Opinion: Daily Journal

We Should Take Our Chances

RALEIGH – It was a perfect weekend for dwelling on the problem of predictions, at least in my part of North Carolina.

After getting hit with a traffic-snarling, unexpected burst of winter weather a week earlier, Triangle residents were told repeatedly at the end of last week by the weather experts that there was a good chance of a “wintry mix” and treacherous roadways over the weekend. But it didn’t happen.

Still, the cold and (mostly) rain may have kept many indoors, listening or watching the news coverage of a first-of-its-kind national election in Iraq that was, the “experts” predicted, likely to be marred by high violence and low voter turnout. Again, it didn’t happen. The turnout nationwide could well turn out to be at or above that in the average U.S. election, which nonetheless is accepted as legitimate by all but a few nutcases. And the violence was surprisingly limited – there may have been more safety issues related to jubilant crowds around polling places than to bombings in much the country.

Critics of the Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq have made much of official but apparently faulty predictions that coalition forces would find caches of dangerous chemical or biological weapons there. The failure to find such weapons has clearly damaged American credibility abroad and support for the war at home.

Yet now we have the spectacle of these very same critics issuing all sorts of confident predictions about the situation in Iraq that have turned out to be wildly off the mark. Months ago, it was commonplace for anti-war senators, columnists, and media commentators to sneer at the possibility of an orderly January 30 election and to ridicule those who thought average Iraqis were ready and willing to cast ballots. They accused President Bush of indulging in fantasies and encouraging false hopes, and even attacked Sen. John Kerry for failing to admit the impossibility of timely elections.

They, too, were wrong.

Other examples spring to mind. Where’s that Academy Award nomination for Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 911”? How did Howard Dean go from driver of a presidential bandwagon in January 2004 to pulling his little red (make that blue) wagon around the block in February begging for enough votes to come in fourth? Remember Y2K, the dot-bomb implosion, and Krispy Kreme conquering the planet?

I’m not arguing against trying to predict the future, or that expertise is useless. Obviously, meteorology is an inexact but indispensable science that gives us far more reliable and useful information about our immediate future than our parents or grandparents had. Similarly, if public officials aren’t trying to examine current trends and circumstances in order to form predictions – whether it is about war, disease, or next year’s budget deficit – then they aren’t doing their jobs.

But humility is required. I don’t just mean that those who predict should be humble and avoid claims of precision or prescience. I also mean that those who recognize failed predictions should be humble themselves and avoid taking too much pleasure in another’s faulty fortune-telling – it will probably be their turn to eat some crow in the not-too-distant future.

That’s one prediction that I feel pretty confident in issuing, but notice that I did say “probably.”

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.