How to spot the worst predictions ever

I’m going to tell you the story of a truly terrible forecast. In 1991 a best-selling book captured America’s attention. Somewhat deliriously titled “The Coming War with Japan,” it predicted that the US and Japan would soon go to war with each other in a conflict that would rehash World War II.

Of course, that war never happened.

Today almost nobody remembers the book. For the handful of people who do remember it, it’s a laughingstock. I bought a used copy from Amazon for 25 cents after a library discarded it from their collection.

Inside the cover of “The Coming War With Japan”

So, how did this awful prediction come about?

Part of it might have been that neither of the authors were Japan experts: instead they were a conservative analyst and, oddly, a poetry teacher.

Part of it might have to do with the fact that one of the authors of the book — by her own admission — grew up in a family prejudiced towards Japanese people.

Another part of it might have to do with the fact that the two of them lived in a city (Harrisburg Pennsylvania), which even ten years later had close to zero Japanese Americans living there. The US Census recorded in 2000:

Source.

And some of it undoubtedly has to do with the fact that neither of them bothered to actually visit Japan to ask people whether or not anyone there actually wanted a war with the United States before they wrote the book.

Today the US and Japan are some of the closest trading partners in the world. Japan does not even have a proper military; its postwar constitution forbids anything other than a small defensive force. Japan assisted America in the Afghanistan War and the two countries have been strategic allies for decades, sharing interest in regional security matters such as North Korean aggression.

But let’s step back and recognize a broader principle:

People are afraid of folks they don’t have much contact with

A busy New York City street full of immigrants in 1900 (colorized)

We can see evidence for this principle all over the place. Take a hot button issue like immigration for instance. The Washington Post reports:

Rural residents are more likely than people in cities or suburbs to think that immigrants are not adapting to the American way of life. The poll also finds that these views soften in rural areas with significant foreign-born populations. […]
One reason for rural Americans’ concern about immigrants could be their lack of exposure to them. Foreign-born residents make up 2.3 percent of the population in rural counties, compared with nearly 15 percent of urban counties, according to Census Bureau data for 2011–2015.

In other words, the Americans who have the least contact with immigrants are the most afraid of them.

Public interest research group PRRI did a fascinating study asking Americans in all 50 states this same question:

Which statement comes closest to your own view… the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values, or strengthens American society?

Take a look at this map, with the darker shaded areas being the parts that were more afraid of immigrants:

Do immigrants threaten American values? (Darker green means yes.)

Notice anything in particular about the darker green states where people were more likely to hold prejudicial views towards immigrants? They’re also the spots with the least immigrants.

Take for instance West Virginia, where a plurality of people (47%) felt immigrants were a threat to their way of life. It also happens to be a state with one of the fewest numbers of immigrants. Conversely, states like New York that have large immigrant populations (where people are more likely to have frequent meaningful contact with immigrants) are far less likely to hold these views. In a super-diverse state like Hawaii, where more than a third of residents are either immigrants themselves or have an immigrant parent, hardly anybody is afraid of immigration.

That’s no coincidence.

What can we learn about predictions from this?

Source.

The worst predictions are those that actively cause harm. When people make fear-mongering predictions about marginalized people, they halt the pace of social progress.

Here’s another example:

Before the Civil Rights Movement, many public bathrooms were segregated by race. If you were “colored” you couldn’t use the same restrooms or drinking fountains as white people. You’ve probably seen old photos of “whites only” signs. Some racist white women predicted that they would catch syphilis if bathrooms were desegregated and they were forced to use the same toilets as black women. Of course they were ultimately wrong about that. (It’s impossible to catch STDs from a toilet seat!) And in reality, after bathrooms were desegregated, syphilis rates actually went down, not up.

Today the exact same arguments about “protecting women” are being used to push discriminatory transgender bathroom bans. Wanna bet if the lawmakers voting for these statutes have had much contact with trans folks?

How to avoid the worst predictions, step by step

Once you learn these rules, spotting heinous predictions becomes a lot easier. Ask yourself the following questions when evaluating a prediction:

  1. Is this a prediction about a group of people who have been historically marginalized?
  2. Is this a prediction about a group of people that I haven’t had much contact with?
  3. Is this prediction being made by someone who has not had much contact with the people or thing they are making a prediction about?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, that’s a blinking red warning light. Be cautious! Yes, it’s possible that the prediction might still turn out to be right, but you should treat it with skepticism and look for more data.

Whatever happened to those Japan-fearing authors?

From “The Coming War With Japan.” She’s still rocking that haircut to this day. Seriously.

The authors of that awful “Coming War With Japan” book ended up marrying each other and moving to Texas. They even created their own forecasting company where clients pay them for their predictions! Oddly, neither one lists their first book “The Coming War with Japan” in their official bios, despite it being a bestseller.

Today they are now predicting a brand new World War III against Japan… this time around 2050. Stay tuned to see if that one pans out. Although they’re now old enough that they won’t be held accountable either way. So perhaps they have learned something about making predictions after all! The rest of us can learn something too.