The Folly of Prediction

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In 1969, the United States Naval Supply Command commissioned a panel of experts, dubbed “Delphi,” to produce “A 15 Year Forecast of Information Processing Technology.” The document is a testament to what the computing pioneer Gordon Bell calls “The Folly of Prediction.”

Delphi forecast that punch card readers would reach processing speeds of 1,500 cards-per-minute by the end of the next decade. In fact, the market had already produced machines capable of that speed a few years before the report was published. One thing Delphi missed entirely? The semiconductor.

That development led to the most successful prediction of the 20th Century. It came not from a government panel but from Silicon Valley, when a different Gordon, Moore, put forth his law, stating that the number of semiconductors that could fit on a chip would double every two years. It was a forecast that proved accurate for a full half-century of digital innovation.


I was reminded of this when—I can see certain readers rolling their eyes already—I read the news, last September, that numerous California cities, including Oakland and San Francisco, had filed lawsuits against Exxon, BP, and several other oil companies. The cities argue that rising sea levels, caused by global climate change, driven by fossil fuel consumption, will cause billions of dollars in property damage, and that “big oil” should foot the bill for costly infrastructure projects to shore up below-sea-level neighborhoods and oceanside communities.

If you believe the science is settled and the models are correct, of course it makes sense to take a page from the “Big Tobacco” lawsuit playbook. If it were the case that Exxon and the others were acting in ways that could ruin much of the California coastline, with full knowledge of the certain results of their conduct, it would indeed be just to ask them to foot the bill for protecting our cities and communities.


But I can’t help but think of those Navy prognosticators, who probably knew more about computers than just about anyone else in the United States government but didn’t know what Silicon Valley was up to right at that very moment.

Here’s what Silicon Valley is up to now, when they’re not working on perfecting technology, like the batteries necessary for electric vehicles to become viable for everyday use, that could help mankind avert the threats of a changing climate: They’re snapping up houses in the Bay Area. According to a report from Zillow, the median homes in both Las Vegas and San Jose lost $190,000 in value during the housing crisis. “In San Jose,” Zillow says, “homes have gained $615,100 in value since the crisis, more than three times what was lost.” And in Vegas, where rising sea levels shouldn’t be a problem for another couple million years? The median home there has only recovered $131,000.


It’s hard to imagine all these far-thinking futurists spending so much dough to live somewhere that doesn’t just face the threat of potential disaster (the “big quake” has loomed large in the California imagination for a century), but absolutely certain, scientifically predictable peril. I’m sure if you asked the startup founders and engineers buying multi-million dollar homes all over the Bay Area and along the coastline, most of them would tell you they absolutely “believe the science” on climate change. But they’re not investing like they really do, or at least like they really believe the story the cities of Oakland and San Francisco are telling about the science.

Maybe real estate prices don’t mean as much to you as the findings of government experts, but they’ve had their say in this too, in a way. If what those California cities are alleging is true, and we can be certain that Exxon negligently sold oil despite knowing it’d eventually drown these towns, isn’t it irresponsible of those same cities to keep selling bonds? That’s the argument made by the free-market think tank CEI in a letter sent to the SEC last month. 


CEI attorneys note that the same cities insisting in court that they can predict precisely how sea level changes will hurt their communities are also telling prospective investors the opposite story in their bond-offerings—that accurately making those prognostications is impossible. And yet, when they sold those bonds, no one accused those cities of “denialism” for noting that the future is more uncertain than some activists and politicians would like you to think.

Which government sources you agree with is up to you, but when I remember the story of the Naval Supply Command’s Delphi, I know which claim I find more persuasive. And if you’re still worried about the Bay Area, remember another bit of Silicon Valley wisdom: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”


Brett Stevens is Splinter’s newest political columnist. This is his first column.