Northside SF
Common Knowledge
Surprise me in 2012
Physicist Michio Kaku knows that predicting the future is more than a guessing game (photo: Ed Ritger)
A few decades ago The Commonwealth Club began each year by hosting a local psychic, who would make predictions about world events in the year ahead. For example, psychic Barbara Mousalam’s forecast for 1984 included the prediction that Soviet leader Yuri Andropov “will pull some dramatic antics during the first part of 1984, but he will settle down.” True enough; he died in early 1984 and settled down permanently.

For 1985 Mousalam predicted further change in the Soviet leadership, about which she was correct: Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, died in March of that year. But when asked explicitly if she saw Mikhail Gorbachev as a possible future leader, Mousalam didn’t think so. “Romanov is the name that came to me,” she said.

I don’t mean to poke too much fun at Mousalam; after all, she also predicted that Walter Mondale would be the Democratic nominee for president and that he would select a female running mate a full half-year before he chose Geraldine Ferraro to join him on the ticket.

Predictions are tricky. Forecasts are tricky, and if you’re offering weather forecasts or stock tips, be extra careful, because people really care when you’re wrong. I think that’s why I always appreciate hearing Robert Reich preview the year ahead. The former labor secretary in the Clinton administration, who is currently a professor at UC Berkeley, Reich is refreshingly candid and funny – whether you agree with him or not, he’s always an interesting speaker.

Two years ago Reich told us: “There was a prediction I made last year that I was going to remind you of because I was dead wrong. I said that the Dow [Jones] by now would be at 7,050.” In fact it was above 10,000. “I know something about labor markets, I can talk about the structure of the economy,” he said, “but when it comes to exactly where Wall Street is going to be at any given time or how the business cycle is going to treat assets, I know less than nothing.” If only everyone were that honest. In 1983, Barbara Mousalam was asked how one develops psychic ability, and she replied that “silencing the chatter of the thinking mind and paying more attention to one’s senses” is the answer. Right, because America’s problem is that we’re thinking too much. That’s why Two and a Half Men is our top-rated sitcom, and 20 percent of Americans can’t locate the United States on a map.

But think about this: Telling people what is going to happen in the world is a tightrope act, and many people are unaware that predicting world (or local) events is a parlor game, not a science. It’s easier to mistake what you want to have happen with what you think will really happen, backed up with real insight into the issue and all of the factors that go into the outcome. A little Reichian humility helps too if you’re wrong.

In fact, if you look at people who really do know what they’re talking about when they discuss the future, they’re generally smart enough to avoid parlor-trickery, and they do not put “date-certain” on their predictions.

When I had the pleasure of meeting star physicist Michio Kaku in March 2011, he was in the process of promoting his book, Physics of the Future, which predicts dramatic advances in a range of technologies over the next 30, 50 and 100 years. But he wasn’t just blue-skying it; he wasn’t just brainstorming on paper. He made his predictions based on the progress of scientists at work on things as well as an understanding of the pace of advancement in scientific and industrial laboratories.

I asked Kaku about some of the more fanciful predictions futurists had made in the late 1970s. (Remember our orbiting space stations and colonies on Mars by the 1990s? Neither do I.) He set the record straight. “OK, I’m a physicist. I’m not a science fiction writer,” he said. “I don’t speculate about the future. I interview the physicists and scientists who are building the future in their laboratory. Unless they have a prototype, unless they have proof of principle, I don’t interview them. That of course weeds out all of the quacks.”

A good way to find out what type of a forecaster you are is to make a list of your predictions now for 2012, and revisit them periodically throughout the year to find out how close to reality your forecast proves to be. How deep will the 49ers go in the playoffs? Who will be the GOP nominee for president? Who will win the presidential election? Heck, who will win the next series of Project Runway? Fill out your scorecards, and keep track of your record.

Me? I’m predicting a comeback year for Andropov. We’ll see if I’m wrong.
John Zipperer is a San Francisco-based writer and editor. E-mail:

March 2012
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