Every four years, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) produces a hefty report on global trends likely to shape future events, and every four years, pundits gang up on its semi-anonymous authors. The main accusation? You guys can't predict jacksh*t.
I say: lay off. It's true that the NIC's predictive track record isn't particularly impressive, but so what? We put far too much store on "predicting the future," and not nearly enough energy into shaping the future -- or developing the capabilities that will help us respond with speed and agility when events take an unpredictable turn.
The Case Against the NIC's Global Trends Report
It's easy and fun to diss the NIC's Global Trends Report, the most recent of which came out this week. The NIC prefaces the Global Trends 2030 report by insisting that it does "not seek to predict the future," but this disclaimer satisfies no one: after all, to identify a trend is to imply directionality.
Generally speaking, NIC predictions fall into three categories: there are concrete predictions, there are vague, hedged predictions, and there are contradictory predictions.
Concrete predictions -- being concrete -- are easily falsifiable, and as Michael Horowitz and Philip Tetlock wrote in September, a lot of those predictions don't look so good when "the future" turns into the past. Horowitz and Tetlock cite, for instance, the NIC's 1997 prediction that "The next 15 years will witness the transformation of North Korea and resulting elimination of military tensions on the peninsula."
Hmm, not so much. Horowitz and Tetlock are stern: "Needless to say, the Stalinist regime, though hardly the picture of health, remains untransformed....and relations between North and South show little sign of improving; military tensions are high." To Horowitz and Tetlock, prediction tends to be a chump's game -- or, perhaps, a chimp's. "Predicting events five years into the future" -- much less fifteen or twenty years -- "is so difficult that most experts perform only marginally better than dart-throwing chimps." Joshua Foust is similarly skeptical: "any specific prediction in these texts will almost invariably be wrong."
Then there are the vague and hedged predictions: it is "virtually certain" that we'll see a diffusion of power among countries! Demographic trends will pose challenges as some populations age and others remain characterized by youth bulges! "[L]ook at the ‘megatrends' and ‘game-changers' of the NIC study and you see only a rehashing of the past decade or so of Davos meetings and McKinsey studies, the dross of popular futurism," laments FP's David Rothkopf. Such vague predictions offer little specificity, which makes them both tough to falsify and tough to know how to use. Global Trends 2030 daringly predicts, for instance, that migration and urbanization "could put new strains on food and water resources." Since "new strains" can cover just about anything from minor disagreements to famine, epidemic disease, and world war, this is hard to dispute.
Finally, the NIC offers contradictory predictions, or "scenarios that represent distinct pathways." On the "food, water, energy nexus," we're informed that "there is as much scope for negative trade-offs as there is the potential for popular synergies." And in general, says the NIC, many "alternate futures" exist: the "risk of interstate conflict [could] rise owing to a new ‘great game' in Asia," but on the other hand we could see the United States, China, and Europe collaborating to prevent conflict from spreading, "leading to worldwide cooperation to deal with global challenges."
Basically: bad stuff could happen, or good stuff could happen, or in-between stuff could happen. Concludes Rothkopf: "[R]eports about the future seldom do much to illuminate our understanding of what is yet to come."
Of course, NIC reports are hardly the only predictive efforts to come under fire. Micah Zenko, for instance, suggests that predictions made by the military are just as bad as predictions made by the NIC: "The U.S. military has a terrible record of predicting where conflicts will emerge and where they will be deployed to fight," he argues, and offers a discouraging array of examples to prove his point. He quotes former Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right..."