Danger Invites Rescue

Good decisions require reliable information about the future.

Herman Kahn lecturing
Herman Kahn lecturing
Founder, Hudson Institute

My attitude toward the future, and that of many other analysts, is largely determined by a desire to do policy-oriented studies with practical applications. Such analysts tend to be pragmatic, eclectic, and synthetic in their thinking. In particular, we make distinctions among various classes of future variables and various reasons for making statements about the future.

Some kinds of futuribles (possible futures) depend on variables that are almost completely unpredictable, at least by our current technical abilities. These include events such as the timing and location of hurricanes and earthquakes, at least within the geographic areas in which they normally occur. (In other geographic areas, the prediction is simple: they will usually not occur.)

Sometimes the unpredictability arises from the possibility of events that are currently incalculable but may become more predictable in the future. This is increasingly true of both hurricanes and earthquakes, and analysts are making increasing progress in predicting many economic and technological variables and, to a lesser extent, social, political, and cultural trends.

Predictability of Variables. The essence of good futurology is often to identify which variables are relatively predictable and then to explore the future of these variables on an "other things being equal" basis. More accurately we should say, "other things, so far as they count, being more or less equal." Insofar as other events and forces do not affect the variables in question, they may change dramatically in the future while the variables being examined still evolve in the predicted manner. Moreover, other events need not be exactly equal; it is necessary only that their effects on the variable being considered be limited or create catching up, correction, or other counteraction. As Justice Cardozo once said, "Danger invites rescue."

Experience has shown that relatively predictable variables associated with the rate of economic growth or of technological development often have (at least under today’s conditions) an extremely strong internal dynamic that can be changed only with great difficulty and over a long period of time. On the other hand, many political and intellectual movements are terribly sensitive to seemingly minor phenomena, and, once changed, they may stay changed or at least not elicit any behavior equivalent to the "catching up" phenomena of economics and technology.

Thus, in ascertaining how much and how far we can predict, we must first isolate various kinds of variable and then ask, "If other things remain more or less equal, how predictable is this variables?" Then we may ask, "How sensitive is this prediction to various events?" And "How long will these effects last?" We can often respond by characterizing a variable as belonging to one of the following categories:

1. Genuinely unpredictable (because it is one or more of the following):
* patternless and incoherent
* currently incalculable
* accidental and nonprobabilistic
* terra incognita

2. Relatively unpredictable like the following:
* many fashions and transitory trends
* events that are unstable in relation to small perturbations
* unusual men, movements, or events

3. Relatively predictable (at least in the absence of great perturbations) by the use of one or more of the following:
* identification of systematic variations
* extrapolation
a. relatively stable or only slowly changing phenomena
b. exponential, logistic, or other theoretical growth curves
c. envelope curves
d. other smooth extrapolations from past trajectories
* identification of simple and perhaps overwhelming forces or trends
* analysis of the following kinds:
a. rigorous and quantitative
b. phenomenological and quantitative
c. relatively nonquantitative but logical
d. reasonable and plausible argumentation
e. intuitive and literary

Predicting the Rate of Innovation. When dealing with relatively predictable variables, it is important to know how far we can project them into the future. Almost any trend will eventually tend to level out, top out, or elicit countervailing forces and trends. Depending on the area and the individual involved, an analyst will almost always exhibit a very strong bias toward either estimating a too-early topping out or creation of countervailing forces and trends, or an almost total ignorance of these possibilities and an assumption that current tendencies will continue almost indefinitely.

Those who exhibit the first bias are fond of the analogy of the growing boy; they argue that the second group would extrapolate from the growth rate of a teenage youth more or less indefinitely, not realizing that processes are underway that will soon limit his growth. The latter group, by contrast, often accuses the former of insufficient imagination and creativity: the former group, they say, does not understand that, even though countervailing forces and trends will arise, the forces behind the growth are strong enough or the people behind the forces ingenious and creative enough to surmount these countervailing factors and trends at least temporarily.

Thus, for a long time many professional analysts overestimated the staying power of West German and Soviet economic growth rates. But even more common was the underestimation in the 1960s and 1970s of the sustainability of Japanese economic growth. To take another example, in Things to Come (Kahn and Bruce-Briggs, 1972), I pointed out that a relatively unknown individual regularly made better predictions, for a period of almost ten years, concerning the future capabilities of United States weapon systems, particularly nuclear weapons, than did the most prestigious scientists in the country. He did so mainly by assuming that the recent rate of innovation would continue, whereas the most knowledgeable people tended to assume that the current momentum could not be maintained, that the genius they and their colleagues had exhibited in the past would not be matched or exceeded in the future.

This is an important point. Experts speculating about the long-term future will often extrapolate from the most dynamic current technology or economic activity and then assert that this driving force or technique has only limited possibilities for further growth in the medium- or long-term future. But in most dynamic situations, the crucial factor is the rate and character of innovation that will be generated by new technologies, fresh policies, and other new forces and innovations. In many situations the best, easiest, and perhaps only way to account for this factor is simply to extrapolate from the past rate of innovation.

An expert who has specialized in a particular subject may have great difficulty in accepting this idea when regarding his own area of expertise. He may be unwilling to give serious consideration to likely corrective and blocking actions, or, more probably, he may not consider innovations that would negate such efforts.

A less specialized outsider with a better feel for the techniques of extrapolation and for what has happened in other areas can often develop better predictions. The specialist may not understand his own tendency to discount innovation and may feel that the outsider has given insufficient attention to obvious bottlenecks, countervailing forces, or other problems. The expert may also consider "mindless" extrapolations of the rate of innovation to be foolish, irresponsible, or otherwise unjustifiable. The outsider, however, often has a better perspective because of his willingness to believe in the consistency of human ingenuity.