It’s nothing new. As Mark Lilla reminds us, Delphi became a wealthy city on the backs of the Oracles. Or to be a bit more precise, on the backs of those who sought the predictions of the Oracles, for it as their money that was left behind. Desiring to know what will happen is nothing new, and who wouldn’t want to know?
But it is a truth humans have never been able to accept. People facing immediate danger want to hear an authoritative voice they can draw assurance from; they want to be told what will occur, how they should prepare, and that all will be well. We are not well designed, it seems, to live in uncertainty. Rousseau exaggerated only slightly when he said that when things are truly important, we prefer to be wrong than to believe nothing at all.
Many careers have been made by “predicting” the future. A noted “legal futurist,” Richard Susskind, predicted that email would overcome snail mail for lawyers, and he was hailed as a visionary. His big prediction after that was The End of Lawyers, based on the futurist’s belief that the internet would democratize law and make everyone as capable of knowing law as the members of the soon-to-be-defunct guild.
That hasn’t quite happened, although with a certain cohort of legal academia who teaches their charges that law is whatever they feel it is, lawyers may soon render themselves pointless. It won’t be that the groundlings are as knowledgeable as lawyers, but lawyers are as ignorant as groundlings. But Susskind having made one big score, his status as an oracle was established. It was like money in the bank.
There are always people who ask the wrong question, “could” this happen. Is it possible? Maybe, but that it’s not impossible doesn’t mean it’s likely, or even remotely plausible. It’s possible space aliens will come down from the sky today only because we can’t prove it’s impossible, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
And with the many voices seizing upon their takeaways from COVID-19, we’re being reliably informed of the future, or as the oracles prefer to frame it, the “new normal.” A lot of well-intended folks see this as a demonstration of what could be done, thrust upon us out of necessity by a pandemic where we might never have allowed it to happen otherwise, and will tap into the experience as proof of what the future could hold.
Prophets today are less flamboyant. Former prime ministers do not, as a rule, sniff drugs before appearing on CNN. They sit meekly in the green room sipping mineral water before being called on to announce our fate. Augurs have given up on sheep livers and replaced them with big data and statistical modeling. The wonder is that we still cry out for their help, given that the future is full of surprises.
By wrapping predictions up in pretty data bow, it takes on the gloss of empiricism. People will argue their data. Smarter people will note the underlying assumptions upon which the data is based. Wise people will note that no matter what the underlying assumptions, we almost always miss something, or something smacks us upside out head that no one could have anticipated. Hence, the old Yiddish saying, Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht.
The problem isn’t that people want to be told what the future will bring (who wouldn’t?), or that people go on the TV, social media or, god forbid, podcasts, and offer their predictions of what could happen. The problem is that people confuse their best guesses given a set of assumptions with what ends up happening.
Ancient augurs and prophets were in high-risk professions. When their predictions failed to materialize, many were executed by sovereigns or pulled apart by mobs. We see a bloodless version of this reaction today in the public’s declining confidence in both the news media and the government.
Lilla gives a “banal” example, snow storms and school closings. Meteorology has been refined to the point where it can provide a very reliable indicator of short term future weather, but it remains imperfect. And when it proves wrong, people get upset because they made plans based on predictions.
There is much that data can do to hedge our bets for the future, giving us probabilities where before we had nothing but rank guesses. but distinguishing between that which is possible and that which is probable usually gets subsumed in the force of the argument and blindness to the data that fails to bolster our predictions. Even then, they’re just best guesses because nobody knows when that huge asteroid is going to strike Earth.
The public square is thick today with augurs and prophets claiming to foresee the post-Covid world to come. I, myself, who find sundown something of a surprise every evening, have been pursued by foreign journalists asking what the pandemic will mean for the American presidential election, populism, the prospects of socialism, race relations, economic growth, higher education, New York City politics and more. And they seem awfully put out when I say I have no idea. You know your lines, just say them.
I regularly joke on the twitters that I must be the only guy who lacks the capacity to see into the future, because everybody else seems not only to know what the future will bring, but is so certain that they are prepared to fight to prove their right. To make matters worse, we are inundated by news and commentary about what could happen. Remember when news reported about things that happened, past tense?
Now that we know what happened nearly instantaneously, rendering the old model of reporting past events obsolete, the new gig is reporting about the future. In the process of doing so, it influences our thoughts about the present, because if the future is that we’re all going to die of COVID-19, or we’re all going to live despite COVID-19, or something in between, we can govern ourselves accordingly.
Does this make it a self-fulfilling prophesy being fed to us not be the Oracles of Delphi, brilliant scientists, passionate futurists or even otherwise knowledgeable people who are willing to go on the telly and speak their lines? Beats me.
I may know what I would prefer the future to bring, but the “new normal” may be new, old or not normal at all. It’s not going to care what CNN predicts, even if it turns out that CNN nailed it by pure kismet. Or maybe it won’t be kismet, but a concerted effort by the media to spin our heads to bring its prediction to fruition. But I’m not going all in until it happens, because man plans, but god laughs.