Dominic Lawson: If you want to know what's going to happen in 2008, there are lots of experts who can't tell you

Perhaps the best commentary on the futility of forecasting is provided by the film 'Being There'
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The Independent Online

Can you predict how this column is going to end? I can't and I'm the one who's supposed to know. Please bear this in mind as you plough through the endless pages of "predictions from experts" explaining what is going to happen to the world in 2008.

You know the sort of thing: it spreads all the way from who will win any number of presidential elections, via which countries will win a range of sporting events, to who will be the new face of fashion. Some of those predictions will turn out to be correct the law of averages, and coincidence, should guarantee that; but then, you can get the same deal from a fairground fortune-teller.

At the most grandiose end of this market in second sight are the forecasters of the big City investment banks. These are very respectable people with very respectable salaries. Last weekend's Sunday Times Business section published a list of "2007's Best Forecasters". Perhaps the most significant single forecast that had been demanded of them was to predict what the Bank of England's Base Rate would be at year-end. Of the "45 Best Forecasters" listed by The Sunday Times, how many do you think predicted the actual figure of 5.5 per cent? Not a single one of them which might make you wonder what sort of crazy stuff The Sunday Times could have published if it had asked the 45 Worst Forecasters.

You will perhaps now be prepared for the next revelation: not one of the "45 Best Forecasters" predicted that the UK would have racked up a 60bn current account deficit by the end of the year and the great majority of them were out in their estimates by around 25bn.

I am not shocked by this, or even surprised, having benefited some years ago from a discussion with one of those whose job it was to help set the Bank of England's interest rates. In all innocence, I asked this man if he and his colleagues had a clear sense of what the future rate of growth would be when they took their vital decisions. He looked at me in pitying wonderment.

"Not only do we not know that, we don't know exactly what the rate of growth is at the moment. As a matter of fact, we're not even sure what it was six months ago." His point, essentially, was that the collection of information is itself a very flawed process as the numerous upwards or downwards revisions of previously accepted figures all too frequently demonstrate.

Last year was, admittedly, unusual in its instability. It produced "the credit crunch", a sudden seizing-up of the global money markets. The "45 Best Forecasters" might claim that their careful predictions had been laid waste by this cataclysmic event; but even if this were the explanation, it is hardly a legitimate excuse instead it merely raises the bigger question of why none of the great financial gurus anticipated the global consequences which, we are now told, were " an inevitable consequence of improvident mortgage lending in the US". Yes, it was all so inevitable that nobody predicted the way it actually unfolded.

As the doyen of financial commentators, the FT's Sir Samuel Brittan, recently pointed out, quoting the great Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek: there do not seem to be many people who have made money by acting on economic forecasts, but a very large number who have made fortunes by selling them. The number of angry letters to the FT provoked by this insight suggests that my old friend Sam could only have been telling the truth.

This sensitivity is understandable not just personal credibility, but large salaries and even larger bonuses are at risk here. In the case of predictions in the world of politics, less is at stake and therefore the forecasts are made with a kind of joyous irresponsibility, especially at this time of year.

A couple of days ago, BBC Radio 4 got its three top men in North America to predict presumably for the education and enlightenment of the listeners who would be the next President of the United States of America. "Hillary Clinton" said expert No. 1, confidently. "Barack Obama" shot back expert No. 2, with equal conviction. "John McCain" insisted expert No. 3, in a similarly self-assured manner. Anyone for Huckabee? Well, it's just a game, isn't it?

The next day yesterday in fact Radio 4 gave another trio of "experts" a chance to dazzle us with their powers of political prophesy on Start The Week. Slightly embarrassingly, however, the BBC had to preface the programme by warning us that it had been pre-recorded "before the assassination of Benazir Bhutto". That, apparently, could not have been predicted by the seers gathered around the microphone at Broadcasting House.

Perhaps the best commentary on the futility of the forecasting of experts, whether on politics or economics, is provided by that wonderful film, Being There. Peter Sellers plays Chance the Gardener, whose simple-minded observations about shrubbery maintenance are taken as great insights about the state of the American economy.

Thus, when a television interviewer asks Chance the Gardener, "Do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?", he is overwhelmed by the apparent wisdom of Chance's reply: "As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden. In the garden growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again."

The reason why this conceit works is in part because we know that the Peter Sellers character while not understanding any of the questions he is being asked, still less what the answers might be really is making as much sense as the apparently qualified "experts" who would normally be bamboozling us with their meretricious gobbledygook. It turns out that Chance the Gardener is not the real simpleton we are the fools for listening to any of this.

Some of you might argue and you would be making a good point that it's very easy for me to sneer at the predictions of other journalists and pundits, since I am not taking the risk of making my own forecasts for 2008. Very well, then; although, given my objections to the whole business, please forgive me if I make only predictions about what will not happen in the coming 12 months.

I predict that Madeleine McCann will not be discovered (thus preserving an entire industry in speculation). I predict that no Western political leader will mention the plight of Tibet in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. I predict that Sarah Brown will not invite Cherie Blair round for tea at No. 10. And I predict that Martin Amis will not convert to Islam.

I was going to add that that Richard Dawkins would not become a Roman Catholic but, then, you never know.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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