Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Perils of Forecasting
The Perils of Forecasting

The Perils of Forecasting

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In 2004, Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington published his last book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. The book received virtually all bad, in some cases scathing, reviews. Its broad theme was that the continued rise of Mexican immigration, legal and illegal, into the United States, coupled with the ascent of multiculturalism—even while America’s policy elites were turning away from America and becoming more cosmopolitan and global—augured for an epic internal crisis in America. Huntington was startling clairvoyant, of course: foreseeing the battle lines of Donald Trump’s presidency. But 16 years ago, because many of those trends were relatively undeveloped, the book was considered simply alarmist. Because the book’s reviewers were members of the same global elite that the author was criticizing, they were particularly incensed. The book was not a publishing success. By the time Huntington’s themes did achieve a heightened reality, he was dead.

Huntington was true to his calling right up to the end of his life. As he once told me, the job of a political scientist is not to improve the world, but to say what he or she thinks is going on in it.

There is a disturbing lesson here. Outside of the intelligence and business communities, which actively appreciate hard-nosed, non-linear thinking in the Huntington manner, being too far ahead of the curve can be problematic to an academic or journalistic career. For even the most clairvoyant theory can be only, say, 80 percent accurate, and colleagues inevitably will concentrate on the 20 percent that is wrong. That is how reputations suffer. And precisely because the pathologies that the theorist has described are only in their early stages at the time of his or her writing, they lack an obvious context, so that the audience reacts with offense or sheer disbelief (or both) to his work.

It gets worse, actually. A day may arrive when your theory is vaguely legitimized by events, at which time your views, rather than be celebrated, are merely consigned to the conventional wisdom, and thus are of rapidly diminishing relevance. If you protest that such trends as you predicted were not obvious at the time that you wrote about them, nobody is interested. For example, when I mention to people that my book, Balkan Ghosts, was actually excerpted in The Atlantic in 1989, long before the Balkan wars began—before the Berlin Wall fell even—I am usually met with blank stares. The fact is, it is a very busy world. People are bombarded with information. Even critics have no room in their memories for such details.

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