the prediction journalism genre is the posing of a question about the future in the headline. As Betteridge’s law of headlines goes, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” It’s not a real law, of course, but a point about taking certain kinds of articles, especially ones with clickbait titles, with a grain of salt.

Another good way to arm yourself against prediction journalism is to notice how large and far away the topic of discussion is. Forecasting becomes more precise the closer an event comes for a reason. Especially if an article is hypothesizing about a massive change or distant future, odds are high that the variables are just too many to take proper stock of. A last technique is the one mentioned earlier, which is to ask yourself if you’d find the same prediction reasonable if it were flipped to forecast something positive.

We are still not gods, and do not have the reliable ability to predict futures either good or bad. We would be doing ourselves a favor to remember that.

What Could Go Right? S6 E8

Promotional image for S6 E8 of the What Could Go Right? podcast, The Social Media Generation with Jonathan Haidt

Is social media safe for children? How old do kids need to be to have smartphones? Is Gen Z’s mental health declining because of TikTok? Zachary and Emma speak with Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of The Anxious Generation. Social media’s effect on brain development, TV Parental Guidelines and the internet’s lack thereof, and the influence of video games on young men are discussed here today. | Listen now

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Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.