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  • Quote of the Day

    Posted by Jonathan on November 21st, 2008 (All posts by )

    Yet in the world as it really is, events are unforeseen and trends materialize overnight. Where we live, unpredictability reigns. The last thing we should do if we want to know what the future will look like is extrapolate.

    -Gordon Chang

     

    11 Responses to “Quote of the Day”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      “The last thing we should do if we want to know what the future will look like is extrapolate.”

      What’s the first thing?

    2. Tyouth Says:

      “What’s the first thing?”

      Realize that history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme (,as ? said).

    3. Jonathan Says:

      What’s the first thing?

      -Accept that prediction may be impossible.

      -Avoid groupthink, anchoring and other decision biases in your prediction process. (How to do this is a big topic.)

      -Look for historical patterns. Run simulations, some based on historical patterns and some not, varying the variables to generate a range of conceivable outcomes (this does not require computers; it’s the sort of contingency planning that Royal Dutch Shell, to cite one example, was long famous for).

      -Put special effort into determining which of the conceivable outcomes would cause the most pain to the most people.

    4. Carl from Chicago Says:

      Uh… you guys have never worked in government.

      The first thing is to add years of service to the pension.

      The second thing is to “tax foreigners living abroad”

      in the immortal words of Monty Python

    5. david foster Says:

      “What’s the first thing?”….*one* of the first things is to develop the ability to respond rapidly to change. Let’s say your an apparel manufacturer subject to fashion…you’re always either running out of something hot, or finding yourself with a big inventory of stuff nobody wants.

      One approach you could take is to improve your forecasting..focus groups, mathematical models, etc.

      Another approach, though, is to improve your ability to get products into production fast, make them in small lots, and get them to the retailers quickly. Forecasting becomes less important.

      A business system based on the admission of imperfect knowledge is quite different from one based on belief in a knowable future.

    6. Obloodyhell Says:

      > The last thing we should do if we want to know what the future will look like is extrapolate.

      This is flat out stupid, defeatist nonsense.

      The last thing you should do is lock in on a single extrapolation as rock-solid correct, true.

      But if you don’t know what the possible problems are, anything which requires planning and special handling is rendered impossible.

      George Santayana has said that those who ignore history are destined to repeat it; we might paraphrase this to state that those who ignore the future are destined to be its victims.
      – James Gunn -

      Mainstream literature is about Being. For character studies, it’s probably the best genre around; but nothing happens, nothing changes. [Speculative] literature is about Doing. About making the future, not just bemoaning it. We’ll all be living in the future by and by. Some of us like to scout ahead.
      – Niven/Pournelle/Flynn, ‘Fallen Angels’ -

      Any path which narrows future possibilities may become a lethal trap. Humans are not threading their way through a maze; they scan a vast horizon filled with unique opportunities. The narrowing viewpoint of the maze should appeal only to creatures with their noses buried in sand. Sexually produced uniqueness and differences are the life-protection of the species.
      – ‘Children of Dune’ -

      “Extrapolation” into the future is how you figure out what problems might occur, and arrange to have the needed resources available to deal with them at the proper place and time. It’s how you identify what the risks are, how severe the repercussions are, and decide how much of your available resources to allocate to dealing with possible problems you foresee.

      If you don’t extrapolate — shine a light onto the dark pathways ahead — you’re going to be stuck driving along in the pitch black darkness with no clue that a flash flood has washed out the bridge coming up in a couple miles.

      The claim that “extrapolation is bad” is just preposterously silly.

      Errors will happen… try as we might, we’re not going to eliminate all mistakes. We CAN think out the consequences of error and build systems that fail in the least dangerous ways.

      Even in the most depressing dystopia, there’s still the notion that the future is something we build. It doesn’t just happen. You can’t predict the future, but you can invent it. Build it. That is a hopeful idea, even when the building collapses.
      – Niven/Pournelle/Flynn, ‘Fallen Angels’ -

      (‘Fallen Angels’ is an eco-dystopian future where books are rigidly controlled and censored, as an Ice Age has begun, with glaciers marching across Canada and into the USA):


      . “…Look at this crap, would you? With all the problems here on Earth, why would anyone waste their time with this escapist stuff? We oughta burn this trash right now.”
      . He held three books: ‘The Sixth Winter’, ‘The Man Who Awoke’, and ‘Fahrenheit 451′.
      . “What are the stories about anyway?”
      “…Get this — it says here that ‘The Sixth Winter’ is about the sudden onset of an Ice Age; and ‘The Man Who Awoke’ is about a scientist in 1933 who goes to sleep and wakes up in a future of depleted resources and ruined environments.”
      . He scowled. “What’s the third one about?”
      . “Burning books.”

      – Niven/Pournelle/Flynn, ‘Fallen Angels’ -

      The future is when you’ll wish you’d done what you aren’t doing now.

      He [Robert Heinlein] wrote about the future because the future is where all of us will live.
      – Tom Clancy -

      And:
      Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need… ROADS!
      – ‘Back to the Future’ -
      :^P

    7. Jonathan Says:

      OBH, I think you are misinterpreting the quote. I took it to mean that it’s unwise to extrapolate from current trends without considering alternative possibilities. Isn’t this what you are saying?

    8. Lexington Green Says:

      I think Chang is wrong in detail even if he is right in general.

      The first thing you do is precisely to project on current trends.

      The second thing you do is start asking questions about the trend, when will it end, why will it end, what is going on that I am not accounting for, all that stuff.

      “events are unforeseen and trends materialize overnight”

      Since you can’t do nothing, you have to plan based on what you think will happen. That is based on what has happened and is happening (extrapolating) and other stuff you think might happen, based on research, hunches, guesswork, espionage, whatever (speculation).

      If a true Black Swan occurs, you do the best you can.

      After it happens, everyone will say, “those idiots, why didn’t they see … .” and then point to the few preliminary snowflakes in the historical record that “predicted” the blizzard.

      The source of the quote is a testy response to a document about Global Trends 2025. It is based on extrapolation. If Chang has particular issues with it, that is one thing. But he says instead “such exercises are useless.” Maybe so. But businesses, militaries, governments all have to make purchasing and hiring and investing and other decision on some estimate of what the future holds. They have to. So, they have to predict. And in the nature of things, those predictions will be in some degree wrong, possibly to a major degree.

      But you have to make predictions, and unless you have a sound reason to do otherwise, you have to extrapolate on past and current trends.

      Or am I not getting something?

    9. Jonathan Says:

      Usually it’s more important to get the decisionmaking process right than it is to get particular predictions right. This gets back to what David touched on. What do you want to measure? What events do you want to encourage? What events do you want to prevent? Are there events whose occurrence or prevention is more important than any other consideration?

      Extrapolation from current trends is a way to predict. Its limitation is that, by definition, it cannot predict trend changes or discontinuous events. Historically, people who relied on predictions based on contemporary trends have made many and large prediction errors. It is therefore prudent, if you predict from current trends, to use other prediction methods as well. Chang is arguing against over reliance on current trends as a prediction method.

    10. Obloodyhell Says:

      > I took it to mean that it’s unwise to extrapolate from current trends without considering alternative possibilities. Isn’t this what you are saying?

      Yes, but it’s not clear from the context provided that is what he’s saying. It sounded to me like he was saying it’s pointless to try (I confess, I just read the quote, not the link. If that’s wrong, I blame *you*. 8oX Heh. )

      The real fact is you need to extrapolate not merely from current trends but also from other possibilities, including the one that your entire perception of this or that is wrong from the get-go. What you create is not a line forward but a branching tree of possibilities, with risks and severity of danger assignments made to each branch. As risks+dangers go down, you decline to pursue extrapolating those options for the most part, like a chess player pruning his choices.

      By knowing what pitfalls await, you can hopefully navigate between them to the future with the greatest happiness and human potential, or at the least, the lesser misery.

      (And any branch with socialism on it will include lots and lots of misery. That one should be pretty obvious by now)

    11. Lexington Green Says:

      “Chang is arguing against over reliance on current trends as a prediction method.”

      He said it is the “last thing” you want to do.

      But that’s wrong. It’s the first thing. It’s just not the only thing.