The Science of Predicting the Future

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If you ask the man or woman on the street “Is it possible to predict the future?”, they will likely say no.  It is of course NOT possible for us to “predict the future” except in a very few, short term, low variable type situations. And yet as humans, we see that as just another obstacle to be overcome. So that is exactly what secular scientists are continually trying to do, attempting to predict the weather, earthquakes, hurricanes, politics, economics, lifespans, relationships, and dozens of other events in life. This might not seem such a bad thing.  After all, isn’t that the exciting and compelling thing about science fiction, the desire to see into the future? What is the harm in that?

Well perhaps if it only involved educated, consenting adults who understood the actual underlying principles of scientific research and statistical analysis it would be acceptable. Or if it were seen for what it was, which is science fiction rather than hard science, perhaps it would be acceptable.  But such is not the case. This area of “soft science” has pervaded all aspects of education and the media.

In fact this merger between science and pop culture has created a progeny.  That progeny is called scientism, and in the name of science, our children are taught scientism from early grade school all the way through college.  They are constantly exposed to it on shows like “The Big Bang Theory.”  But while it is treated as actual science, many of the predictions made by scientism (about both past and future events) have much more in common with indoctrination and fortune telling than with actual, provable science.  For example:

“Scientists Have Figured Out When And How Our Sun Will Die, And It’s Going to Be Epic”

So reads the headline on Sciencealert.com. (1) And the article goes on to say, “The Sun is about 4.6 billion years old – gauged on the age of other objects in the Solar System that formed around the same time. And, based on observations of other stars, astronomers predict it will reach the end of its life in about another 10 billion years.”

The science of Astronomy is indeed amazing.  Astronomers observe,  speculate, theorize and calculate.  They attempt to explain this magnificent universe in which we live.  But they fail to tell you, as they predict earth’s incineration and demise, that their theories and explanations are still, even now, full of holes the size of galaxies. (For more on this see my prior blogs entitled Pluto and the Mickey Mouse Astronomers, and Operational vs Historical Science)

Or for another example, consider the following article by Jillian Scudder, which also states we have about a billion years or so left to inhabit the earth.

It is widely understood that the Earth as a planet will not survive the sun’s expansion into a full-blown red giant star. The surface of the sun will probably reach the current orbit of Mars – and, while the Earth’s orbit may also have expanded outwards slightly, it won’t be enough to save it from being dragged into the surface of the sun, whereupon our planet will rapidly disintegrate.” (2)

Or if you prefer to get your forecasts from NBC news, here is a headline:

“Now we know what will happen when the sun dies” 

“New study suggests our star will become ‘one of the prettiest objects in the night sky.”(3) Never mind that at the time they predict our suns demise, the earth will already be long gone according to their own predictions.  The astronomers had been arguing back and forth among themselves as to whether when the sun died it would create a planetary nebula.  This latest theory (latest computer model) says it will, and it will supposedly be spectacular to see.
These are just a couple of the many pseudo-scientific internet sites that predict the future of our planet, and the fate of our sun.  But what happened to the belief that “we can’t predict the future”?  Well, you might say, “this is different… these are scientists!”.  Yes, that is what they say.  But what is a scientist? And more importantly, what types of predictions for the future have scientist made?  What are their results and their credentials for predicting future events?
Well it turns out that scientists are quite good at predicting the future of a real time event in a laboratory if all the factors are known and contained, and the the basic processes of physics are completely stable. They can tell you what is going to happen in the next few minutes after you combine sodium and chloride in a test tube.  They can predict what will happen when gasoline and oxygen are allowed to interact in the presence of intense heat.  These momentary observations can be reproduced again and again in a laboratory or a test tube.  The results will be the same and are thus predictable.
But what are their credentials in predicting things even just a thousand years from now?  Has science ever done that? No.  Not yet anyway.
In fact predicting the future, it turns out, is actually quite difficult.  As written by Adam Keiper, in his blog on The New Atlantis, concerning uncertainties in predicting the future,

All of which is to say that, as you listen to our conversation here today, or as you read books and articles about the future of automation and robotics, try to keep in mind what I call the “chain of uncertainties”:

Just because something is conceivable or imaginable
does not mean it is possible.
Even if it is possible, that does not mean it will happen.
Even if it happens, that does not mean it will happen in the way you envisioned.
And even if it happens in something like the way you envisioned, there will be unintended, unexpected consequences(5)

 

Martyn Shuttleworth authored the following excellent discussion about predictive science.PDF version

Scientists and Soothsayers

“Prediction in research fulfills one of the basic desires of humanity, to discern the future and know what fate holds. Such foresight used to involve studying the stars or looking at the entrails of animals.

Obviously, few pay heed to such methods, in the modern world, but many people expect scientists to become the new soothsayers and predict where humanity, the environment, and the universe will end up. To a certain extent, most scientists regularly use prediction in research as a fundamental of the scientific method, when they generate a hypothesis and predict what will happen.

As part of humanity’s quest to understand nature, predictive science is much more widespread than before.

Much of this is due to the exponential growth in computing power, which allows gradually more detailed and accurate models. These are of great use in predicting the weather or natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis.

The other factor driving this growth of predictions in research is politics and economics. Predicting the weather benefits an economy by informing farmers about what to expect, and allows emergency services to predict when adverse weather may require action. Economics is prediction driven and, as the current economic crisis shows, incorrect predictions can be devastating, although whether politicians choose to listen to the advice of computer prediction models, if they disagree with their policies, is another matter.

With the millions of dollars invested by governments, or by oil companies using the predictions of geologists to know where to drill test wells, predictive science is only going to grow. However, this entire field of science and computing rests upon the same foundations that drove early scientists, the principle of making a prediction and setting out to test it.

Unfortunately, these predictions in science are at the whim of paymasters, whether in government or the private sector. This will always compromise the integrity of the scientists making predictions, but prediction in research will always drive the scientific method. That is my prediction, anyway! “(5)

You may have noted Martyn’s disdain for the effects that money, power and politics can have or science, when he states “This will always compromise the integrity of the scientists making predictions”.  And as you may have predicted, I agree entirely.

 

 

For much more on this topic see my earlier blogs on Science vs. Scientism, and Five Things Everyone Should Know About Scientism.

 

(1) http://www.sciencealert.com/what-will-happen-after-the-sun-dies-planetary-nebula-solar-system

(2) phys.org/news/2015-02-sun-wont-die-billion-years.html

(3) http://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/now-we-know-what-will-happen-when-sun-dies-ncna873041

(4) today.oregonstate.edu/archives/2009/aug/long-debate-ended-over-cause-demise-ice-ages-–-may-also-help-predict-future

(5) http://futurisms.thenewatlantis.com/

(6) https://explorable.com/prediction-in-research