I just read a New York Times story that the Paris-based International Energy Agency (who are they, anyway?) has produced a report with predictions of energy use and sources for the year 2035, broken down by types and countries (see here, free but registration required). I know we all want to know what the future will be like, but this is sort of forecasting is ridiculous.
I'm not talking about scientific assessments, such as where the planets will be in 25 years, or even demographic trending; we can work those out with fairly high accuracy and credibility. But as the history of predictions has shown us over and over, it's impossible to account for disruptive technologies or political events. Who saw the transistor or the laser? What about wars, famines, and other factors?
Even if you could predict those developments (science and speculative fiction writers do this, with varying success), as to a true understanding of the eventual implicationsówell, that's not going to happen. If you want a rude awakening, look at the informal and formal "conventional wisdom" predictions made in the 1950's as to what the 21st century would be like: Jetson's-like society and living, coupled with nuclear-supplied electricity so cheap it wouldn't pay to even meter it.
The problem with all these reports is that when you distill all the fancy talk and academic veneer, they are basically logical, somewhat-linear extrapolations of the recent past. While advocates point to where they were right, reality is that for every on-target hit there were hundreds of misses, many of them by a lot. You might as well ask Madame LaRue at her crystal ball salon, or let random-walk theory make your predictions, since your success rate would be about the same.
It's not just these 25-year predictions that bother me. I see many market assessments which look "just" five years ahead. They typically provide, to an astonishing number of significant figures, the size of a market in dollars and in units. Some are based on a consensus of a large group of leading experts; some are divined by a smaller group of specialized researchers. Either way, given all the variables whihc affect the future, you have to be amazed at the confidence of those who provide these predictions.
I'm not saying that since such predictions are error-prone they are therefore useless. They are a necessary part of planning and working out a strategy, rather than simply stumbling forward day-to-day. But you can't put too much faith in them. Periodic reality checks and regular course corrections make a lot of sense.
So I will check back with the International Energy Agency in 5, 10, 15, and 20 years. Meanwhile, I wonder what level of credibility you give to these forecasts: none? a little? or a lot? Let me know. ?