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Predicting the Future
Entry 1201, on 2010-06-25 at 21:41:06 (Rating 3, News)
What do people think will happen in the future? It's an interesting question for two reasons: first because it can reveal genuine predictions (crowd sourcing often works); and second, because it says a lot about the people being asked whether they are right or wrong.
The Pew Research Center recently ran a survey of this subject in the USA and the results were quite intriguing. Here are a few predictions and some of my comments about each one...
First, the big picture. The survey showed overall optimism but it was well down since the last time the survey was done in 1999. The subjects were all Americans and it's easy to see why they would be less optimistic since then. They were the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, they are still involved in two rather unsuccessful wars which drag on and on, their economy is a mess, they are losing their place as the world's most important power, they were struck by the financial crisis, and then there's the oil spill. Who wouldn't be a bit less optimistic?
A significant proportion fear a major conflict before 2050. 58% think there will be another world war and 53% expect a terrorist attack against the US using a nuclear weapon. Both of those things are entirely possible, I would agree. Of course it depends on what your definition of a "world war" is but the rise of fundamentalism, especially in Islamic countries, has got to be a bad sign.
There is further pessimism around energy supplies. 72% think the world will be hit with a major energy crisis in the next 40 years. Again this is self evident to most. Oil is increasingly difficult to extract and coal has major disadvantages associated with pollution (including greenhouse gases) so that will surely be an issue.
But about the same number think our future energy will come from new sources. They think oil, gas and coal will reduce in importance. Whether these new sources are widely used after the crisis or whether they will negate the crisis isn't clear. Most alternative sources aren't suitable for large scale implementation. I guess the best hope is for a major breakthrough in nuclear fusion or in much more efficient solar sources.
On a related topic, there was reasonable acceptance of global warming. 66% say the Earth will definitely or probably get warmer, but it seems to be more of a political idea than a scientific one because it's correlated with the person's political views: less than half of Republicans agreed but over 80% of Democrats did.
There were some interesting thoughts on future technology too. 71% think cancer will be cured by 2050. I think this might be optimistic because "cancer" covers such a wide range of diseases with different treatments and causes. I would expect that new technology will greatly increase the effectiveness of cancer treatment but saying it will be entirely cured is unrealistic.
Just over half think ordinary people will travel in space. That sort of depends on what you mean by "ordinary people" of course. Civilians and non-specialists can already do this but it is expensive. How much does the price need to reduce by and how little preparation will be necessary before space travel can said to be available to "ordinary people"?
And 42% say that it will be possible to tell what people are thinking using brain scans. There is already some progress on this using FMRI but again it comes down to definitions: how accurate and specific does the scan need to be? It's almost certain this technology will allow the general type of thought to be scanned but the exact details will certainly be much more difficult.
What about social issues? Almost 90% think a woman will be elected president by 2050. It has already happened in almost every other western democracy so surely it will happen in the US soon as well. All I can say is that I hope it isn't Sarah Palin! What credibility would the idea of women in leadership have after that!
86% think people will work into their 70s before retiring. That also seems likely based on work trends and constantly extending life spans. Maybe by that time the working week will be reduced to 20 or 30 hours and the general conditions of work will be much better than today. There's no reason they shouldn't be.
OK finally the big one. 41% say Jesus Christ will return within the next 40 years. That's not surprising because many Americans have totally nutty religious beliefs. Interestingly though more than that think he definitely won't return. Maybe they are finally sick of waiting and have given up on the idea!
So overall the predictions are fairly reasonable (apart from the silliness about Jesus). People seem to think that we are in for some considerable difficulty but that it will be overcome, mostly through the application of science and technology. I just wish more people would consider this fact when voting on issues related to funding of universities and other research organisations!
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