Monday, 12 March 2007

The Economist's Curse

What are the key attributes of a good piece futures work? In my mind, one of the key attributes is that the futures work does not take the future as a given. If, for example, we are looking out to the year 2050, we ought to acknowledge that there are many permutations of the future that are, at the present time, possible. It would be silly to argue that there is only one fixed and given future on the path to 2050.

It is odd, therefore, that economists do precisely this. We have moved away from the monsters of central planning that dominated life in the 1970s, but we are still plagued by those who feel that the path out to the future is inherently knowable and determined. That the future is nothing more than a set of simultaneous partial derivatives. As an example of this type of thinking, our attention was recently drawn to a piece emanating from the LSE which predicted that, in 2051, there would be 1,735,087 people in the UK living with dementia. (See article).

Even allowing for healthy margins of error - the number could be achieved in 2048, say, or 2053, or whenever, or never - this does sound a curious piece of work. To start with, the precision is so great that the number is not quite believable. A more credible prediction would be 1.7 Britons, which is eactly how the press reported it, rather than 1,735,087 Britons. The precision almost invites us to ask where the numbers came from. A summary of the report is publicly available (see report), but that is missing the point.

The point is the assumptions that the forecast uses. It assumes that the future will be like the past - ceteris paribus, as the economists call it. However, what happens if the future is not like the past? What happens if there is a major pharmaceutical breakthrough in the next 44 years? What happens if the nature of dementia changes? What happens if society changes the way in which it treats dementia? What happens if society doesn't age quite the way it is forecast to change in the report?

This is why economists are so often wrong - their curse is ceteris paribus. The future is rarely like the past. It is the understanding of this point that gives futurists, as a group of professionals, something to add to the debate. Futurists accept that the past can guide the future, but also that the future may not be like the past. It will be diffferent. We try to lift the curse of ceteris paribus.

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