Mental Models and Predictions: Environmental Disasters

As I discussed in this post, people make predictions which can turn out to be reasonably accurate or complete failures.  Predictions are based on mental models, and bad predictions can indicate deeply flawed mental models, especially if many predictions prove to be wrong over a long time period.  To put it plainly, People (maybe very smart people) can misunderstand how the world works, thus coming to false conclusions and making flawed predictions, over and over again.  Sometimes these predictions make the news.  I’m glad to see that predictions of serious harm can make the news, so that such harm (if real) can be avoided.  However, I would like the news media to be a bit more selective about the people whose predictions get reported, and a bit more forth coming about how past predictions have turned out.

This post by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) is an example of good journalism.  CEI is an economic analysis organization (a ‘think tank’) that writes from a free-market perspective.  One can expect that their reporting is colored by their world view.  Thus, it’s great that they show historic quotes in context, straight from the newspapers where the predictions appeared in the media.

The CEI post lists researcher after researcher, acting in his area of expertise, making bold claims that turned out to be far from accurate.  Many of these papers predicted an ice age that would have started by now.  An ice age is a real thing that will bring forth cataclysmic change in human civilization around the world.  It is a real threat that should be taken seriously.  The next ice age is not far off, in geologic terms.  We are likely to see one within the next 80 thousand years.  To suggest an ice age in the lifetime of anyone alive now, as several researchers did in the 1970s, is very bold.  So bold it should not be taken seriously.  Yet there was the media, gullibly (or wittingly) reporting bold predictions with no caution that the researchers are out on a limb.  As it turns out, the 1970s ice age predictions have failed.

Anyway, why the history lesson?  Because one researcher implicated in the failed predictions noted in CEI’s article has been very active in government very recently.  People still think Hanson is some kind of hero, even though his predictions are junk.

And he’s not the only one.  John Holdren was a science advisor to a president, after he put out some very bold predictions in his area of expertise that have not come near to being true.  What kind of serious administration appoints a ‘scientist’ who often makes very public predictions that utterly fail?

If a person makes bombastic predictions that turn out to fail, and then goes on to make more bombastic predictions, does he have a defective mental model, or is he a huckster, deliberately spreading lies for some purpose other than science?  If politicians give this person credence, are they fooled or are they using the huckster’s falsehoods for their own ends?


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