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Does Talking About The Future Make It Less Likely?

A manuscript has been floating around the interweb which describes an experimental test of the hypothesis that languages which grammatically distinguish between present and future events (what linguists call strong future-tense reference languages) lead their speakers to take fewer future-oriented actions. 


Locating Change: Science and Technology Controversies

2011 was a year of transition and change. In 2012, science and technology conflicts and controversies become a resource for locating change and what it means for the future.


Pro-Poor Foresight

Since joining IFTF I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about how forecasting can be used in development work. I have a lot of faith in the power of foresight, scenario planning, and forecasting methodologies to help us make a better, more resilient, and more just world. 

Richard Posner on preconceptions and anticipating disasters

Richard Posner writes in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education about the current financial crisis, and why experts didn't take early warnings about it seriously.

The financial crisis, when it finally struck the nation full-blown in September 2008, caught the government, the financial community, and the economics profession unawares.

We can get help in understanding the blindness of experts to warning signs from the literature on surprise attacks. Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there were many warnings that Japan planned to attack Western possessions in Southeast Asia, and an attack on the U.S. fleet in Hawaii, known to be within range of Japan's large carrier fleet, was a logical measure, on Japan's part, for protecting the eastern flank of its attack on the Dutch East Indies, Burma, and Malaya. The warnings were disregarded because of preconceptions (including the belief that Japan would not attack the United States because it was too weak to have a reasonable chance of prevailing), the cost and difficulty of taking effective defensive measures against an uncertain danger, and the absence of a mechanism for aggregating, sifting, and analyzing warning information flowing in from many sources and for pushing it up to the decision-making level of government.

Similar factors made it difficult to heed the warning signs of the 2008 financial crisis. Preconceptions played an especially large role. It is tempting, indeed irresistible under conditions of uncertainty, to base policy to a degree on theoretical preconceptions, on a worldview, an ideology. But shaped as they are by past experiences, preconceptions can impede reactions to novel challenges. Most economists, and the kind of officials who tend to be appointed by Republican presidents, are heavily invested in the ideology of free markets, which teaches that competitive markets are, on the whole, self-correcting. Those officials and the economists to whom they turn for advice don't like to think of the economy as a kind of epileptic, subject to unpredictable, strange seizures.

Look Forward, and Carry a Big Stick

What is available to human experience is a result of the interaction between our brains, our biological bodies, and our environment (itself the result of social, historical, technological, and political processes). Our capacity to imagine 'what's possible' relies on neurological scaffolding that has been shaped by our current individual and collective knowledge and experience, often blinding us to a wide range of alternative futures.

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