Predictions that Aged Poorly

Prediction is hard. We do our best with the limited information we have, and sometimes, that information allows us to be pretty accurate. In other cases, predictions can be spectacularly wrong. Here are a few of those “spectacularly wrong predictions” from the past:

Covid-19 will be short-lived and low-impact

“We could be just one or two people over the next short period of time”

Donald Trump, in a speech to reporters about Covid-19, February 2020

Many people were cautiously optimistic about covid-19’s potential impact on the United States. Trump was particularly vocal about this, stating “that the risk to America was “very low” and predicted a swift end to the outbreak”, even though members of his administration directly contradicted this with predictions of wide spread if left unchecked.

Instead of a “very low” risk, the covid-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 1 million Americans just 2 years later. To put this in perspective, and estimated 66,000 Americans died from the flu from 2018-2020.

Pokemon is just a fad

“Parents… can take some comfort in the fact that the Pokemon demographic is the same one that has abandoned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers.”

Howard Chua-Eoan and Tim Larimer, Beware of the Pokemania, Time, 11/14/99

As it turns out, Chua-Eoan and Larimer were wrong about Pokemon, TMNT, and Power Rangers at the same time.

Ever since Pokemon entered the American market, people have preached about its demise being just around the corner. More than 25 years later, Pokemon remains a dominant brand, with a massive array of IP: videogames, cards, TV series, movies, apps, toys, books, even hotel rooms! It’s entirely possible for the Pokemon to decline in the future, but that would involve the fall of a heavyweight brand, not a “passing fad”.

Stocks only go up

“Stock prices have reached ‘what looks like a permanently high plateau.’”

Irving Fisher, New York Times, October 16, 1929

Economist Irving Fisher’s famous declaration went south with the market just a couple weeks later. As the Federal Reserve recounts, on “Black Monday” on October 28th, 1929, the Dow dropped 13%. It dropped another 12% on the following day, “Black Tuesday”. By mid-November, the Dow had dropped almost 50% in total. And at the market bottom in 1932, the Dow had fallen 89% below its previous high (a level it wouldn’t regain until 1954).

Over the decades, many people have offered incredibly optimistic financial predictions. Beware those who think “stocks only go up,” or claim that an investment has guaranteed returns.

Humans will never fly

“It might be assumed that the flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous effort of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years”

“FLYING MACHINES WHICH DO NOT FLY.” New York Times, October 9th, 1903

The Wright brothers had their first successfully recorded flight on December 17th, 1903, just a couple months after the bold editorial posted in the NYT.

A little over a decade later, planes were actively being used by the military and for commercial flight (a 17-mile trip from St. Petersburg, Florida to Tampa, Florida, courtesy of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line).

And on July 20th, 1969, the US landed the first people on the moon.

Remove unnecessary English letters

“There will be no C, X, or Q in our everyday alphabet”

John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. “What may happen in the next hundred years.” The Ladies’ Home Journal. December 1900.

I like this prediction because the full text actually has some half-accurate predictions with regard to the English language. The rest of the text reads:

“There will be no C, X, or Q in our everyday alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary. Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas, and it will be more extensively spoken than any other. Russian will rank second.

The “condensed words expressing condensed ideas” didn’t quite happen, but in some ways it reflects text-speak and Internet slang. Watkins was also slight off when predicting that English would be the most widely-spoken language. As a useful languages timeline video estimates, back in 2000, Mandarin Chinese held the top spot, with English as a close #2 and Russian at #8 on the list. English obtained the #1 spot around the 2010s (perhaps in part to many Mandarin native speakers also learning English). Language estimates are themselves predictions in a way, so take this with a grain of salt, but other groups also find that English has become the #1 spoken language. We still use C, X, and Q, though.

One final note: when so many people make predictions and record them, it’s easy to cherrypick eerily accurate prophecies, as well as spectacularly wrong statements. All of the examples I’ve cherrypicked above have counterparts that were spot-on for predicting how events would turn out, whether recorded elsewhere or lost from common memory along the way. When we predict under uncertainty, we do our best to provide clear rationale, but the reality may turn out far different than we imagined.


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