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Futurology

December 28th, 2002

Humans have always tried to predict the future, generally with limited success. Before the modern era, most attempts at prediction relied on magical approaches. The only science with a record of successful prediction was astronomy, and this success gave rise to its magical counterpart, astrology.
Over the course of the modern era, the predictive capacity of scientific disciplines, from geology and meteorology to demography and economics, improved steadily. Nevertheless, on most issues of central concern in human society, our capacity to predict events more than a few years into the future remains modest, especially by comparison with the grandiose claims made by the 19th Century pioneers of the social sciences.
The idea of futurology as an organised effort to predict the future became popular around the middle of the 20th century, and was most closely associated with Herman Kahn and the Hudson Institute. The aim of futurologists was to bring a wide range of disciplinary perspectives to bear on the task of predicting future developments in society and technology.
The most notable innovation in futurology was methodological. In place of forecasts, futurologists introduced the idea of ‘scenarios’, a metaphor taken from the technical language of scriptwriting. In futurology, a scenario is a general description of conditions which forms the basis of more detailed conditional predictions of specific outcomes. Thus, we might consider a scenario for 2050 in which the United Nations has become a world government or, alternatively, has ceased to exist.
Scenarios were initially used to add rigor to informal forecasts. Increasingly, however, they have been used as a way of specifying parameter values for simulation modelling using large-scale computer models. The first such exercise to gain widespread attention was the ‘Limits to Growth” model produced by the Club of Rome in the 1970s. The weaknesses of this model, which predicted severe shortages of most commodities to emerge by the 1990s, supported critics who argued that the large scale of the model distracted attention from fundamental theoretical difficulties such as the failure to take price responses into account.
Scenario-based approaches to prediction of the future do not lend themselves to empirical testing, since they are, in essence, conditional forecasts and the conditions are rarely satisfied exactly. It is safe to say, however, that the prediction of social events remains an unsolved problem. Since the act of making predictions may well affect social outcomes, the problem may in fact be insoluble.

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