Fallibility Of Predictive Behavior

One of the things that policymakers do is predict the effects of the implementation of various policies. Support for or opposition to possible policy changes is often based on the predictions of experts regarding the effects such changes would have. It is not uncommon for the predictions of different experts to differ dramatically. For example, one will say, in support of a proposed tax increase that it will create jobs and improve the economy, whereas another, in opposition to the same increase, will predict that it will make less money available for industrial expansion and, consequently, increase unemployment and be detrimental for the economy generally. People may, of course, sometimes say things they do not believe to accomplish specific goals. Yet one must assume that, for the most part, experts who make predictions about the effects of possible policy changes believe what they say. There is a need for better understanding of the psychology of prediction and how it is that knowledgeable people, considering the same sets of facts in their areas of expertise, can come to such disparate conclusions about what they portend.

There are many examples of detrimental environmental change resulting from human activities undertaken with the best of intentions; the problem has been a failure, or inability, to foresee the unwanted consequences of the activities. The widespread use of DDT and CFCs are two well-known cases; there are many others. When the damage becomes apparent in such cases, it may also be discovered that reversing it—if reversing it is possible—is extremely costly. The planned restoration of the Kissimmee River in Florida to something like its original (103-mile) rambling trajectory following its straightening (to a 56-mile canal) by the Army Corps of Engineers illustrates the point. According to Holloway (1994), the restoration was expected to cost about 100 times as much as the straightening. This also illustrates the need for predictive techniques that are especially sensitive to possible consequences of a planned activity other than the intended ones.

For over 100 years, dams have been built on rivers to generate electric power; they have been built longer to capture water for irrigation. There are now about 70,000 dams in the United States alone and many more around the world, some of which are noted as marvels of engineering. The generation of electric power by the capture of falling water has much to recommend it from an environmental point of view. However, detrimental effects on ecosystems have become clear during the last few decades (Gleick, 2001). Again, the lesson to be learned is that it appears to be easier to predict the benefits realized from activities planned with good intentions than to anticipate potentially countervailing problems that those activities might cause.

A major challenge is that of being prepared to deal with unpredicted—perhaps inherently unpredictable—events. Major developments sometimes catch even the experts unprepared. Who among the experts, for example, foresaw by a significant time the dissolution of the USSR, the development of the Internet, or the emergence of the AIDS epidemic? There undoubtedly will be events in the future that have implications for environmental change that no one now foresees.

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