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You Are Not a Futurist

I’ll double down on something I wrote last week: Don’t predict, describe.

Especially: Describe trends and tell us where/what they will lead to.

Right now, expert predictions are, at best, thought exercises that verge on entertainment. At worst, they’re horoscopes: almost always wrong, almost always without accountability, almost always hiding one or more key and very debatable assumptions. Like a horoscope or procrastination, they mainly serve to kick the can of our own anxiety and agency down the road for a moment. Then we go looking for the next prediction.

(I joined a webinar about three weeks ago on the impact of COVID-19 on businesses, given by a business advisor to almost 1,000 business owners. The advisor began with a prediction: our businesses would lose 10-20% in revenue this year. He didn’t reveal on what basis he made that prediction, so it was impossible to evaluate and grows more vexing by the day as the crisis continues to unfurl and more and more businesses take body blows. Was his credibility worth less than his need to look smart?)

You are not such an advisor — thank God. You are not a futurist. You are a research leader. You do not predict, both because it is foolish to do so (especially now) and because your value is far greater than that.

Indeed: One of your great values to the world is your ability to see trends and tell us what the world will look like if that trend were to continue.

That vision is not a prediction; it is expertise.

For instance, read the food economist Jayson Lusk’s blog post “Impacts of Coronavirus on Food Markets.” Or just wait to see Lusk interviewed about it on 20/20 and Freakonomics and quoted by Reuters and Bloomberg — it’s been that powerful.

When you read “Impacts of Coronavirus on Food Markets,” you’ll notice that Lusk isn’t predicting anything. Instead, he’s a) describing phenomena and explaining them in light of the research literature, and b) describing trends and telling us as an expert what’s possible or likely to happen should those trends hold. Including:

  • Why information cascades and herd behavior explain why people are buying what they’re buying at grocery stores;
  • Why stock-outs are probably a temporary trend you can ignore;
  • Where worker outages and issues could have the most impact on the food supply chain, and the data signals to watch that tell us this might be happening;
  • Who is most at risk for food insecurity from the virus; and
  • What would be the impacts of the likely recession on food spending.

This is applied expertise, not some vacuous prediction of risers and fallers coming out of the epidemic. Because Lusk has been applying his expertise in his blog, books, talks and media interviews for years, this post quickly translated into opportunities for him to share his build public authority.

Another example: A list member and magazine publisher responded to Friday’s email (“What to Do & Not to Do”), wondering if his magazine should go ahead with an event next month to discuss the state of environmental journalism.

His group had already taken the event virtual. But they were having a hard time trying to incorporate COVID-19 into the discussion. How could they make it about the virus without falling into empty predicting? How could they make it instead about trend analysis?

Here’s my response to him (reprinted with his permission):

The event’s date would concern me — it will be right in the middle of this hurricane, from the looks of it.

What if, instead, you changed the event to talk about something a bit more relevant to the crisis? I’m wondering if the event shouldn’t be about how the pandemic and the resultant economic dislocations might change environmental activism and coverage.

For instance, many are concerned this is going to be the death blow to local news. Certainly, the legacy manifestations of local news are going to really, really struggle. What might that mean for local environmental coverage? Local climate coverage?

What might the continuing concentration of readers in the hands of a few national outlets — a concentration that will only become more pronounced if the crisis goes on for months — mean for environmental coverage?

Information itself has been so decentralized by this crisis. Friends and neighbors have become primary conduits of knowledge. I’m even getting information from our local NextDoor. What might that mean for environmental coverage and consumption going forward? For environmental activism?

Are niche subscription publishers going to rise or fall in this environment? Might that be a good thing — does it mark a maturity in the sector — or might it be balkanizing?

What might happen if climate activism has to stay online for an extended period — can it sustain that move? How might that change the movement? What’s the growth model?

I’m seeing a ton of wishful thinking in the guise of confident predictions; I’m sure you are too. News organizations have limited resources. Some had moved resources toward climate and environmental coverage. Might those resources move to health coverage now? Sharper, deeper coverage of the intersection of health and inequality?

Data seems to me another area to talk about: We’re now comparing ourselves to other countries with data on a daily basis and finding our response wanting — could that move to other topics such as environment, and how? And the rise of data viz as a compelling communications tool — how might that shape environmental and climate coverage going forward? I’ve written a bit about the #flattenthecurve graphic and how, while effective for some groups, it probably didn’t do a great job of depicting what one person’s social distancing could contribute in slaying this monster. Are there lessons to be learned for climate and environment coverage and comms?

Just a few questions. I’d definitely log in for that session — just my two cents.

The operative words and phrases: “might”; “if this trend continues”; “likely to.”

Again, the trends I cited to my list member are already happening and accelerating because of the virus and its economic impacts. If this event’s panelists read and interpret the trends for environmental journalism, they’ll produce an exceptionally valuable discussion — one that isn’t being held elsewhere.

We’re all living inside a model now: a socioeconomic epidemiological one. We know it’s at least in part wrong, but we’re hoping it’s going to be useful. But we’re anxious about its predictions — in part because they’re so dire, but also in part because we haven’t been privy to the data and assumptions that have gone into the scenarios that are now being used to shut down large parts of our lives.

Don’t predict; extrapolate from trends, and show your thinking. That process produces high-value insight. That process is what researchers can do better than anyone.