Which businesses will the stock market favor in 20 years? What disease will mutate into the next epidemic-causing illness? Who will win the Harvard-Yale football game this year? These are some of the questions that pop into my mind when asked what one might want to know about the future, and while some have far more serious and far-reaching consequences than others, there seems to be some common themes in the types of questions we humans would (and do) go to extensive pains in attempt to find an answer.
At first glance, we can see that one’s ability to accurately predict the outcome of the events above would prove beneficial to the predicter. If we knew how the stock market will behave in the future we might make different investments today; if we understood how and why a little-known virus would mutate to become a superbug we could take preventative measures now, and if we knew that Yale will win the football game we might place our bets differently. These kinds of inquiries into the future are inextricably linked to the present in that our motivation for asking them seems to come from a human desire to shape our own destinies. Logically, by understanding tomorrow’s weather, we can make decisions today that will prevent us from being caught in the snow with sandals on.
Predictions related to this kind of question were exemplified multiple times in this week’s reading and throughout history – would it not be easier for rulers to understand, with certainty, the consequences of going to war for their country? Be it the Oracle of Delphi or WeatherBug, those who possess (or seem to possess!) the ability to answer our burning questions about snowfall, war, economics – even romance – hold tremendous power over the masses of us who do not understand how these predictive systems work. Although today we use apps and algorithms instead of entrails, tea leaves, or the stars to aid us in our decision making, we still give much credence and power to whoever can give us answers.
Yet predictive systems do not have to be as complicated as prediction-polls and stock market forecasts. It seems that we make predictions every day without the aid of technology; about everything from the wait at a restaurant to how others will react and behave in response to our actions. When we do this, we make predictions based on our previous experience and knowledge of the factors involved – and this seems to be the functioning a predictive system – the use of present and past data to make a reasonable assumption about the future. In this way, prediction is not just a useful tool, but the core of science, as its very practice assumes that patterns must exist within nature.