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Only Predict

by Vincent Guy

“Forecasting is tough – especially about the future.”

Attributed to Sam Goldwyn, but probably Niels Bohr

Alex Salmond, ex-leader of the Scottish Nationalists, has just announced that he has formed a new party, Alba, to fight in the forthcoming Scottish Parliamentary Elections. Salmond tells us that, by a wrinkle in the Scottish devolved constitution, this will help to create a super-majority for independence. However, it may split the independence vote. Or it may even disillusion wavering voters about the coherence of the independence cause. It could also keep attention on the vicious spat between leader and ex-leader that has dominated recent Scottish news. Then again, the move could be largely ignored – just some members of the old guard struggling to stay in the game.

As an English resident in Scotland for the last 25 years, I have an interest in the outcome. Ten years from now we may be looking back on Mr Salmond’s declaration as the decisive moment when independence was clinched, or when it failed, or we may have forgotten the incident completely. And if independence does come, will it leave me with no choice but to decamp to Berwick-on-Tweed, just involve me in filling in a few extra forms, or find me facing a drumhead court of my nationalist friends saying “Sorry, Vincent, times have changed; the cause requires us to shoot you.”

Hard, indeed, to predict.

Let’s go back a little.

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven.”

William Wordsworth recalling his feelings in France as the Revolution broke out around him. What followed? The Terror, the retreat from Moscow, the restoration of podgy old Louis XVIII. Admittedly Edmund Burke saw the outcome more clearly: within months of the kick-off he wrote that it would all end in tears, Men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

Imagine yourself in 1914 reading this headline in the Washington Post, June 29:


This was the opinion of Sir Thomas Barclay, described as Britain’s foremost international lawyer, so he knew what he was talking about. There were some who didn’t fully buy into his view; war might even be more likely. But they were thinking about war in central Europe; nobody imagined the Brits, the Aussies, yet alone the Turks and the Americans, being dragged into the affair. Nor did anyone think this war to end all wars would kick off again a few years after it ended.

All of us have had moments of bliss in our lifetime too:

The Fall of the Berlin Wall: I was almost there. At the end of a business trip to Frankfurt, I’m in a taxi to the airport. News on the radio is all about events in East Germany.

“What do you think about it all?” I ask the driver.

“Oh, I’m from the East myself; my folks are still over there.”

“How does it look to you then?”

“Well, I tell you one thing I really would love: it’s that damn Wall coming down, but I won’t see it in my lifetime.”

That evening back in London, I watch the TV news: protestors tear at the wall, the authorities declare it open and the Soviet Empire starts to crumble.

Obama: such a moment of hope, friends of mine actually flew to Washington to join the inaugural celebrations. How will he be remembered? The man who shot bin Laden, some minor if useful adjustments to U.S. healthcare. Yes, the first black man in the White House, but little has changed for black people in America: police methods, prison populations, life expectancy.

The Arab Spring: a heady moment, as new technology enabled youth to wipe away decades of dictators; now largely back in power across the region, while the Syrian war, with its millions of victims, rumbles on.

Can business and technology do better?

The Millennium Bug: enough said.

Cars: in about 1900, some captain of the auto industry whom I’ve not been able to trace said, “The potential for car sales is a few thousand at most. There are not enough working-class men intelligent enough to qualify as chauffeurs.” Comfortable in the blinkers of his era, but you’d think he might have hoped for more.

Computers: in the early 1940s, IBM's president Watson reputedly said, "I think the world market for computers is about five." We currently have billions, especially if you include smartphones and that thing in my car that told me I was dozy and should get off the road for a cup of coffee. But now Greg Papadopoulos, of Sun Microsystems, tells us Watson might not have been so far off the mark. Grids, clouds, the internet, mean that all those devices are joining up into a handful, or even a single mega-computer, just as a nest of millions of ants is a single super-organism.

Talking of ants, E. O. Wilson, ecologist and specialist in Formicidae, describes the complexities of the food chain, somewhat on the lines of:

Big fleas have lesser fleas

Upon their backs to bite ‘em,

And little fleas have lesser fleas

And so – ad infinitum.

“Take out any one species and the effects will spread unpredictably throughout the system. Take out the ants, the principal predators, and the effects will be even more intense – and the details even less predictable. Physicists can chart the behaviour of a single particle; they can predict with confidence the interaction of two particles; they begin to lose it at three and above. Keep in mind that ecology is a far more complex subject than physics”.*

As a humble reader of popular science books, I wonder if physicists can achieve even that. Wouldn’t Schrödinger’s cat have a spanner to throw in the works? My point is that human behaviour – individual, group, societal, global – is yet more complex and unpredictable. Perhaps this is where the quantum universe intertwines with human experience.

For some people forecasting is easy. A story used to go the rounds back before ultrasound and whatever else they use nowadays to tell the sex of an unborn child. A bunch of con-artists went about saying they’d predict your baby's sex.

“Guaranteed results,” they’d say, “If we get it wrong, you’ll get your money back”.

They always honoured their promise. And laughed all the way to the bank with 50% of their takings.

*Edward O Wilson: The Diversity of Life, Penguin Books 1994, page 169


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