Prophesying the Post-Pandemic World: Buyer Beware

By In the National Interest Archives
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Prepare for the flood of predictions about the world after COVID-19. Take it from a former CIA intelligence analyst and global intelligence expert when it comes to such clairvoyance: caveat emptor—buyer beware.

It's always darkest before it gets pitch black, John McCain occasionally quipped. Like Zen Koans, most Bible passages and good political jokes, his one-liner lets the audience make its own interpretation. For anyone in the forecasting business, however, as the political and economic earthquake of 2020 produces a tsunami of predictions about what's next, the late senator's warning is hard to miss.

The fact that seers are working overtime isn't just because of a historic election after four years of a pathologically polarizing president. They're also purporting to divine a future recast by an equally historic pandemic. As someone who drafted or coordinated scores of national intelligence estimates over a quarter century at CIA, a word of advice: stifle the urge to buy the latest best seller predicting the shape of the post-COVID world.

The recommendation isn't meant to give forecasters or futurists the finger. Let's stipulate that producing predictive analysis is a tough business. Intelligence estimates are the case in point. Bookshelves groan with critiques of their failures. Because estimates can shape a president's decisions including on war or peace, post-mortems have been important over the years. The purpose: to dissect the artform trying to better both the process and product.

They've done some good: for example, making sure analysts doing the estimating spell out their assumptions; declare what they know and don't; feature dissenters' alternative views; and clearly state their confidence, or lack thereof, in their judgments. But intelligence has grappled less successfully with its most important question: how do you make sure the problem on the table is amenable to prediction? The question couldn't be more relevant today.

Intelligence analysts, of course, aren't the only ones who need to ask. From the announcement of "the end of history"—political philosopher Francis Fukuyama's 1992 declaration that liberal democracy had triumphed with the Soviet Union's collapse—to the last century's energy experts repeatedly predicting "peak oil," forecasters have produced or proselytized prognostications that have overlooked the question to their ever-lasting chagrin.

Take the legions who regularly see shining futures for companies riding touted economic transformations such as deregulation or the market impact of a new generation's lifestyle, wants and needs. In any field, there are always winners and losers. But from Enron to WeWork, countless predictive riffs have proved hollow when it became clear the competitive landscape was far more complicated, fraught with unknowns, and vulnerable to events than prophesied.

In uncertain times like 2020, it's an example of why it pays to consider how much precision forecasting will bear. To be sure, decisionmakers in government as well as business want answers when events roil markets, economies and societies. Whether it's President Johnson considering escalation in Vietnam in 1965, or an airline CEO in 2020 facing the travel industry's collapse, the stakes are huge. So, too, are the consequences when analysts can't deliver but fail to state the obvious: we don't know.

Writing in World Politics in 1978, Professor Richard Betts, an intelligence scholar, made the point for his audience inside the Beltway. His observation is as relevant in considering how to think about a post-COVID world today as it was in analyzing the source of intelligence failures 40 years ago. "Intelligence may perform most usefully by not offering the answers sought by authorities, but by offering questions, nagging decision makers into awareness of the full range of uncertainty, and making the authorities' calculations harder rather than easier."

Betts was suitably cynical about the reception his suggestion would receive. "Some leaders may accept and appreciate the function," he wrote but, "most leaders will not." The professor's candor is worth bearing in mind as the year-end floodgates open to the predictions that will picture the post-pandemic world, not to mention as next week's presidential winner proclaims what he will do in 2021.

Photo courtesy of The Harrington Group.

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