Tuesday, December 1, 2015

How to see the future

Can the future be predicted?

Most Trinbagonians would probably say Yes, given the number of them who believe in psychics, Bible prophecy, and astrology. But prediction, insofar as it is possible, depends on hard mathematics, not on supernatural abilities.

Here are three accurate predictions made by scientists which no psychic or religious text ever mentioned: men would land on the moon; an Earth-like planet would be discovered; and the Pentagon building in the United States would be attacked by terrorists.

By contrast, predictions about 2012 made by a couple of local psychics failed to meet even the 50 per cent statistical threshold of chance. (Flip a coin 1,000 times; it will land either heads or tails roughly half the time. So anyone claiming to make predictions who has an accuracy rate of 50 per cent or less is just guessing.) In January last year, psychic Winston Ragoo made nine predictions in an Express interview.

These were

(1) Fallout could occur between the PM and one of her top Ministers.

(2) The economy would get worse.

(3) Former PNM leader Patrick Manning would attempt a comeback.

(4) Runaway crime.

(5) Police Commissioner Dwayne Gibbs will decide to leave the job.

(6) The State would refuse to bow to trade unions' wage demands.

(7) There would be a Cabinet reshuffle.

(8) Caribbean Airlines would have changes in its management.

(9) No natural disasters would cause mayhem or loss of life.

Out of these nine, only three were accurate: Gibbs left in July, although it appears he was pushed out rather than quitting since he was fully compensated for his contract; there was a Cabinet reshuffle in June; and, in April, businessman Rabindra Moonan replaced George Nicholas III as chairman of CAL (though this was just one change, not "changes"). At a stretch, the first prediction about a fallout might also be deemed accurate, given the firing of Justice Minister Herbert Volney over the Section 34 debacle, but only if he could be categorised as a "top Minister". But Ragoo failed to predict Manning's stroke or Section 34 or the Kublalsingh hunger strike, and was wrong about the massive floods which hit west Trinidad in August and killed two men. So he attained only a 33 per cent accuracy rate in his predictions, which is even worse than chance.

In June 2011, popular psychic Yesenia Gonzalves made 15 predictions in an Express interview. Only two were correct, giving her a dismal 13 per cent accuracy rate: she said that Health Minister Therese Baptiste-Cornelis would be shifted and that some ministers, including Works and Transport Minister Jack Warner would be relieved of major portfolios. Among Gonzalves' wrong 2012 predictions were: Manning continuing to be a major factor in the PNM; a bye-election; the death of a politician; a disappearing plane; and a tsunami hitting the Caribbean.

Contrast psychics' prediction with those made by scientists. The scientists' predictions are specific about an event (instead of being general statements which may apply to several scenarios); have a reasonable time-frame (most predictions will come true if made to cover a few decades or centuries); and state a likelihood (psychics make their predictions with 100 per cent certainty). In 1953, Air Force scientists in the Office of Scientific Research and Development created a chart of the fastest vehicles invented by humans over past centuries. This created an exponential curve (where a phenomenon increases by a percentage at regular intervals, as compared to a linear curve, which is what you get when you measure something that increases by a fixed amount). Extrapolating from this curve, the scientists predicted that a vehicle would leave the Earth's atmosphere within four years: and on September 4, 1957, the Sputnik satellite achieved orbit. The scientists also predicted, based on the same chart, that a rocket which could reach the moon should be invented just a few years later: and on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

Mathematician and network scientist Samuel Arbesman in his book The Half-Life of Facts notes that the existence of the planet Neptune had been predicted by mathematics long before it was seen in 1846, due to erratic behaviour of Uranus, which had been discovered in 1781. "This predictable discovery of a new planet was a great cause for celebration: the power of science and mathematics, and ultimately the human mind, was vindicated in a spectacular way," Arbesman writes. On September 1, 2010, he and astronomer Gregory Laughlin published a paper based on the ongoing discovery of planets to predict a 66 per cent probability that an Earth-like planet would be discovered by the end of 2013 and a 50 per cent probability that one would be found by mid-2011. Four weeks after their paper was put online, the discovery of Gliese 581g was announced and, on December 11, a second Earth-like planet called Kepler 22b was found. (There is, however, ongoing debate about how habitable these planets are.)

The same mathematical techniques which facilitate hard science predictions are now being applied in social and political areas. Political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquite, in The Predictioneer's Game, writes: "There is no need for sheep entrails, tea leaves, or special powers. The key to good prediction is getting the logic right, or 'righter' than any way that is achieved by other means of prediction...Accurate prediction relies on science, not artistry – and certainly not sleight of hand."

Take the infamous prediction about the Pentagon. "A year before the (9/11) attacks took place, mathematics had predicted that the Pentagon was a likely target," write mathematicians Keith Devlin and Gary Lorden in their book The Numbers behind NUMB3RS (a TV series which uses mathematics to solve crimes). A new software system called Site Profiler had been implemented in May 2001 to calculate the risk of terrorist attacks on various US targets. The Pentagon was one of the targets identified, but analysts, while saying that the program worked well, dismissed its conclusions as unlikely.

Devlin and Lorden note, "Human beings are good at assessing certain kinds of risks – broadly speaking, personal risks associated with familiar situations – but notoriously bad at assessing others, particularly risks of novel kinds of events. Mathematics does not have such a weak spot." They added, "When the numbers said the Pentagon was at risk, that's what the program reported. Humans were the ones who discounted the prediction as too far-fetched."

Bueno de Mesquita himself has had an accuracy rate of over 90 per cent in predicting various political and policy outcomes for the CIA, and has even developed a model for predicting fraud by companies.

"Our game-theory approach, coupled with publicly available data, makes it possible to predict the likelihood of fraud two years in advance of its commission," he writes.

The factors he uses in his model predicted the fall of Enron, and could have been applied to CL Financial.

"It is a reflection of the power of logic and evidence, and testimony to the progress being made in demystifying the world of human thought and decision," he writes. "Game theory models, with their focus on strategic behaviour, are best for predicting business and national security issues..."

Nonetheless, many people still continue to believe in psychic abilities. Often, this is due to what psychologists call "confirmation bias", which is the tendency for human beings to seek evidence which confirms their beliefs and to discount evidence which does not.

So people who have faith in psychics remember the few things Ragoo and Gonzalves may have got right and forget the many things they got wrong: which is like going to a mechanic who fixes your car less than half the time you have a breakdown.