The Problem with Futurism (was: Life extension article)

Robin Hanson (
Thu, 24 Sep 1998 15:37:04 -0700

Max More writes:
>reporter writes: "Butler, the gerontologist, said: "I think we're not
>spending enough money on aging and life-extension research, but I'm not
>sure if longevity enthusiasts are helping the cause. I think they're
>hurting it by their outrageous statements that have no basis in fact."
>Futurists feel no such fetters and rarely worry about exactly how or when
>their predictions will occur. "
>What I said was that I was not willing to predict when a major life
>extension breakthrough would occur since it depended on breakthroughs that
>no one accurately time. This quote above implies something quite different.
>Still, it's good to see more coverage of these ideas.

This exchange illustrates the essential futurism problem. The reporter saw the stereotypical situation so clearly she ignored Max's attempts to identify himself as an exception to the rule.

In many areas, it is the people who say the most extreme things that get media coverage. In academia, people demonstrate how much they know by saying only things they know can be backed up with specific evidence and analysis.

So when talking about the future, people mainly craving media attention tend to say more extreme things, and academics tend to only state estimates based on evidence they can point to. This tends to bias academic estimates toward the future being more like today. Others see this bias and try to "balance" it with more extreme estimates. In the end savvy citizens and reporters expect visionaries and science fiction authors to overestimate change, while academics and others seeking to show their technical knowledge underestimate it.

This situation has terrible costs. Max doesn't get quoted when he says moderate things, and I get my papers rejected by academic journals if they are about big future changes. The only solution I can see is to carve out a new niche, a place with a reputation for having incentives rewarding accurate estimates about the future. Idea futures might do it were it legal. Till then, I want to help build communities of discourse where any futuristic topic is fair game, but which also have high standards of care and rigor in arguments presented.

Robin Hanson RWJF Health Policy Scholar, Sch. of Public Health 510-643-1884 140 Warren Hall, UC Berkeley, CA 94720-7360 FAX: 510-643-8614