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Expert predictions: 25 reasons why experts deserve to run our lives


In “25 Foolish Expert Predictions” (Best Schools, November 23, 2011), James Barham offers us predictions we should have lived by, including

2. “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” (1872)

—Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology, University of Toulouse

8. “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” (1920s)

—Associates of David Sarnoff (1891–1971), founder of NBC and RCA, in response to his urgings for investment in the radio

12. “I don’t know what use anyone could find for a machine that would make copies of documents. It certainly couldn’t be a feasible business by itself.” (early 1940s)

—Head of IBM, to Chester Carlson (1906–1968), refusing to back the xerography process, forcing Carlson to sell his invention to what later became the Xerox Corp.

Perhaps some of these stories are apocryphal, but anyone familiar with the process of how a person gets to be an expert will be familiar with the scenarios.

One difference between this year’s feted expert and yesteryear’s is that this year’s model is demanding belief for bizarre stuff, either without evidence or contrary to evidence He’s not saying that there couldn’t be a giant hologram, but that we in fact are ourselves giant hologram.

Barham observes,

… expertise should not be confused with clairvoyance. When it comes to predicting how the future will differ from the past, the track record of experts—people who should be in a position to know what they are talking about—is in fact pretty poor.

They’re not that good at postdicting the past either. Good thing to keep in mind when Randy Isaacs at American Scientific Affiliation urges us all to put our faith in consensus science. That amounts to saying that we should put our faith in a bunch of big shots thinking alike precisely because they are a bunch of big shots thinking alike.

That’s just not how science happens or technology either.

Note: Barham agrees with us about the Eurocrats’ bottled water nut moment – a worthy successor to their recent crusade against bendy bananas.


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