Making Critical Judgments
Now is a good time for an interesting realization. Foresight that changes our strategy, plans, and actions has a judgment bias, by definition. We’re not talking here about cognitive bias, implicit errors in perception and judgment that we seek to minimize, but rather about values, models, goals, and strategy bias with respect to what is happening around us, and what we think should happen next. Some scholars call this normative foresight.
In other words, strategic foresight always delivers a particular point of view or set of views, in competition with other views, and it tries to influence others using whatever ethical means are available. It also strives to make clear its assumptions and judgments, to provide evidence and argument for those judgments where possible, and to subject those judgments to good criticism from stakeholders.
A neutral point of view, like that found on Wikipedia, or in the written values (neutrality, imagination, expertise) of the World Future Society, is a good starting point in learning about the world. But you’d better not end up there with your foresight work. If you do, you’ll miss developing your own unique strategic viewpoint and specific recommendations for change. Good foresight always goes beyond a survey of the landscape to recommend continuation or change in someone’s strategy, plans, and actions.
Yes, sometimes foresight professionals only frame the issues, and challenge our clients to come up with their own solutions. We also try to uncover a range of alternative futures, to show the choice and uncertainty ahead. But even when we withhold our own recommendations for action, the way we frame the issues, and facilitate their discussion, always involves unavoidable judgment bias. Taking a position in a competitive world requires the courage of your convictions (judgments), is always based on imperfect information, and invariably creates conflict. Get used to it, if you are dealing with the future, and try to be humble, compassionate, and evidence-based in your judgments.
So unlike Wikipedia, a good Futurepedia, one we are working to build at Foresight U, will need to be something like a prediction market as well as an encyclopedia. It must offer many competing judgments, or Schools of Thought on issues of future importance, with their best evidence, argument, and testable hypotheses on offer. A Futurepedia’s pages must strive not only to outline possibilities and preferences, but it must also take an evidence-based, predictive, and partly quantitative approach, using a cognitively diverse and critical crowd. The platform must be as open, digital, and globally accessible as possible, with both reputation and financial incentives for those who take winning positions on future outcomes. Users will self-educate on both expert and lay crowd foresight using such a platform, and develop stronger, ongoing critical judgment. With such a set of resources, available from birth, the futurists and foresighters who grow up on the web will be able to better distinguish between the many interesting but improbable future ideas often discussed in any society for their entertainment or philosophical value, from that special subset of even more exciting future propositions that are both high-value and high-probability outcomes, as they are economically feasible and solve truly important human problems.
For examples of highly improbable yet often-discussed futurist ideas, think of discussions of biological humans going to space (beyond near earth orbit) in any relevant numbers, prior to the arrival of human-surpassing AI. There is good evidence and arguments that such futures won’t be economical prior to that coming development, and after general AI arrives, what it allows us to do here on Earth will be a far more interesting and important frontier, for another set of reasons we’ll discuss. In other words, developing more humanizing and empowering information technology here today, is a far more useful thing than thinking about putting humans on the moon, asteroids, or other planets tomorrow. Don’t let me convince you of this however, you need to see good evidence and argument, and think it through. Only then can you move out of thinking about things that seem plausible until you look at the probable future in greater detail. Other scientific and technological topics that are mostly hype over the next generation include biological superlongevity, nootropics, genetic engineering, 3D printing, flying cars, space elevators, molecular assemblers, synthetic biology, and many other often discussed things. Even standard tropes like artificial intelligence, the internet of things, robotics, and virtual and augmented reality are vastly oversold in the amateur futurist community. Only a small subset of the futures discussed on the web in such topics, though in theory possible, are either probable or preferable in the next few decades. Even highly evidence-poor yet titillating topics like UFOs, the paranormal, and most global conspiracy theories are traps amateur futurism can get stuck in, without a good critical community. Through platforms like Futurepedia, the global professional foresight community can and will raise the level of serious dialog on such issues in coming years, and make better future thinking accessible to everyone.
As you can see, I have come to a number of my own judgment biases over my lifetime and the last twelve years as a practicing foresight professional, some of which my coauthors and colleagues may not share. I hope at least some of these are “good judgments”, as forecaster Philip Tetlock, director of The Good Judgment Project discussed earlier, might define them. We shall see. I will make several judgment biases in this guide, and I welcome you to criticize them, so I can benefit from your criticism. I hope you will find some value in my judgments, even if you do not share them, and in my stories, even if you are not convinced of them. I think it would have been less valuable to you as a reader if I had written from an unbiased perspective. It would certainly have been less valuable to me.
Physicist, futurist, and author David Brin is fond of saying “Criticism, or reciprocal accountability, is the only known antidote to error.” By inviting and engaging in constructive criticism, a form of mental conflict, and listening with humility and an open mind, we make our judgments more accountable. If you are lucky, your future views, plans and actions will receive a good deal of well-meaning criticism. Ideally criticism will come first from colleagues, who will be constructive and on whom you can test your ideas, but you also want to seek criticism from clients and from the general public. The better you listen, the more you’ll learn all the ways you are wrong, how to improve and qualify your views and language, where you need to rethink your position, where you need more evidence for it, and how to advocate more persuasively for whatever views and ideas remain standing.