Predicting the Future is Impossible
Herbert George Wells seemed to have a gift for knowing what was to come. In The First Men in the Moon (1901) he imagined a lunar landing that would happen 68 years later (okay, he was wrong about a society living beneath the Moon’s surface).
In The War of the Worlds (1898) he wrote about a heat-ray weapon and lasers are now part of modern armouries. He forecast aerial combat before the Wright brothers had even flown their spruce and muslin plane over 120 feet of sand at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
In the world of prophecy, H.G. Wells had a better record than most.
Making predictions is a tricky business so before consulting crystal balls people should heed the advice of the Danish Physicist Niels Bohr who said “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future,” (Groucho Marx and Yogi Berra are among others credited with making this statement.)
Jeane Dixon, “America’s Psychic”
Jeane Dixon made a substantial living by predicting events, most famously the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. But, when journalists dug a little deeper into Ms. Dixon’s May 1956 forecast of Kennedy’s death it’s not clear she predicted it at all. She was interviewed by Parade magazine, which noted “As for the 1960 election Mrs. Dixon thinks it will be dominated by labor and won by a Democrat. But he will be assassinated or die in office ‘though not necessarily in his first term.”
She doesn’t name a victim; and the cause of death is left vague, as is its timing.
Then, four years later she said that John Kennedy would not win the presidential election, casting some doubt on her own earlier statement. But, to the uncritical eye Jeane Dixon forecast the Kennedy assassination and this became part of the lore that elevated her to near star status. She went on to become (scary thought) an advisor to President Richard Nixon as well as President Ronald Reagan via his wife Nancy who consulted several astrologers and passed their advice on to the president.
Ms. Dixon became a sort of prediction factory but she was wrong more often than she was right although this didn’t seem to dent her popularity.
The Skeptics Dictionary points out that “She predicted that the Soviets would beat the U.S. to the Moon and that World War III would begin in 1958 ... She foresaw a holocaust for the 1980s and that Rome would then rise and become the world’s foremost center of culture, learning, and religion …” Cancer was going to be cured in 1967, she said, and world peace would break out in 2000. She died three years before that last failed prognostication.
However, the faithful ignored the blunders and clung to the few successes as they do with psychics all over the world today. As the saying goes “Even a blind hog will find an acorn once in a while.”
Science Filled with Failed Predictions
Many people are familiar with the statement that “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” This was said by Thomas Watson, chief honcho at IBM in 1943 just after the first electronic computer, ENIAC, with its 20,000 vacuum tubes, was plugged in. Thirty-four years later Ken Olson was equally emphatic when he said “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” He was head of Digital Equipment at the time.
And, unfortunately for Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates, the world is never going to let him forget these doozies “We will never make a 32-bit operating system” (1980). “Spam will be a thing of the past in two years’ time” (2004).
The field of nuclear science seems to trip up more than its fair share of experts who ought to know better:
- “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” - Albert Einstein, 1932.
- “The energy produced by the breaking down of the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine.” - Lord Rutherford, considered the father of nuclear physics said this in 1933.
- In 2007 the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei wrote that in 1954 “the Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission predicted that nuclear-generated electricity would become ‘too cheap to meter.’ ”
More Fortune Tellers off the Mark
There is a rich vein of humour waiting to be mined by after-dinner speakers among the people willing to stick their necks out:
- “The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.” - Charlie Chaplin, 1916. To which Harry Warner, co-founder of Warner Brothers, added in 1927 “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
- “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” - Sir William Preece, the British Post Office’s chief engineer, 1876. Less than a hundred years later (1961) U.S. Federal Communications Commissioner T.A.M. Craven thought that “There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States.”
- “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty - a fad.” So said the president of the Michigan Savings Bank in 1903 when Henry Ford was looking for investment funds.
- And, another monumental investment blunder was made by Decca Records, whose 1962 opinion of The Beatles was “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
There are quite a lot of predicted inventions we are still waiting to show up:
- Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners – Alex Lewyt, president of vacuum cleaner company Lewyt Corp., 1955.
- Worldwide government – H.G. Wells, 1928 (and others).
- Time travel – Dozens of movies starting with “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” in 1921. (And, while we’re in this corner where are the hoverboards, hovercars, replicators, personal jet packs, teleportation devices, etc?)
God’s Message or Pure Bunkum?
Champions of Failed Predictions
Nobody can come close to the doomsday dudes in the business of getting the future wrong. Ploughing through the Bible, the Mayan Calendar, and other sources has delivered thousands of End of the World predictions; none, so far, have proved correct.
In recent memory, the Mayan Calendar was supposed to foretell doomsday on December 21, 2012. That’s when the calendar ended leading many to believe the world would fizzle out on that day. Others thought maybe the calendar ended because the Mayans ran out of room on the stone on which it was carved.
Then in 2006, God’s Church minister Ronald Weinland warned the world that Armageddon was scheduled to arrive in the spring of 2008. Then, he checked his sums and said “Oops” it would happen in the fall of 2008. Then, from his prison cell ( a little difficulty with tax evasion) he warned Armageddon would happen on May 19, 2013. It must have become caught up in some sought of cosmic traffic snarl.
In Britain, in 1806, there was quite a lot of fuss when the Prophet Hen of Leeds foretold the coming of Judgement Day. The chicken began laying eggs on which was written “Christ is coming.”
In his 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay described what happened next: “Great numbers visited the spot, and examined these wondrous eggs, convinced that the day of judgement was near at hand. Like sailors in a storm, expecting every instant to go to the bottom, the believers suddenly became religious, prayed violently, and flattered themselves that they repented them of their evil courses.”
But, alas, it was a fowl hoax (sorry). The bird’s owner had etched the words on the shells of eggs and then shoved them back up the wretched critter’s oviduct.
There have been scores of flim flam artists since who have relieved believers of their money (“You won’t need it in the afterlife will you?”) on the promise of knowing the exact time of the Rapture. Others will come in the future to prey on the gullible.
According to the BBC program Quite Interesting “A 2011 study by Nobel Economics laureate Daniel Kahneman of 25 top Wall Street traders found that they were no more consistently successful than a chimpanzee tossing a coin.”
Even H.G. Wells, lauded at the top of this story, could get things wrong. In 1901 he said “I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea.”
“H.G. Wells on Google: which of his Predictions Came True?” Matthew Moore, The Telegraph, September 22, 2009.
“Did Psychic Jeane Dixon Predict JFK’s Assassination?” The Straight Dope, February 2, 2000.
“Jeane Dixon & the Jeane Dixon Effect.” The Skeptic’s Dictionary, undated.
“Traveling Through Time.” Nova Online, PBS, November 2000.
“Top 30 Failed Technology Predictions.” Listverse, October 28, 2007.
“Statement to the Fifty-First Regular Session of the IAEA General Conference 2007.” Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, September 17, 2007.
“Ten Failed Futuristic Predictions.” Josh Sanburn, Time, October 12, 2010.
“10 Failed Doomsday Predictions.” Benjamin Radford, LiveScience, November 4, 2009.
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