Why More History Than Futurism?

Far more academics study the past than the future.  That is, while most academics may study unchanging truths which apply equally well to all times, among academics who focus on particular times other than our own, far more focus on past than future times.  Why?   

Yes, we have more data on the past, but the future seems more interesting.  Our decisions today have far more influence on aspects of the future we care about, than the past.  And academics often overlook less interesting topics with lots of data, to focus on harder but more interesting topics.

Since we are more uncertain about the future than the past, study of the future would consist in elaborating more scenarios in less detail, relative to fewer more-detailed past scenarios.  Futurists could be hitech, constructing vast computer simulations and decision trees.  As with history, futurists could scour other fields for clues about the time they study.  Surely some people would be better at these tasks than others, so future study could also serve to signal intellectual ability. 

So why more history than futurism?  My best guess is that non-futurism intellectuals find it harder to independently evaluate claims about the future, relative to the past.  Ordinary people can read historians and be impressed by their apparent command of detail and care of analysis.  Such readers can then similarly impress each other by quoting what historians tell them.  It would be far harder to do similar things for the future.  If true, this theory suggests amateur evaluation importantly influences academic attention.

I’m not very confident in this theory though; anyone have other explanations?  From a lunch conversation a week ago. 

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  • Futurism as a discipline is contaminated by the considerable number of practitioners who offer congenial views based on very little evidence to commercial interests who pay them well. There appears to be very little retrospective assessment of their forecasts’ usefulness or accuracy. Perhaps, seeing as so much of it is reliant on one’s priors, it’s rational to concentrate on history (which informs one’s priors) rather than futurism?

    (Special R Hanson Ad Hominem: How is this distinct from you wanting a research grant to wibble about “teh singularity”?)

    Further, historians actually do discover things that were forgotten, ignored, or simply misunderstood quite frequently, and the use of history to inform one’s thoughts about the future is common enough to be a cliché. As Ken MacLeod said, history is the trade secret of science fiction.

    PS: Nobody, not just “non-futurism intellectuals” (SRHAH: i.e. people other than me?) can independently evaluate claims about the future until it arrives.

  • The answer to this question is easy.
    Academic institutions are simultaneoudly engaged in two quite different types of activities. One is teaching, learning, research, expanding and disseminating knowledge. The second is sorting – grading, evaluating, passing, failing, granting or denying tenure or scholarships, judging. It is much easier to judge the work of people who are playing in the paper graveyards than it is to evaluate works that involve a lot of imagination, creativity, speculation. It is much less risky for a tenure applicant to submit work about the past than thought about the future.

    For thinking about the future, look outside of academia. People in business and government are doing this. Unfortunately few of these people recognize any interests that will outlive their own careers.

  • Gray Area

    People in artificial intelligence engage in a very limited, precise form of futurism when they talk about prediction problems. Precise, testable futurism is ‘boring.’ Conversely, ‘interesting’ futurism isn’t really science, as far as I can tell.

  • Some possibilities:

    1. People don’t like to be proved wrong, which claims of the future would open people up to clearly.

    2. People might be more comfortable with a certain, single answer rather than a bunch of possible, close-enough answers. With history, the illusion of ‘the’ answer might be stronger since there’s less opportunity to be disproved. Maybe this is related to people’s tendency to invent explanations.

    3. Maybe the pay offs are too remote and infrequent in futurism. You make a prediction and you don’t get to see if it comes true soon enough. You don’t get feedback quick enough to adjust your predictive models perhaps. The next generation might build off you, but maybe not. Your experience might turn off future futurists from flocking to the discipline and advancing it.

  • Robin, one could consider all of science to be the study of the future. That is, science is the attempt to learn today the “standard textbook material” of tomorrow.

  • Adam

    History is not an expiremental science, and unlike theories of the future, theories of history are difficult to falsify. Theories about the future are automatically tested when the future happens and the failure or success of predictions are clear. Empirical studies on the inaccuracy of financial and economic forecasts show the difficulty of forecasting even when we have reasonable data, and we know at least what form our predicted events will take. Take predicting a terrorist attack versus predicting inflation. We know what inflation, or lack thereof will look like, prices, so we know the class of event that can occur and the kind of data we need to look at. Attempting to predict a future terrorist attack brings us issues of degree, type, place, target, casualty, timing, sponser, and deliverer. The probability space for non-financial and non-ecomomic events is infinite, and the chances of failure in prediction, not just in degree but in kind, is greater. What is the value of predicting the unpredictable?

  • Alex, I did not claim history made no contributions, and I agree there are bad futurists, as well as bad historians.

    John, your view seems to support my conjecture.

    Gray, history isn’t science either.

    Mike, many other fields let people be proven wrong.

    Scott, agreed, but you don’t think that explains the difference do you?

    Adam, we surely do better than zero accuracy in forecasting the future.

  • True, but futurism seems more a social science than a hard science. In the social sciences, being proven wrong is harder, isn’t it? It’d be easy enough to prove someone’s future vision wrong. “It didn’t happen.”

  • Adirian

    Well, one point – the act of studying history isn’t going to change it.

    The difference between predicting the future and predicting the past is where the primary gain is. As a rule, predictions of the future are going to be very heavily tied up into heavily biasing factors – such as politics. Predictions of the past may or may not be tied up in modern biasing factors – but you’ll notice that where they are is where history tends to be regarded as the least reliable.

    As a result, those who are engaged in the field of futurism are, as a rule, predicting it in such a way as make some gain for themselves. Since good scientists generally stay away from this kind of behavior, the field is largely filled with the religious and “popular scientists”, who may not respect the concept of science as much as their true-scientist peers.

    (That it is perfectly testable is beyond the point – since the claim is not testable at the time that it is made, it is not, at the time that it is made, a testable claim, and hence scientific. It is tested as it becomes testable. It becomes scientific during and after the fact.)

  • “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future”.

  • david

    Why ask this particular question?

    Why not ask: Why more physics than futurism? Or: Why more study of the Portuguese language than futurism?

    The second and third questions don’t seem as arresting as yours because the fact that

    (a) the past and the future are intimately related in an obvious way

    makes it seem as though

    (b) reasons to study the past are reasons to study the future,

    or at least

    (c) if there are good reasons to study the past, then there must be good reasons to study the future.

    But (a) does not imply (b) or (c). Consider, for example, that we have good reasons to study John Rawls, but little reason to study Alec Rawls. But the two are intimately related (Alec is John’s son).

  • Senthil

    I think it is endowment effect in a rather circuitous way. We have the past with us and not the future. There’s no question that our past is ours and we share mankind’s past as humans.

    Like an experiment which is usually cited for the endowment effect where what a person would pay for something isn’t equal to what he would accept, we really aren’t willing to have a take on the future as easily as we would come up with a hypothesis for the past.

  • Pseudonymous

    Yes, we have more data on the past

    Surely, all our data is on the past.

    It is difficult to study something on which you have no data.

  • Timothy Terhaar

    I don’t see the point in speculating about the future. Education about the past (should) allow us to recognize recurring trends in human history as they emerge. Theories about the future can hardly be assigned probabilities, and without foreknowledge of a practical sort people have no incentive to prepare for the “theoretical futures.” I think history can be used just as well as futurism to predict the future.

  • Gray Area

    If Robin’s argument is correct, then why does it fail for, say, theoretical physics or mathematics.

  • K

    I think those mentioning endowment and data have it about right.

    Historians don’t study history. They study documents, artifacts, and records. From those they devise stories or arguments which they believe best explain those materials.

    Futurists don’t study the future. I hold that the future hasn’t happened and does not exist. It therefore cannot be studied. And futurists can’t inspect information from the future. So the futurist needs a basic method or faith.

    Morality: A master directive pushes mankind to a great future. Setbacks and confusion occur along the way but there is a purpose. See Marx below.

    Doom or fate: To everything there is a season. A man riseth up and is cut down.

    Mere extrapolation: Airplanes have gotten bigger for a century. By 2107 airliners will seat 10,000 people and fly 20,000 mph. Well, in 1907 one could read that the trains of 2007 would travel 1000 mph and ocean liners at least 100.

    Analysis and insight: Marxism is a good example, He thought he had detected the master pattern of history by reading history, economics, and how the implications of capitalism dictated its demise. Intellectuals believe the best and brightest can figure it out, men just like themselves.

    Oracle techniques: Ask many respected people what they think. Then sift their answers. If you believe this works then read Barron’s next Saturday and make a fortune in stocks on Monday.

    Everyone is a futurist and expects some events and not others. Very few insist they “know”.

  • Gray, most intellectuals feel physics has proven itself in all the modern physical devices around them, and they have taken enough math classes to have the strong impression mathematicians know what they are talking about.

  • Gray Area

    Perhaps amateur evaluators hold ‘futurism’ to the same standard as math or physics, and futurism simply hasn’t proven itself.

  • Because Black Swans are easier to explain than to predict.

  • Psychohistorian

    The starting question is: “What could you answer with futurism?”

    Is there something that one could predict with meaningful likelihood that is both meaningfully precise and not rather obvious?

    If I could make predictions that would come true 2% of the time, the effort hardly seems productive. By contrast, most predictions that would come true 50% or more of the time seem to require such strong existing evidence that they should be pretty close to obvious.

    Also, it seems exquisitely difficult to come up with a procedure for predicting the future.

    Or is there some example of something we might be able to predict that doesn’t seem already obvious?

  • g

    If you could consistently find things commonly reckoned to have (say) a 0.2% chance of occurring and more accurately estimate them at 2%, that could be quite valuable. Likewise if the generally reckoned probability is 20%.

    The difficulty of making decent predictions about the future is more to the point. Predictions about future politics, wars, economies, etc., is notoriously difficult, and even people you might expect to be experts are consistently worse at it than not-specially-sophisticated statistical models. (See Philip Tetlock’s book on “expert political judgement”.) Which might indicate that someone armed with humility and statistics might have a useful futurological contribution to make, I guess, but for there to be a worthwhile academic study of futurology I think we’d need to be better at it than that.

  • I think a big part of the problem is that there is no accepted paradigm for doing serious research on “the future”. Futurologists have developed some methods(scenario analysis etc.) but they are held in low regard by most people, and rightly so.

    I am interested in the future, and I have read many papers on the future that I have found carefully researched and insightful. But I can’t think of a single such good paper that was written by a self-described “futurologist” or by somebody listing “futures studies” as their main specialization. Furthermore, these good papers use a wide variety of methods and argument styles. They don’t seem to follow any recipe for conducting a good study on the future. Instead, they seem to rely on unique ideas for how some particular aspect of the future can be constrained or determined using some unanticipated combination of information, reasons, and analytic tools.

    With history it is very different. You can almost arbitrarily decide to study some part of history, and then follow fairly obvious methods to find out about it – go to archives, compare different documents carefully, interview witnesses, examine artifacts, etc.

  • Tom Leahey

    Everyone has forgotten differences of taste. Some of us (I’m a psychologist and historian) find (say) the early Greeks quite interesting. In their case, for example, you see the human mind addressing important questions for the first time, with no accumulated thought to reckon with, either to agree with or rebut. It’s also easy to see how their answers are shaped (or, if you prefer, biased) by their culture, precisely because its both familiar (the origin of ours) and distant (in time): it stands out much more clearly than our own.
    I also find (as I tell my students) that history provides a good way of revealing current cultural arrangements as equally products of their times resting on unexamined assumptions. Fot example, in the thread above, one commentator alludes to the tenure process as the reason for choosing the past over the future as one’s object of study. But history as a discipline both amateur and professional precedes the coming of the modern concept of tenure. David Hume supported himself by his History of England, not his philosophical works, which sold poorly, and both for him were ways of investigating the constancies and follies of human nature.

  • I find it striking that most everyone seems to think it reasonably obvious that we should expect more study of history than the future, and yet people offer widely differing explanations for this phenomena.

  • You say, “study the future.” I say that’s not possible, for the simple reason that one can’t “study” something that doesn’t exist. You can study current data and make predictions about the future, but that’s not the same thing. Plus, whatever data points you might have when studying the events of 1507 far exceed the number of data points that you have for the year 2507 (namely, zero).

  • I think Stuart Buck nails it. To put it another way, academics are typically experts in their area of study. I will teach statistics and maybe political science, but it would be unusual for me to teach a class on literature, for example. I’m interested in literature but am no expert on it. Occasionally you will see a professor teaching outside his or her expertise but it’s rare. There are lots of people who are experts on the past but, as Stuart points out, none who are experts on the future. One could argue about whether it’s a good idea for profs to generally restrict themselves to teaching about their area of expertise, but I think there are some good reasons for this.

  • Adirian, plenty of social scientists study topics full of advocates and politics – why not the future as well?

    Senthil, the past is not with us – it is gone.

    Pseudo, all the data we can access is in the present, not the past.

    Timothy, of course future events can be assigned probabilities.

    Eric, if you can’t predict they your explanation is suspect.

    Psycho and g, any improved accuracy can help in making decisions.

    Nick, many other fields, like sociology and political science, have an eclectic mix of methods.

    Tom, surely the huge demand for science fiction shows many have a taste for the future as well.

    Stuart, you could say the past doesn’t exist any more than the future does.

    Andrew, if some can specialize in the past, why can’t others specialize in the future?

  • Robin,

    You can specialize in the future, but it’s hard to be an expert in it, since it hasn’t happened yet. One thing that’s cool about academic history is that involves close study of real historical documents. This can be even be done when considering counterfactuals; see, Niall Ferguson’s chapter in his Virtual History book, where he addresses counterfactual questions about World War 1 using historical documents. Or even consider a straight history book such as A.J.P. Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War.

    The future doesn’t have these documents, and it seems to me that the possibilities of being an expert in the future are much more limited. I could imagine some angles (for example, looking at historical views of the future, or studying prediction markets), but there’s just a lot less there than for studying the past.

  • Andrew, you might be interested in Future Wars: The World’s Most Dangerous Flashpoints by Col. Trevor Dupuy. It is also an attempt at a more rigorous futurism. The events described were to take place after the book was written, but that is now our past. An interesting aspect is that the style of the writing makes it seem as if it is an account shortly after the event, and there is no obvious indication of where it diverges from history to speculation, though I suppose if I had read it a decade earlier I could tell more easily.

  • Hello,
    I stumbled on your exchange here of last october when I Googled for “History of Futurism”; this is quite an other question than the one you are asking. Nevertheless we do share a fascination.

    My key project would be:
    What is the history of futurism (not: futurology!) and how can this history best be demonstrated?

    In my view futurism is a superior challenge and perhaps the greatest mastership of a historian. In futurism a historian can prove his real value.

    I am an amateur hisatorian very much because of my fascination with the future.

    Good luck. I hope this is helpful.
    I am open to any further exchange.

    Kindes regards
    Theo Korthals Altes, The Hague, The Netherlands