Nick's Notes

Predicting Failure

Just this week, we’ve been told that the world is about to burn up because of man-made global warming – as exemplified by this glorious summer, and (yet again) that Brexit will be an unmitigated disaster for the UK economy.

There is a long and inglorious list of predictions which turned out to be nonsense. From Thomas Watson’s perspective that he could see a market for perhaps 5 computers in the world, to Bill Gates’ statement that 640k is enough for anyone, and Ken Olsen saying he couldn’t see why anyone would need a computer in their home it is clear that making predictions is a mug’s game.

In 2014 with oil prices at $100 a barrel a prediction was made that it would shortly be at $200 a barrel. Instead it fell to around $30. As recently as 2017 an article was published in a UK newspaper explaining why the oil price will never exceed $50 a barrel ever again. At the time of writing this blog it sits around $70. The problem is that predictions are usually straight line interpretations of current behaviours and the trends so identified and do not take into account systemic responses to the current trends, which then change as a consequence of altered behaviours and information.

Nate Silver in his 2012 book “The Signal and The Noise” discusses why most predictions fail and some succeed. In a direct quote from his book Mr Silver states: “The instinctual shortcut that we take when we have “too much information” is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.”1 I will try hard to avoid that in this blog.

So this is the choice, or bias, according to taste, that most climate change scientists and the BBC have taken regarding climate change. It is only 40 years ago that climate scientists were concerned that the world was cooling more than was predicted – in geological time we currently live between ice ages in a very temperate period of the earth’s geologically recent existence. Ice ages recur in 10-15000 year intervals, and it’s about 10,000 since the last one. When the data didn’t fit the hypothesis anymore, the shift was made to global warming, despite the temperature ranges being experienced and predicted being within the normal range. But in both cases it was decided that mankind’s activity was causing the problem. As a geologist (I studied at Leeds University in the late 1970’s) there is a rather large selective use of data there.

Debate is healthy and valuable where the different sides of the argument are somewhat equal in merit, and where there is merit in determining the correct actions to take. Where only one side of an argument is of value, all debating the issue does is promote the minority issue by mentioning it in comparison. There are many things which are unprovable but almost universally accepted for which there is no value in debating – such as taking an anti-vaccination stance or an anti-science stance, both in evidence in recent years.

Most people accept that the climate is changing. But there are still questions of value to debate. How is it caused? Is it reversible – over human timescales or over geological time? How much is the earth warming? Can diverse flora and fauna survive? What actions should we take?

So what’s the BBC got to do with it? Well they have decided that climate change is so right and the causes so clearly determined and actions needed so obvious that they will no longer countenance anyone on their programmes who thinks differently. This is deeply unhealthy. Carbon reduction, really CO2 reduction, is expensive to the economy and is leading to unhelpful decisions – like a switch to electric cars. All this does is move the place that the carbon is burned from the high street to the power station. And yes renewables will dilute the usage of coal and gas a bit, but their very nature, as with nuclear makes them unsuitable to be the majority “fuels” for power generation. And by the way, water vapour is a much more potent “greenhouse gas” that carbon dioxide. No one is proposing doing anything about that.

Yet, thankfully, some scientists do see such things differently from the consensus – such as Matt Ridley, who came to talk to a CIO Connect conference a few years ago when his book “The Rational Optimist” was first published. He argues that a degree or two of warming may well benefit the planet as deserts will be greened

and crop yields will increase in a more CO2 rich environment – another greenhouse effect. But you won’t hear him on the Today programme countering the confusion between weather and climate such as is illustrated in my opening sentence. The point is there is still debate to be held and predictions which ignore alternative scenarios will not do.

In the case of Brexit, leavers and remainers are still fighting the last war – i.e. the referendum. There is a complete absence of facts about what will happen when the UK leaves the EU. This is because it hasn’t happened yet. All of the so called predictions are no more than a bias based on deep seated beliefs, and no evidence whatsoever. But because leavers and remainers are so convinced they are right and there cannot be any merit in the opposing view these biases go unchallenged, and protagonists get more and more heated and little sensible debate can be held. In short this is nothing other than a “religious” war. In most wars the winners get to write history; amazingly in the Brexit arena the losers (ie the overwhelming number of remainer politicians very much in power and in parliament) are currently writing the story. This may turn out to be similar to 1992 when the UK crashed out of the European Monetary System. Initially called “Black Wednesday”, the economic freedom created set in place 20 years of economic growth.

This absence of a healthy debate, the positioning of “beliefs” as facts, and the perspective that seems to be pervading western societies that “no platforming” is preferable to debate is toxic. Where is the spirit of Voltaire, who said “I dislike what you are saying, but will defend to the death your right to say it?”. Where is the testing of ideas and consequent discarding or reinforcing of them as ideas are challenged? Where is the intellectual confidence to defend your point of view?

And how can you make useful and confident predictions when you only listen to reinforcing data?

1 Silver, Nate. The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction (pp. 3-4). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition

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