Monday, October 29, 2007

predictions, shmredictions

We give to much credit to predictions. Tocqueville has a single paragraph predicting that the two great powers in the future would be Russia and the United States. And he was right! For a while, at least. But people used this trivial sliver of his work to bolster his authority.

Similarly, Marx and Malthus made some terribly wrong predictions, which has undermined their authority among a lot of people. In the case of Marx, I am tempted to say, good. Anyway, other thinkers have pulled out the more valuable ideas. Malthus's mistakes certainly led to a lot of insights by later demographers and economists.

So predictions don't matter that much. The search for authority is a distraction from taking ideas seriously. Still, this is a good shocker from the Marquis de Custine:

"If ever they should succeed in creating a real revolution among the Russian people, massacre would be performed with the regularity that marks the evolutions of a regiment. Villages would change into barracks, and organized murder would stalk forth armed from the cottages, form in line, and advance in order…"

The Empire of the Tsar, p. 293.


  1. Of course one has to decide what is a revolution---but I suppose most would agree that would happened in Russia in 1917 was a revolution by almost all standards. If so, it certainly resulted in what was prophesized. How many died from starvation, murder, executions, etc. etc. we most likely will never know accurately; but there seems little question that it was 20-40 million---I'd say that prediction was right on.

  2. The context is the brutal suppression of a serf revolt somewhere in the Crimea, of which Custine hears rumors. Custine is not such a perceptive observer most of the time, but he sure gets this one right.

  3. Every time I teach (biological) evolutionary thought basics, I debate how much of Malthus to include. If I restrict myself to those (currently seen as) correct ideas which clearly influenced Wallace and Darwin, I feel that I am cheating my students out of a fuller view of history. If I wander into the territory of human population predictions many students leave with the one idea that "Malthus was wrong." I have a tough time convincing students that inaccurate specific predictions are not necessarily an indicator that the underlying ideas should be ignored (but then I recently had a student inform me on a quiz that the big difference between fungi and animals is that Kingdom Animalia is 97% animals, so I'm not sure I could succeed in teaching the differences between important ideas and correct predictions).