Friday, December 17, 2010

Yesterday's Future

When David over at Photon Courier linked to a post here I went over to check out the setting and found this: Predictions in 1931 of what 2011 would be like. This is a better-than-usual list however, as they asked thoughtful people who took the time to really think about it, rather than clever people who just spent an hour scratching out ideas.

It's a nice illustration of my previous point about experts. The thoughtful people had some stunningly accurate forecasts (see the last one especially). But there are several which are not just comically wrong, as the clever guys sitting around over drinks would have, but profoundly and almost chillingly backward. Worse, on numbers 3 and 4, whoever is doing the modern grading shares the bias that was nascent among intellectuals then and is a commonplace among the intelligentsia now, that he gets the grades wrong, granting Millikan a "not quite" when that worthy is horribly wrong, and declaring Pupin wrong when he is very nearly right. On the latter, Pupin predicted that poverty would generally disappear, and believed this must also result in equality of wealth distribution. He got the first part quite right, as poverty by the standards of 1931 is nonexistent in America. It was the second part he got wrong. But the modern grader, entirely caught up in the idea that equal distribution is the only measure of prosperity, misses what Pupin got right.


David Foster said...

Robert Millikan's assertion that "the spread of the scientific method, which has been so profoundly significant for physics, to the solution of our social problems is almost certain to come" would be asserted by many others, and widely believed, a couple of decades later. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, science enjoyed enormous prestige as a result of accomplishments in nuclear energy, radar, computers, spaceflight, etc...and social scientists asserted that *their* fields could lead to the same kind of dramatic advances. The utter lack of humility in these claims has a lot to do with many of our current problems.

Erin said...

I have a similar list from the Ladies Home Journal that I share with my students as part of my introductory material to 1984. We talk about the differences between making conjectures, literary prophecies, and satire. The kids always get a big kick out of the list.

David Foster said...


I thought it was actually quite good, much better than century-away predictions usually are.

Do you remember which particular items stirred up the most vivid reactions among your students?

Erin said...

They love the comments about the gyms in nursery schools and everyone running miles a day. Also, the omission of alphabet letters and the fruit predictions always bring a good laugh. They also enjoy figuring out how many have actually come true, in some cases, to a greater extent than was predicted (long-range missiles, cell phones, frozen dinners, internet). We all agree that we'd love our mail delivered by pneumatic tubes attached to our houses (a prediction on the original article I have but apparently not on the website).