Belfast Telegraph

Forecasting can never be precise, but what's embedded in our cultures is a good indicator

Looking ahead: Brexit and Donald Trump (right, with Theresa May) are new factors for superforecasters
Looking ahead: Brexit and Donald Trump (right, with Theresa May) are new factors for superforecasters

By Mary Kenny

Now here's an interesting career choice for any young graduate searching for something unusual: 'superforecaster'. These superforecasters are people employed by big corporations, think tanks, political organisations and sometimes intelligence agencies to forecast future trends in politics, economics and social development. Prediction is today a valued art.

Michael W Story, one such superforecaster, started out as a student volunteer invited to try forecasting the outcome of an African crisis. It was a complicated situation in the Congo, but Michael predicted exactly how it would pan out - and so he got offered the job. He is now the managing director, on this side of the Atlantic, of the US geopolitical forecasting organisation Good Judgement Inc, founded in 2011.

Michael is a pleasant young Englishman in his 30s. He's based in London, but spends a lot of time travelling, especially back and forth to America. Perhaps not coincidentally, he had a cosmopolitan childhood, moving about from one country to another, since his parents were in the airline business. He lived in Houston, Texas until he was five; then Nairobi; then Brussels; then New York, usually attending international schools. He studied in Moscow, and then at London's LSE, where he started in the forecasting business.

It's a stimulating field because it involves studying the way the world is developing, but there are dark points too. At present, there's some rather frightening research going into the possibility of pandemics or nuclear catastrophe. "The emotional toll is quite sobering," he says thoughtfully.

Within his profession, he has a fine track record as a superforecaster, but he's also cautious about precise outcomes. It's incredibly hard to predict economic future trends because there are always events and factors that cannot be foreseen. The bigger picture is often based on measuring averages and established patterns. If the same thing happens 20 times over, it's likely to be a pattern. "But you do have to watch for idiosyncrasies."

The 'Brexit-Trump' phenomenon has indicated to forecasters that there was "an adjustment" in the pattern of Western democracies. Michael's organisation predicted the outcomes more closely than the bookmakers. It's now accepted that Brexit-Trump has brought a new metric to the political scene.

Politicians have assumed, Michael says, that the electorate will always put the economy first - that if people are thriving economically, all else will follow. "But now they've learned that social issues can be just as important to voters. People might accept being a bit poorer if they have a good quality of life."

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And yes, immigration is a factor. "Liberalism won for a period. But we can't be sure this is stable - looking at electors in Hungary, Poland, even the Netherlands."

But he doesn't fear for democracy. "Democracy is liked in the West."

Information and data for forecasting come from a wide range of sources, many of them scientifically measured and computed, and yet, a small personal incident led Michael W Story to reflect on an area of social policy. He recently attended a conference in Switzerland, focused on the prosaic subject of insurance. He observed, casually, to a Swiss female colleague, that there seemed to be quite a few pregnant women around and that was nice. She was delighted, saying it was the first time she'd ever heard a colleague speak in a welcoming way about pregnancy. Most conversations about pregnancy were in terms of a "problem".

"There is a huge unmet need for more space for family life," Michael concludes. "There are many people who really want to have more children - or just children. But we haven't figured out a way to do it: how to provide jobs and housing in a suitable place where families can raise children."

Unsurprisingly, many of the developed societies in western Europe have worryingly low fertility.

Michael would like to settle down and have a family himself, but being on the move isn't always conducive to maintaining a relationship. Perhaps that makes him more alert to the "unmet need" for more family-friendly environments.

Superforecasters can be any age - they go up to 70 years old. I imagine that older forecasters might be more liable to draw on the past, while younger ones might be more aware of how ever-changing technology is influencing social trends. The internet certainly has had an impact on the way people behave now.

For example, Michael has noticed a raging controversy occurring amongst the adherents of Yachting World. Previously, this was a sedate cohort of people: but social media has worked them up into a froth of anger over new yachting designs (progressives versus traditionalists).

I'm sure geopolitical forecasting is a branch of research that will go on expanding: yet I personally believe that what is embedded in cultures remains remarkably tenacious.

Germans will always have a tendency to favour order; Arab societies will remain clan-based for the foreseeable future; Russia will always be suspicious of the West. Deep roots can surely illuminate the forecasting art.

Belfast Telegraph


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