On predictions, especially those about the future

Yogi Berra, Niels Bohr and Mark Twain have all been credited with the aphorism embedded in the title of this post (to the effect that ‘predictions are difficult, …’). It seems that it was, however, a Dane who coined it, sixty or so years ago. Yes, predictions are difficult, but we make them all the time, and we like to make them in the hope of gaining desirable outcomes. Financial advisers do it, economists in Treasury do it, party-planners do it. The further ahead we predict, however, the less confident we can be about our forecast.

Climate scientists argue with this assertion, and say that while weather forecasts have a currency of a few days only, their long-term climate projections are likely to be quite accurate. After all, they will argue, we have strong confidence that winter twenty years ahead will be like winter now. And we have to have something to go on, surely! This is a reasonable argument as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. Why not?  Because the projections are based on what model runs say, the models haven’t been validated or verified, and their past projections have so far been overheated, to say the least. What is more, the projections are based on what are, in the scheme of things, rather small changes in temperature. And they are being used to underpin taxes and regulations of considerable scale.

The most embarrassing aspect of the models has been their complete failure to forecast the cessation of significant warming over the last seventeen years, for which the AGW scientists have no plausible explanation. Yes, the projected warming might have gone into the deep ocean, but there’s no evidence that it has done so, or trade winds might have fiddled with it somehow, or Chinese aerosols might have cooled things done even though warning was going on. All these things are possible, but there’s no evidence that they have occurred.

And all that prompted ‘Sasha’, a commenter on Anthony Watts’s WUWT website, to post a list of 107 predictions about our coming climate that had failed or seemed likely to fail. The most recent ones came from Germany, and they went back well into last century. Predictors included such climate luminaries as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Meryl Streep. Most of them were about the coming end of Arctic ice, or of snow, or of freezing winters. The earliest is worth setting out as reported: (it didn’t happen either)

107. May 15, 1989, Associated Press: “Using computer models, researchers concluded that global warming would raise average annual temperatures nationwide [USA] two degrees by 2010.”

Commenters jumped on board, offering their own examples, and all this seemed to nettled another commenter, Les Johnson, who pointed out that he himself had an even longer list, 154, of such predictions, some of which overlapped with Sasha’s. And Les Johnson’s long list led me to yet another website where I found a further 60, again with overlap. I could keep going, and did, and found even more. They are everywhere.

It’s easy enough to laugh about the way in which the orthodox AGW people love to terrify us with what will happen if we don’t mend our ways, but there’s some serious consequences here too. For example, why don’t journalists keep tabs on these statements? When I was close to newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s, that’s what you did. Any good journalist would keep a file on subjects that interested him or her, and add to it. One day you would have a story. I had files on all sorts of things, and I was only writing a weekly column.

The second serious thought is the need to publish the most egregious examples, and try to get the media to take them up. There are well-known examples, like Professor Flannery’s warning us that all the dams would be dry, or the luckless Dr Viner of CRU in England telling people that children would wonder what that snow was in the past that everyone talked about, or Dr Hansen’s warning that the Hudson would be very much higher in Manhattan and all sort of disasters would occur. There needs to be a well-organised website devoted to exactly this task.

The third is to winnow the predictions down, so that those finally included are properly referenced, with hot links to the source, the prediction clearly stated and the actual outcome, again with a hot-link, unequivocal. And of course, the predictor identified properly.

A fourth, I think, is to develop a second website that includes the airy-fairy hand-waving statements that the orthodox make that can hardly fail because they are so vague. A good example, courtesy Jo Nova, is former Commissioner Flannery: ‘everything we’re seeing is consistent with what the climate scientists have been telling us now for decades’. If what they are saying is varied enough, then he must be right. But it’s hardly helpful to know that the future is to be full of floods, droughts, fires, freezing and heat waves. So was the past.

Actually, former Commissioner Flannery is a great exemplar, and you can see why if you ask your ‘favourite search engine’, as the ABC says even-handedly, to search for ‘Flannery’s failed climate predictions’.


  • DaveW says:

    Don, I think you expect too much of the media. When it was diverse – in number and in political beliefs – it may have been worth its while to hold the inverted-Cassandras (no power of prophesy but always believed) to their failed predictions of doom, but it is too monomorphic and vested in the same interests now.

    I searched with your suggested string and the first page of results was almost entirely blogs – and the only exception at first amazed me – a Herald Sun article from 12 Feb 2011 called ‘It pays to check out Tim Flannery’s predictions about climate change.’ It is a quite excellent piece of ironical satire:
    http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/opinion/it-pays-to-check-out-flannery s-predictions-about-climate-change-says-andrew-bolt/story-e6frfhqf-122 6004644818

  • GenghisCunn says:

    Never mind the media, how and why have governments been sucked into huge policy gambles based on this nonsense? In the early years of concern, I suggested at EPAC (in 1989 or ’90) that we undertake a study of the potential economic impacts. Fred Argy could see no relevancy, Ian Lowe (a physicist) publicly abused me for suggesting that economists had a role in environmental affairs, and at a 1990 briefing the IPCC Chief Scientist (later a firm believer) said that AGW was still an hypothesis being investigated. The Queensland Cabinet accepted my 1997 submission re Kyoto that we take any no-regrets actions (hard to find), that we accept that there might be a risk which required attention, that (on economic modelling I directed) Queensland could cope with modest GHG reductions policies; but that there were many things undetermined, a vast range of potential but unestimable impacts, and that, as the Kyoto period was 2008-2012, we should closely follow research to improve understanding and respond accordingly.

    As years passed and I continued to pursue the issue, I became increasingly sceptical. I was asked to do an urgent brief for the ALP Queensland government on Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist (and Simon’s work) in 2001 or early 2002, and indicated strong reservations on the CAGW meme, but discovered later that my idiot director did not pass it on. I think scepticism left the Qld govt when I walked out in June 2002, no one found it politically convenient to query the orthodoxy in a system where not rocking the boat or frightening the ministers were the over-riding priorities. The degree of government failure on this issue is far more shocking than any media failure.

    • David says:

      To GenshisCunn

      I only now saw your response my post yesterday.

      Can I begin by saying, what a breath of fresh air. Not many people on this site are willing to analyze the issues instead of simply rushing to judgment.

      That said I disagree with your statement that I have “completely ignored Coase”. I channel Coase in option two. It was Coase who argues that given zero transaction costs a tax and a subsidy will affect the same reduction the externality.

      However I do agree with the rest of your post. What you have written is interesting.

    • David says:

      So let me ask you this GenghisCunn , back in the day when you did believe in AGW, (before you became a skeptic), would you have ever written something like for your Minister? Surely not!

      “I don’t know, precisely, how things will change to defeat CAGW IF the hypothesis proves to be true and the climate eventually shows signs of continuing heating at a rate that might be catastrophic. I do, however, have a lot of faith that technologies that we can barely imagine today will render the whole question moot long before we reach any sort of catastrophic point IF the hypothesis itself isn’t just plain false.”

    • Mike O'Ceirin says:

      It seems all we need to do is convince a government that there is a definite concern by voters about anything. Suppose the concern is that there is a threat to fairies. They are you know practically extinct and we need act now before it is too late. Create enough clamor and rather than say that is nonsense support will be offered for a preservation fund etc. It is not about logic it is about votes.

  • PeterE says:

    When I, a historian by trade, briefly dealt with this ‘warming’ subject in the Environment Department around 1990, I then found a healthy scepticism about models by some of the scientists I dealt with. That disappeared over the next decade and later but it is pleasing indeed to note that the sceptics have arrived back in force in recent years.
    So much for that but what pleased me very much in the above piece was finding the phrase ‘try to get the media …’ Thank goodness someone at least has not forgotten how to use the infinitive rather than say ‘try AND get…’.

  • Gus says:

    Perhaps the verdict in the Italian courts that convicted 6 geologists of manslaughter for their failure to give authorities adequate warning about the possible consequences of the pre-shocks that preceded a devastating earthquake, made IPCC scientists fence their own opinions with increased levels of uncertainty, though not reflected in the political summaries.
    What is really striking is the glaring disconnect between the reports of working group 1, working group 2 and working group 3 of IPCC. Group 1 admits to the “pause,” also is most clear about huge uncertainties regarding the underlying physics, observations, models and the AGW theory. Group 2 says that the cost of AGW, if it was to follow IPCC models, is likely to be moderate and recommends adaptation in place of mitigation. Then Group 3 completely ignores all that Groups 1 and 2 say, and claims that massive decarbonization of the economy is necessary for our survival.
    The icing on the cake is the Group 3 support for nuclear and shale.

  • […] from an Anthony Watts contributor that named 107 failed climate predictions,  Don Aitkin finds additional ones, citing as among the most notorious, Professor Flannery warning us that all […]

  • […] What exactly did Paterson say? The sentence in which this phrase occurs goes: I also note that the forecast effects of climate change have been consistently and widely exaggerated thus far. Well, there can hardly be any doubt that the forecasts of catastrophe have been very widely made, from the UN and  within and across all continents. Exaggerated? It depends on what you mean, doesn’t it. Paterson gives examples: The stopping of the Gulf Stream, the worsening of hurricanes, the retreat of Antarctic sea ice, the increase of malaria, the claim by UNEP that we would see 50m climate refugees before now – these were all predictions that proved wrong. I could add a few of Professor Flannery’s forecasts made about Australia. […]

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