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The Science of Predicting the Near Future

If the pandemic and other recent world events have you wondering what’s coming up in the next year or two, you’re not alone. Fortunately, there’s a science behind making accurate near-future predictions. It’s called futurism or futurology (or more simply, trend analysis), and it leverages the forward-thinking approach to what the future holds that hard sci-fi brings to vivid life. 

But imagining what is up ahead is not just for fiction. There are careful analytical techniques that go into making sense of the near future. Recently, Recursor spoke with Dr. Alexandra Luce of Acuity Development about what it takes to make meaningful, science-based predictions.

Dr. Luce became interested in futurism while studying the history of espionage in college. She now teaches intelligence analysis, which relies on the same predictive techniques that can show up in near-future science fiction.

How do futurists break down the common problems we face and figure out what is likely to happen? Luce explains that this process is no easy task, even when it comes to predicting something near-term. “It’s challenging enough to figure out the next two years, much less years in advance as sci-fi does,” she notes.

Predicting near future trends involves looking at various markers, making predictions, and then reviewing the predictions against what actually happens a year or two down the road. The accuracies—or inaccuracies—allow analysts to refine their indicators and thus make better predictions.

But it’s still not simple, says Luce. “It’s not always liner. It’s not just analysis,” she explains. “You need to be able to see a wide range of possibilities, and then look for indicators that can help you evaluate the likelihood of those possibilities.”

Depending on what you’re seeking to predict, there may be clear and proven indicators, such as with signs of a coming genocide (sadly!). In other cases, those indicators may be more amorphous and harder to grapple with.

COVID-19 is an example of the challenges that futurists face. There is plenty of evidence that some kind of pandemic was expected to happen at some point. But how it would play out in real time—the impact of masks, how young children affect the spread, and so many other factors—can make accurate predictions complex.

How do futurists account for that complexity? Information!

“Information is the key,” Dr. Luce says. “We collect information, make sense of it, and make forecasts based on it. When a situation yields limited information available to work with, information that isn’t publicly available, then what is coming is very difficult to predict. But with greater information—more details of higher quality—prediction becomes easier.

“And when you’re working with a group of analysts, the reliability of predictions becomes better too,” she adds.

Still, there are never any guarantees because (as an old Jedi master once said), the future is always in motion and therefore difficult to see clearly.

“People have overly high expectations for what is possible,” says Dr. Luce. “The reality is that there is simply a lot of uncertainty surrounding the near future. The probability of accurate predictions may improve with the right amount of information and correct assessments of the indicators, but the fact is, those predictions will still be correct only a percentage of the time.”

To balance that uncertainty, Dr. Luce explains that trend analysts like to consider a variety of different scenarios. For example, there is the Global Trends initiative– a report issued every four years to assess the four to five driving factors that may affect policy making in the next 20-30 years. Efforts like Global Trends help analysts create and evaluate different combinations of factors to consider what the world could look like in the near future.

“You’re not identifying the one thing that’s going to happen, but rather you’re alerting decision-makers of a range of possibilities to be aware of,” Dr. Luce explains. “That knowledge allows people to take more action now that can change the predicted outcomes for the better. The goal of forecasting is not aiming a dart at a specific spot. It’s more to educate and open people’s minds to possible outcomes.”

One of the biggest challenges to futurist thinking, she explains, is our tendency to look back instead of ahead.

“What tends to happen when we think, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ is that we tend to look at the past for answers,” she says. “But that doesn’t work now because things are so volatile. Things are combining in ways that are potentially worse than the worst we’ve seen in the past.”

It’s also incredibly hard to change our beliefs and expectations, she notes. Yet that’s the key to creating change.

And perhaps that’s where science fiction can do its best work, persuading us to consider the world as it could be—good, bad, and ugly—and becoming more flexible in our thinking, so we can make shifts that produce better outcomes for our future.

To learn more about this fascinating science, Dr. Luce recommends Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Predicting by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. 

And of course, read and watch plenty of sci-fi.