January 16, 2009 02:13 AM

The Prediction Problem

The turn of the year, or a significant anniversary such as our 25th here at Top Producer, inevitably calls for speculation about what happens in the next interval. And indeed, our unique ability to imagine the future is a quintessential part of being human.

This ability is also among those most misunderstood. We rarely craft dreams about tomorrow from thin air. Psychologists say what we do is better called "nexting"—we extrapolate from the present to a reasonable future. As a result, our predictions first of all are rooted in the "right now."

Although there are truly visionary people, one thing that characterizes their imagination is the ability to escape the present to a much less familiar idea of the future. Mostly, this rare gift allows them to write wonderful and provocative literature.

The vast majority of us, however, quickly dismiss ideas too far removed from the present as unrealistic or flat-out impossible. The unfortunate consequence is precisely what we have seen in the last few months: a grapeshot of "unimaginable" events.

Strange times. From $1.50/gal. gasoline to the possible end of the American auto industry to an African-American President, we are surrounded by outcomes that were the longest of long shots even two years ago. Has this pattern of unpredictability run its course, or is it more the nature of modern life facing us in the future? To misquote astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington, is the future not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine?

I tend toward the latter idea. We have inadequate tools to predict large-scale trends and events, partly because we are now talking a global culture, not just national. In fact, predictions of all sorts may likely be most useful when carefully limited to local situations. For example, we can predict with modest hope of accuracy who will be farming where in our community (local), but will fail to even bracket what prices will be like (global).

Are predictions futile, then? I think not. Humans love to feel they understand the range of possible outcomes. By reading predictions, your ideas about the future are "framed"; your brain is altered. This process will continue, and the most recent prophecy will be the most powerful determinant of your outlook, if you are like most people. And you are.

Bias. At the same time, your mind will be constantly revising your views to make them agree with your desires and fears. Consequently, even the most insightful prediction often is discarded in submission to a religious, moral or cultural credo. We prefer visions that do not alter much, even if they don't match reality.

Moreover, in selecting predictions, we tend to find rationales that match our own emotional tendencies. Some of the ideas you read in this issue were immensely appealing and seemingly more likely than others, I'll bet.

Action. This is not a bad thing, because any justification for your own inclinations is a big step toward actually moving to action. And that, in the end, may be the largest benefit of efforts to get us thinking about the future, such as the "Top 25" feature in this issue. If you use this paragraph or that to make a decision, you immediately acquire real-time data, which our brains can process exceedingly well, whether positive or negative. Predictions help us overcome the inertia that often accompanies a surplus of choices. And if you noticed nothing else in this issue, we have plenty of choices to make.

Whether we live our lives according to exterior guidance such as tradition or we follow carefully the scenarios laid out by prognosticators, we still proceed moment to moment by trial and error. We tweak and adapt tomorrow's plan of action to accommodate yesterday's lessons. And this fundamentally human approach has served us well.

Within months, or even weeks, forecasts undoubtedly become outdated and replaced by our recession-proof prediction industry. But in the process of gazing forward, we are fundamentally changed, and better equipped to shape our own tomorrows.

John Phipps,, is a sixth-generation farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." For local station listings, log on to

Top Producer, January 2009

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