Making reliable predictions

November 16, 2018

One of the questions that I get the most is “what do you see in your crystal ball?

People love predictions and they like the idea that some among us might have some sort of a gift to see in the future.  For millennia, people have looked –or asked “psychics”- to look in the stars, in tea leaves, in cards, chicken insides or whatever esoteric medium to know the future. Why is there so much fascination about knowing the future? The answer is simple: people want to reduce uncertainty and want predictability.

Although it could be convenient at times to be able to predict the future with certainty, it is not possible. At best, it is a matter of foreseeing what is the most likely to happen. Even the most accurate predictions are really an exercise in probabilities. Predictions are difficult and the rate of error is not negligible. In my opinion, the trickiest kind of prediction is about figuring out numbers, such as future prices. Numbers have a pervert side to them. Numbers give a false sense of security. They seem to give certainty while in most cases they are not as useful as they seem, because the story behind the numbers is more important than the numbers themselves. Just look at stock market analysts. They all give their views on where stock prices are headed and then a couple of things happen. First, they do not all agree on the future stock prices. Since they do not all agree on the numbers, it is obvious that some of them will be wrong. Clearly, predicting is not an exact science. Otherwise, they would all come up with the same price targets. Actually, it is not a science at all, although there is quite a bit of science in the process to arrive to such predictions. The second observation is that very few of those analysts make accurate predictions. In the Netherlands and as a joke, every year a gorilla was pulling its top five stocks from the Amsterdam Stock Exchange listed companies for the coming year, and its pick would be compared with those of professional analysts. It was not rare that the gorilla had picked more of the top performing stocks than the analysts. Some other research (I unfortunately cannot remember from which source) had shown that predictions of economists were accurate only 47% of the time. In other words by flipping a coin, you would be more accurate than the economist’s average by 3 percentage points. That said, even these numbers come down to statistics. It is about averages of predictions, regardless of individual differences. It is the same with predictions as it is with anything else. Some people are good at it and deliver high rates of accuracy and some others (the large majority in my opinion) don’t.

With that in mind, here are my views on how to make reliable predictions.

Considering how uncertain predictions are, there is no point to make predictions solely for the sake of making predictions. Serious reliable predictions are about helping others see what changes are coming, what the challenges are and what the solutions will be. Making predictions just to satisfy one’s ego are vanity and just like everything else that is about pride, demise will come. The cornerstone for a reliable prediction is that it needs to come true. In this area too, over-promising and under-delivering will not serve anyone, and certainly not the one making the predictions. It is much better to stick on what makes sense and not try to overdo it. There is no need to be cute. It is better to predict slightly less but with a higher rate of accuracy than more and be just an average predictor at best. There is no need to believe you will be the next Nostradamus, and even Nostradamus did not predict all that much after all.

It is also quite useful to be clear and specific right from the start with the audience about which future you are talking about (What future do you want)

To make useful predictions, it is also necessary to free your mind and to keep it as open as possible. Since there is no reason for the future to be exactly like the past or the present, unusual situations or uncharted territory are very real possibilities. Reliable predictions are the logical conclusions of a thorough research and thought process. It has to be independent and critical. It is not because others say that this or that will happen that it will be so (remember what I said about how inaccurate most predictions are?). To make solid predictions, one has to be critical of any other opinions, screen them with a good dose of critical thinking as well as a good dose of common sense. In the realm of predictions, to assume can indeed end up making an ass of u and me. Like any other analysis, double checking information and sources is an absolute prerequisite for quality work. In this world overloaded with information and opinions, many of which are complete non-sense, it is better not to believe that it is true just because it is on internet. To be a reliable predictor of the future and to possibly become a reference as a futurist, you must create your own original material. Copy and paste is not foresight, it is only copying and pasting the work of those who created the original material. When you copy and paste, you are not a futurist. At best, you are a reporter. It is interesting to see how many futurists are actually people with a journalism background and how little original material they actually produce. Just like I do not preclude that what celebrities say is necessarily true, do not believe anything I write just because I present myself as The Food Futurist. Double check and review critically what I publish. Then you can decide if I am a reliable source or not. The social media world is full of so-called influencers. Yeah, right. Personally, I do not want to be influenced. I want to be convinced instead. Once again, use critical thinking and common sense.

It might sound a bit corny, but I believe that knowing and understanding history is essential for reliable predictions. Even though we live in an era of strong sense of self and individualism, humans are actually amazingly predictable. We are much less original that we like to think. In many ways we are all pre-programmed to see and understand things the way we do. It is part of how we are raised. It is part of culture. Taking distance from the “program” is not easy. The “program”, together with our cerebral cortex that seems to constantly try to make us rationalize the irrational and the emotional, makes it about impossible to be fully objective and eliminate totally our biases, big and small. The result is that humans act in ways that make history repeat itself. An example of how this can be used is what is called technical analysis in stock market analysis. The core of technical analysis is that people tend to act and react in similar ways over and over again. When you see how automated financial trading has become thanks to algorithms that are based for a large part on this predictability of human behavior, it is easy to understand how this can be used in all sorts of foresight exercise. On top of that, be also aware that financial traders’ jobs are being eliminated and replaced by programmers by financial companies and you have a great example of how predictability of humans is pivotal for predictions of the future.

To be reliable in predictions, the first person to be convinced is the one making the predictions. What would be the point of telling others about a certain vision of the future if you don’t believe in it yourself? This where a subtle detail is quite useful to spot: is the vision written in the future tense or in the conditional? Of course, sometimes it is good to give your audience a choice between scenarios. Then, the conditional is useful, but only if it is clear that the different scenarios are all highly likely. If the use of the conditional is mostly to cover your backside just in case the prediction might not come true, then it is necessary to grow more courage in foresight. The use of the future tense is quite powerful. It really makes the prediction much stronger and more credible. I also want to say a word of caution about the use of the future tense when it is misplaced, and I see it many times. The future tense alone does not necessarily refer to the future. One expression that ticks me off every time I hear it is “the future is already here”. If the future is already here, it is not the future anymore but it is the present, so present it as such. It can actually help people to know what is already currently available instead of being under the impression that it still is in the future and therefore not available yet. In my opinion telling the present in the future tense is a disservice.

Certain personality traits are quite useful to make reliable predictions. In particular, a sense of anticipation is a prerequisite in foresight. It is simple logic. If you do not have a sense of anticipation, how on Earth could you claim to have foresight? It would be like the joke about the mind reader who needs to ask who is knocking at the door. Martial arts have a reputation for developing a so-called sixth sense. I have no idea if this is true or not but perhaps my many years of martial arts have been helpful in my activities as a futurist. Perhaps I had it all along. Fact is that I always have had some a sense of how things can evolve and what to expect. I cannot explain it and I have never tried, either. I have not played much chess in my life, but I could envision quite well the moves ahead. It is there and it is quite useful to me. It has helped me make really good predictions and I have very rarely been wrong with my predictions, also probably because I make predictions following the principles that I mentioned above. Another useful personality trait is the ability to see the bigger picture and to connect the dots. I seem to see things earlier than most people. Sometimes if frustrates me but so be it. That is an ability that I have had all my life and it helps me a great deal in this work, and has with the previous ones as well. I am not wired for tunnel vision or silo thinking. I am naturally curious and I like to see how all things come together, where they come from and where they are going. My brain is always active. In this regard, making predictions is a natural process for me. I am always surprised to see how difficult it seems for organizations to escape their own area and see what is beyond their operations. It must be me, though. When I was in the corporate world, I was already different from most of my colleagues, apparently. I could change positions, business sectors and even locations without any difficulty to adapt and function in my new environment. I seem to have been a curious case, as all the testing and human resources could not stick any of their labels on me. I believe I was an impossible creature in the sense that I could not exist. I should have been either analytical or intuitive, I should have been either social or alone, I should have been either an individualist or a team player, I should have been either a doer or a thinker, and I should have been either technical or into soft skills, etc… In all the areas of personality mapping, they did not know where to place me because I could be both of the opposites every time and could shift within both opposites when needed. Regardless of all the headaches I may have caused HR people, this flexibility -or maybe fluidity- is quite useful to me. It helps me navigate smoothly through all the dimensions that are underlying the task of foreseeing the future. If it means that I have many personalities, then so be it because I can say that we are all happy in my head (OK this is just a joke, I do not really have multiple personalities).

Next to my personality traits, I must say that my life experience, and in particular my professional experience is a major asset for The Food Futurist work. I have filled so many different functions, been in so many different places and countries and dealt with so many different people and I have been involved in so many different types of businesses that I am very privileged to have an amazingly broad understanding of the many areas and dimensions of food and agriculture. Having experienced so many situations also helps me spot what makes sense or not and what their potential and limitations are. All those reasons explain why my predictions have been accurate and proved useful for others.

Copyright 2018 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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