Freakonomics Radio, Hour-long Episode 4: “The Folly of Prediction”

Photo: uncut

It’s impossible to predict the future, but humans can’t help themselves. From the economy to the presidency to the Super Bowl, educated and intelligent people promise insight and repeatedly fail by wide margins. These mistakes and misses go unpunished, both publicly and in our brain, which has become trained to ignore the record of those who make them. In this hour of Freakonomics Radio, we’ll dream of the day when bad predictors pay – when the accuracy rate of pundits appear next to their faces on TV, when the weatherman who botches the 5-day forecast by 20 degrees has to make his next appearance soaking wet. We’ll also look at the deep roots of divining what tomorrow brings, from the invention of religion to new understandings of how we make decisions about the future.

There’s a more extensive blog post with background research, photos, and links coming shortly. For now, you can listen or download via the link above, or read a transcript here. This episode and four more hours will be airing on public radio stations across the country this summer at various times, so check out your local station’s website. And you can subscribe to the Freakonomics Radio podcast on iTunes or via RSS.


Haters! :) jk
I hope this has really good statistical data.


It certainly is possible to predict the future, you just have to know what is predictible (and to what accuracy), and what's not. Just for one instance, NASA & ESA are quite able to launch interplanetary probes and predict when they'll arrive at their destinations, years and millions of miles later.

Blake Bailey

Predicting is easy. I do it all the time. In a little while I'm going to bed and tomorrow I will climb out from under the sheets fully expecting to stick to the floor. That's my prediction. I admit that I have a great deal of observations about gravitational pull to support my prediction. A lot of predictions are less supported by my observations so I have to use this crazy statistical formula and talk in terms of percentage probabilities. For those things with little or no observational support I rely to far out language that won't pin my prediction down. (I normally plagiarize from Revelations.)


Even if you put accuracy rates next to pictures, it wouldn't matter. Humans are wired to respond to confidence more than expertise.

You'll need to subscribe to read the full research, but the point is clear - the idea that you can hold prognosticators accountable is folly.

But thank you for trying :)


Is there any way that the hour long episodes could be posted to the podcast? Would really like to listen to them on my ipod.



Hello, you could download the MP3 file from this site and copy it into your iTunes library.


Accurate prediction is easy once you know the degree of uncertainty. Determining that is the hard part and few are any good at it.

John B

The problem we have is that the news media gives more coverage to "predictions" than actual occurences.

In sports, politics, science (especially weather), headlines are given to predictions, and then the actual occurence (unless it meets the prediction) gets put on page 10 of the paper--if at all.


Ok...but what about least classical one and relativity? How does it all fit our tendency to rationalize that there are fundamental laws of nature and that a proof is an actual prediction. It seems that chaos and random processes might not apply to physical laws. But, please let me know what you think of this...


Of course, your show is sort of a prediction about prediction.

I am quite sure that you are getting at precisely one-half of the truth. In the modern world we use numbers quantitatively. The ancient Greeks, in particular, Pythagoras, used them qualitatively. You might conclude that we've improved our understanding since Pythagoras, and certainly we have, but we have also lost something. What exactly did the ancient Greeks mean by "all is arranged according to Number"? In their view, there was a Divine Principle at work. If there was any wisdom expressed by their sages, we've lost touch with it.

I think history moves in time cycles that are flagged by meaningful coincidences. In fact, I've just written a book about it called The Synchronicity Code. To me, this is the real "hidden side of everything". Now, one would think that this puts me in the prediction business, and to a degree it does. But what I've learned about prediction is that usually (although not always), a pattern to events can unfold across time in more than one way and still adhere precisely to the underlying numeric form.

The Chinese sage Lao Tzu said, “He who knows does not predict, he who predicts does not know.” He might have meant (in part) that the underlying pattern could be known, and that is wise to be aware of, but it would be foolish to be trapped in "the illusion of certainty".

So I favor a nuanced view. But just in case I got my triangulation right, I'm predicting a surprise political development and/or uprising in China in the 4th quarter of 2011. Mark your calendar!



Could the hour longs also be made available as podcasts.