Someone recently asked me to make a prediction about how Brexit would impact the world. Would Brexit lead to the disintegration of the American-led globalization project? Would it lead to more referendums? Would Brexit embolden fringe parties and populists? He wanted to know what my opinion was as an “expert.” (The irony, of course, is that experts failed to predict the “Leave” vote altogether.) My opinion was that—as an expert—I should refrain from making predictions. Instead, I pointed out that the present was not a smooth linear trajectory, but rather a lumpy landscape of possibilities. On the subject of Brexit, I tried to explain that: One, it is too soon to say whether Britain actually exits the European Union (EU). News always comes to us as something novel and world-changing, but typically these events are the results of long chains of events that may or may not be settled by one dramatic moment. Britain has an extended history of being both a part of and separate from Europe. Even if Britain does begin negotiations for leaving the EU, this process does not settle the split identity or fundamental impulses that have led the country to advocate for a different special relationship with Europe. In short, matters are far from settled. Two, it is hard to say whether this one event will help lead to the fall of globalization and liberal democratic projects or actually help them in the long run. We need to know, for example, whether this will develop into a major catastrophe or a settle into a more manageable one. Big catastrophes can have system changing effects that are hard to predict. Small catastrophes tend to inoculate systems against larger ones (and thus make systems more resilient over time). Three, how others interpret the event matters as much as the event itself. Whenever an event like this occurs, there is always a political battle to frame its meaning. Yes, fringe parties and political populists will try to frame this as a victory of ordinary citizens over elite-led and impersonal globalization. But the event may also be framed as a singular, self-inflicted catastrophe of the first order, one that needs to be avoided in the future. If the latter parties win out, Brexit could be a rallying cry to stomp out irresponsible populism at its roots. Four, in times of transition and uncertainty, the future is more sensitive to the actions of individual actors and actions. Humans are fickle creatures subject to greater irregularities than impersonal nature. Thus, in these circumstances, it is best to be modest, even prudish when giving predictions. (Think about the French Revolution and all of the twists and turns that occurred in that upheaval. Now imagine someone trying to predict its outcome from the very beginning.) The person who had asked for the prediction was dissatisfied. And I think he interpreted my answer as me saying I was not an expert. I am no expert on British foreign policy (my scholarship and writing focus on East Asia and particularly Japan). But I do know a thing or two about making predictions and its hazards. Here is why I think a muddled prediction that explores possibilities is better than “making a call.” First, straight-line predictions made by experts tend to be sensitive to exogenous shocks that are outside their subject of expertise. Any analyst trying to predict the future international power of the United States, China, and Russia in the 1990s would have been floored by such key events as the 2001 terrorist attacks, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2008 financial crisis, and fluctuating commodity prices. Second, even formal models—such as the Expected Utility Model—depend on quality inputs that may or may not be available. Even when quality inputs are available, these models are, again, subject to exogenous shocks. Third, the culture of “making the call” gives experts a bad name altogether. Experts are always going to fail to predict something, and that something is usually going to be the subject of headline news, not the great many things the experts had previously gotten right. The twenty-four-hour news cycle, and the multiplying effects of social media, will make every unusual event seem like a failure of experts and expertise. As Nassim Taleb has argued vigorously in his many books, the experts will always fail to predict something and these somethings will usually be more significant than the things they predict on a regular basis. Indeed, he believes that prediction should not be considered a science in any meaningful sense, but rather a liberal arts conducted by self-aware amateurs. (This is an opinion that I share.) Creativity should be valued as much as (if not more than) precision. For this reason, war games, red team exercises, scenario planning, and brainstorming exercises—while not predictions—will be valuable for the creativity they produce. They are productive because they force policy planners to deal with the messiness of an uncertain future. So, what then, should experts do when asked to “make the call”? I believe the only “professional” thing to do is to make messy predictions that fully account for possibilities and unknowns. We can also more fully develop our standards for making messy predictions. First, we can be sensitive to our audience’s needs. We can make them aware of possibilities that impact them in ways they might not have accounted for. Second, we can instruct them about the future in terms of multiple possibilities instead of in straight-line ways. Third, we can remind them that when outcomes rely on the actions of people with agendas, strategy is more appropriate than prediction. As a corollary, we can remind them that publicly made predictions will also influence strategies and outcomes. (In the case of Brexit, did the very prediction that the “Remain” camp would win make it more likely that the “Leave” side could win?) Finally, we can temper the extremes of expert-philia and expert-phobia, helping to create the kind of audience that is more capable of consuming our advice wisely. Will the culture of prediction that I have espoused in this short article take hold? I cannot say for sure. About the author: Daniel Clausen, PhD is a graduate of Florida International University’s PhD program in International Relations. His research has been published in Asian Politics and Policy, e-IR, Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies and Culture and Conflict Review, among other publications.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.