predictions are difficult, except about Martin Kettle

The Grauniad asked 21 of its opinion writers to make predictions for 2009. As a service, and to force Daniel Davies’ hand into starting his planned Predictions-L mailing list, I’ve shorterised each one and reflected briefly on it. The full texts are here.

1) Jackie Ashley thinks the Lib Dems may be powerbrokers in a hung parliament.

Comment: not so much a prediction as a statement that the polls currently look like that. But at least it’s based on data.

2) Michael Tomasky thinks e-books will be a major hit, but nobody wants to read 80,000 words cos of wikipedia and google an stuff.

Comment: This is one of those issues that kills forecasters. The dawn of e-books has been repeatedly predicted and repredicted without happening. Tomasky makes the good point that the Amazon Kindle is selling well…but then his New Yorker/smartass kulturpessimismus conwis kicks in and he ends up predicting that e-books will sell hugely but nobody will buy them. Quack, quack, oops.

3) Gary Younge thinks industrial relations in the US will be troubled as the recession takes hold.

Comment: Fair enough.

4) Oh Jesus, here we go. Madeleine Bunting thinks the recession will teach us all a lesson about the Virtues of Thrift.

Comment: Mr Keynes, call your office. More specifically, this is so woolly that it’s impossible to think of criteria that would let us determine the success or failure of the prediction. In fact, she explictly backs out of it by suggesting there will be a “confusion of values”. Yellow.

5) Peter Preston thinks we will see better satire on TV, and a UK network will recruit John Oliver from the Daily Show.

Comment: Is/Ought confusion – not clear whether Preston thinks this *will* happen or whether he’s hoping to encourage it. Hard to define “better”, but if better satire on TV does happen there will probably be a degree of consensus that it has happened.

6) George Monbiot thinks some mate of his will have a big success with this fillum they made.

Comment: Well, it’ll be either a hit or a turkey. Nobody knows anything (and the kid stays in the picture). It’s a prediction, even if the film about climate change is characterised by “a Nigerian fisherwoman who has to wash her catch with Omo”; climate change does not cause oil spills, nor vice versa. Not in Nigeria, at least. I know about that pipeline in Alaska.

7) Polly Toynbee thinks environmental issues will lose salience unless there’s a major disaster.

Comment: There’s a bit of hedge in how you define “the agenda” here, but it’s fair enough. And she’s based it on data. Tim Worstall probably already has accused her of hoping for the flooding of New York City, and is now probably guiltily masturbating over her byline photo. And that’s a prediction!

8 ) Jonathan Freedland thinks there could be a hung parliament, and a Lib-Lab coalition, or maybe a Lib-Con coalition. Or it might not happen.

Comment: Coward – three mutually exclusive predictions in one.

9) Simon Jenkins thinks genetic and embryological research will conquer disease. Seriously.

Comment: I am not joking. Perhaps a drop too much of the Old Tory’s Arse 76-year old malt this Christmas. But we could treat this as a forecast that there will be at least one major medical achievement in this line in 2009, and that way it is fair enough.

10) John Harris thinks there will or should be a national debate that’s something to do with sub-post offices.

Comment: Jesus wept, what a bunch of wank. I remember when he was good; he was especially good mocking the Big Conversation, strange to relate. This sounds like his balls just dropped off. Absolutely no testable claims. FAIL.

11) Jonathan Steele thinks Russian influence will increase in Georgia and the Ukraine. And there will probably be a change of government in Thailand, but it won’t matter.

Comment: I was tempted to say Jonathan Steele thinks…whatever the Russians tell him to. Note that back in 2004 he thought the Ukrainian revolution was an evil fascist plot because Yulia Timoshenko made a pile in the gas business. Now she’s “a figure to watch in 2009, a controversial and vastly rich entrepreneur who takes a more respectful line towards Moscow”. Prediction: Steele will continue to follow the Party line and will continue to be invited on all-expenses trips to Moscow (indispensable pdf). And he’s hedging about Thailand like Capability Brown with a Black & Decker and a liberal dose of amphetamine sulphate. However, at least he made a testable prediction.

12) Jenni Russell thinks there may be something wrong with race relations in South Africa.

Comment: No shit, Sherlock.

13) Hugh Muir thinks various European politicians will do something or maybe not, and some UKIP MEPs may be re-elected. Or then again they may not. Who knows?

Comment: Hugh Muir may make a testable prediction he could be held responsible for. Or perhaps he won’t.

14) Tim Garton Ash thinks there will be a youth protest wave, driven by graduate unemployment.

Comment: A testable, nonobvious prediction based on a quantitative model. Score one for Agent Romeo.

15) Julian Glover thinks “the age of depoliticised power will come to an end”.

Comment: I think he means things like independent central banks. It’s not at all clear though. Still, chalk it up; if the ECB gives up monetarism by December, he’s right.

16) Libby Brooks thinks “the gardener who knows how to grow their own carrots” will be valued more than a hedge fund manager, and the success of Mamma Mia! is an example of a profound change in our views of status.

Comment: I think there is more than a little contradiction here, and not just because nobody ever liked hedgies anyway. Again, vague puffology about abstract nouns.

17) Seamus Milne thinks the “the neoliberal model is collapsing around our ears, but what is going to replace it is still up for grabs”.

Comment: Not a prediction, and unfalsifiable. If you read on, it turns out the old tankie really means “maybe this crisis is the one! world revolution is here!” but he’s wily enough to realise everyone will laugh if he says that.

18) Mark Lawson thinks William Golding’s books will come back into fashion.

Comment: God, I hope not. But at least it’s a prediction.

19) Scraping the barrel. Zoe Williams thinks that the idea of prime-time TV is obsolete, and that TV will be dominated by crowd-pleasing repeats.

Comment: Slightly contradictory. And whingeing about repeats? Radical.

20) Martin Kettle, for it is he, thinks the extreme Right in Europe will win more seats at the European Parliamentary elections. He doesn’t think this means a third world war is imminent, but he does not have “high confidence” of this.

Comment: Kettle, Kettle. The boy’s so prone, Ron. Trust him to make a fool of himself. I would think anything less than very high confidence that the radical right will not start a world war from Europe would be front-page news, but he actually buries this behind the shattering suggestion that the BNP might pick up an MEP or two.

Of course, that’s actually quite unlikely because the method of election favours parties with a small but widespread support base like the Greens, rather than ones with sporadic, concentrated support like the BNP.

21) Marina Hyde thinks the Russian state will continue to take control over more of the Russian economy, but will re-privatise in the future, only to re-expropriate a new set of temporary oligarchs when the next crisis arrives. And the Government will fail to get newly state-owned bank branches to open on Saturday mornings.

Comment: That’s actually a very good point. Two very good points, in fact. We have a winner!


  1. Randall

    Replied to your comment on Schneier’s blog — I think we agree but my post was just unclear — here goes:

    @Alex: Right — other countries had brilliant cryptographers for a long time (since Turing!), didn’t mean to downplay that.

    What I mean is that the progress of the global *academic* crypto community has made NSA’s restrictions on American crypto scholars seem quaint. Many of the things NSA sought to keep secret — like linear and differential attacks — are now public thanks to non-US scholars who don’t have to bother with NSA review.

    If the NSA continues to hassle American cryptographers to keep things secret while the rest of the world’s scholars publish freely, that’s like guarding the front door when the back is wide open (and the pet cat has long since escaped).

    [Of course, perhaps NSA should have known even back in the ’70s-’80s when they first instituted the prepublication review system that the world would shortly develop strong crypto. But if it wasn’t apparent then, it should be now.]

  2. dsquared

    OK I’ve done it (and made my first prediction “There will be no ground invasion of Gaza”, as you can see I am competing for the job of Guardian horseracing correspondent).




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