Skip main navigation

Prediction and the policy dilemma

The Policy Dilemma involves policy makers trying to predict if their policies will work. This article explains why prediction is so hard.
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.
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.
Some of these factors are intentional and aim to influence outcomes. And then something totally unexpected comes out of the blue.
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.
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’
This article is from the free online

Global Systems Science and Policy: an Introduction

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education