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Skip to 0 minutes and 4 seconds Prediction Transcript One of the key issues in Global Systems Science is our limited ability to predict the outcome of policy. Some things are very predictable , like the laws of physics.

Skip to 0 minutes and 21 seconds Some things are, to a large extent predictable, but by no means certain. But definitive predictions are impossible in social systems, because there are just too many hard-to-pin-down factors in play.

Skip to 0 minutes and 41 seconds Some of these factors are intentional and aim to influence outcomes. And then something totally unexpected comes out of the blue.

Prediction and the policy dilemma

The policy dilemma introduced in Week 1 can be interpreted as policy makers trying to predict the outcome of their policies. Prediction plays a large role in conventional science, but plays a much more limited role in the science of social systems.

As the video shows, some systems are highly predictable. For example, if you make a pendulum of length a metre (actually 0.994 m), it will swing from left to right and back in two seconds. If you don’t believe me, try it!

This is called a point prediction – it is possible to predict the state of the pendulum at any particular future point in time.

The game of football is far less predictable, but not entirely unpredictable. For example, in knock-out competitions teams from higher leagues usually beat teams from lower leagues, but sometimes lower league teams emerge as ‘giant-killers’.

Sometimes there are freak events, such as the ball hitting the goalpost, bouncing against a player, and scoring a goal. And sometimes totally unexpected things happen, like a dog running off with the ball.

Many amusing or insightful things have been said about prediction1, e.g.

  • “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” (Nils Bohr);

  • “Some things are so unexpected that no one is prepared for them.” (Leo Rosten);

  • “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.” (Oscar Wilde);

  • “I always avoid prophesying beforehand because it is much better to prophesy after the event has already taken place.” (Winston Churchill);

  • “Prophesy is a good line of business, but it is full of risks.” (Mark Twain);

  • “If you have to forecast, forecast often.” (Edgar R. Fiedler);

  • “It is said that the present is pregnant with the future.” (Voltaire); and

  • “The future isn’t what it used to be!” (anonymous).

To these we could add “the only predictable thing in social systems is unpredictability”.

What do you think?

Recent history provides many examples of policies that failed because their predictions fell wide of the mark. Name one example in the comments below. In your opinion, could anything have been done to improve this policy before it was implemented? Was better prediction possible?


1 University of Exeter, ‘Famous forecasting quotes’

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Global Systems Science and Policy: an Introduction

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