“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” -Niels Bohr

The Science of Predicting the Future

Posted by Ethan Siegel on October 26, 2012

What’s going to happen next? It’s perhaps the most important thing to know if we want to be prepared for practically anything in our lives. And without even thinking about it, most of us are actually very good at this in a huge number of aspects of our lives. For example…

I was hungry at work today, and I was prepared for it. Somehow, I knew that I was going to need food throughout the course of the day, and so I was prepared for it by bringing food from home. This is an incredibly mundane prediction, but think about it for a moment: how did I know I was going to be hungry?

In my case, it’s because I’ve been in this situation before: thousands upon thousands of times before, in fact. Every day when I wake up, I get hungry after a certain amount of time. Perhaps today would have been different; perhaps it would have been the first time in many years where I simply wasn’t hungry during the day. But I was so certain I would get hungry that I didn’t even stop to consider the possibility that I wouldn’t; I know from my own past experience that I’d get hungry, and therefore I planned accordingly.

This is a fabulous example of a pre-scientific prediction! I’ve taken information from very, very similar situations that I’ve experienced before, I know — looking back — how those previous situations turned out, and so I can infer how this current situation is likely to turn out. This is something we do all the time in our lives, and something we’ve done frequently throughout history. The phrase Red Sky at Night, Sailor’s Delight didn’t come about because we understood the science behind the next day’s weather and the properties of the atmosphere the night before, it came about because when we observed phenomenon A (the red sky at night), it was very often followed by phenomenon B (good sailing weather the next day).

We use this all the time in our lives: it’s why we have confidence that the next untested apple we eat will be delicious and not poisonous (even though the occasional apple is poisonous), that our house hasn’t burned down when we go to the store (although sometimes houses do burn down when you’re at the store), and that the store you’re going to will have apples to sell you when you go (even though they’re sometimes out of apples).

Read more: The Science of Predicting the Future – Starts With A Bang.

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