Revisiting the Perils of Forecasting

Revisiting the Perils of Forecasting

Original Orbis Piece: Robert Kaplan, “The Perils of Forecasting,” Orbis vol. 65, no. 1 (2021)

Reasons for Revisiting: 2021 appears to be shaping up as a year for media retrospection, whether in missing key developments, misinterpreting emerging trends, or simply failing at efforts to predict. Part of the criticism is that journalists have become less willing to break with prevailing interpretations and narratives. It may be useful, therefore, to re-engage with a point raised by Robert Kaplan about the mindset of contemporary journalists versus the approach taken by intelligence and business analysts.

In the Winter 2021 issue, Kaplan observed:

The intelligence and business communities tend to be much more seasoned and thorough in their analyses of ground-breaking paradigms. That’s because they are not involved in public grandstanding about their own cleverness to the degree that some journalists and academics are. It is also because intelligence agencies and corporations are on a mission to try to get the future right: whether for reasons of national security or the commercial profit motive. Intelligence services and businesses also know that forecasting a middle-term future of five-to-fifteen years is essential, and yet they are aware just how difficult it is. They know that linear thinking is hard to escape from, since extrapolating from current trends is often all one ever has to go on. So they are understanding of attempts at non-linear analysis, even when flawed.

Why is this effort more difficult for members of the media? Kaplan explains:

Intelligence services and corporations, besides having a willingness to listen to arguments about culture, also harbor historical memories, and so they do keep tabs on whether theories vaguely work out as advertised or not; they are not impressed with elegant and engaged writing merely for its own sake. Journalists, contrarily, are consumed with presentness. They tend to judge everything from the vantage point of the current news cycle. And it is this obsession with presentness that obscures historical context, from which the future can be discerned, however imperfectly.

Is this likely to change? Kaplan is not optimistic. As the media and even the academic community focuses on presentness, the demand for analysis is being fulfilled by the analytical firms. Thus, as he notes:

Corporations have been reaching out to private forecasting companies to get a cold-blooded sense of the middle-term future in many places. Having worked for two such firms over the course of the recent decade, Stratfor and Eurasia Group, I can confirm that even when wrong, what such firms really bring to the table is an old-fashioned and comprehensive seriousness about the news of the world and where it is headed, regardless of its human interest value. They also are deliberately amoral: whether an outcome is good or bad does not interest them as a firm. The point is, whether or not they predicted it. Such firms are interested in the economic and political behavior of the mass; more so than in the particular story of individuals: since it is the mass, the vast average, that drives history, perhaps more often than the exceptional few, of whom the media makes heroes and villains. And the more that the media as a whole declines—the more that it traffics in the trivial and remains within predictable philosophical comfort zones—the more necessary such firms will be.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.