Gazing into the crystal ball

Gazing into the crystal ball

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Politics, extreme weather events, international crises: all instances in which you might feel you’d want an expert handling things at the top. Someone experienced and with reasoned judgement would, you might hope, anticipate, or at least be able to handle, the unforeseen.

In Forewarned: A sceptic’s guide to prediction (Biteback), Paul Goodwin reveals just how far the forecasting industry has become entwined with our everyday lives. It keeps supermarket shelves full, ensures that call centres are adequately staffed and anticipates demand on the electricity grid. Yet prediction is far from an exact science. Walking us from the financial crisis of 2007-2008 to the perilous consequences of predicting elections, Goodwin provides a compulsively readable account of both the fallibility and necessity of human forecasters. We are still more likely to judge electoral candidates on appearance than competence, and even those experienced in prediction impart their own bias to algorithmic projections. Forewarned is a fascinating book – and not at all a reassuring one.

Minding the Weather: How expert forecasters think (MIT Press) is an altogether more academic exploration of the forecasting we are most familiar with. Despite striking advances in meteorology, Robert Hoffman and his co-authors argue that forecasts are most likely to improve not with the arrival of software that can replicate the cognitive processes of human forecasters, but with programs that can model the weather itself with greater accuracy. Forecasting, they insist, remains very much the domain of human reasoning operating in the face of vast volumes of data.

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