(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed
are his own)
By Bernd Debusmann
WASHINGTON, April 1 (Reuters) - After a string of
world-shaking events America's spies failed to predict, most
recently the turmoil sweeping the Arab world, a vast project is
taking shape to improve forecasting. It involves thousands of
volunteers and the wisdom of crowds.
It's officially known as the Forecasting World Events
Project and is sponsored by the Intelligence Advanced Research
Activity (IARPA), a little-known agency run by a woman, Lisa
Porter, who is occasionally described as America's answer to the
fictional Agent Q who designs cutting edge gadgets for James
Bond. Much of IARPA's work is classified, as is its budget. But
the forecasting project is not classified. Invitations to
participate are now on the Internet.
The idea is to raise five large competing teams of people of
diverse backgrounds who will be asked to make predictions on
fields that range from politics and global security to business
and economics, public health, social and cultural change and
science and technology. The project is expected to run for four
years and stems from the recognition that expert forecasts are
very often wrong.
One of the teams is being put together by University of
Pennsylvania professor Philip Tetlock, whose ground-breaking
2005 book (Expert Political Judgment: How Good is It? How Can We
Know?) analysed 27,450 predictions from a variety of experts and
found they were no more accurate than random guesses or, as he
put it, "a dart-throwing chimpanzee".
"To test various hypotheses," Tetlock said in an interview,
"we want a large number on my team, 2,500 or so, which would
make it almost ten times bigger than the number I analysed in my
book." There are no firm numbers yet on how big the other four
teams will be. But Dan Gardner, the author of a just-published
book that also highlights the shortcomings of expert
predictions, believes the IARPA-sponsored project will be the
biggest of its kind. It is expected to start in mid-2011.
The title of Gardner's book, "Future Babble. Why expert
predictions are next to worthless and you can do better," leaves
no doubts over his conclusion. The book is an entertaining, well
researched guide to decades of totally wrong predictions from
eminent figures. There was the British writer H.N. Norman, for
example, who, in the peaceful early days of 1914, predicted
there would be no more wars between the big powers of the time.
World War I started a few months later.
There was the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, whose
best-selling 1968 book The Population Bomb predicted that
hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in famines
in the 1970s. There was an entire library of books in the 1980s
that predicted Japan would overtake the United States as the
world's leading economic power.
Not to forget the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency's
September 1978 prediction that the Shah of Iran "is expected to
remain actively involved in power over the next ten years." The
Shah fled into exile three months later, forced out by
increasingly violent demonstrations against his autocratic rule.
In a similar vein, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
said on January 25 that "our assessment is that the Egyptian
government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the
legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."
Seventeeen days later, the leader of that stable government,
Hosni Mubarak, stepped down in the face of mass protests.
"We are not clairvoyant," America's intelligence czar, James
Clapper, told a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee
where criticism of the sprawling U.S. intelligence community was
aired. "Specific triggers for how and when instability would
lead to the collapse of various regimes cannot always be known
True enough. Who could have predicted that the assassination
of an archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 would lead to the deaths of
16 million people in World War I? Who could have predicted
Japan's recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor disaster?
On the other hand, there were accurate predictions that U.S.
troops invading Iraq in 2003 would not be showered with flowers,
as Washington officials had so confidently predicted.
IARPA's Forecasting Project is not the first American
attempt at peering into the future with novel methods. The
agency's richer, bigger and older military sibling, the Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), caused outrage in
2003 with a plan to set up an online market where investors
would have traded futures in Middle East developments including
coups, assassinations and terrorist attacks.
The man who ran DARPA, the Pentagon's research arm, at the
time, John Poindexter, resigned and the project was killed so
we'll never know whether that market might have been a better
indicator of the future than the usual, often over-confident
And the IARPA teams? The aim of the programme, as explained
in an online invitation to participate, is to "dramatically
enhance the accuracy, precision and timeliness" of forecasts.
Gardner, the forecast sceptic, thinks they will remind us that
there are things that simply can't be predicted.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)
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