The most recent winning Powerball numbers were 9,30,31,50,54,39. But a month ago, nobody would have placed any significant probability on those exact numbers coming up. What better illustration that questions about the future cannot be answered, even in the probabilistic sense?
If that made you scratch your head, your scalp will probably be rubbed raw before you’re finished reading Anatole Koletsky‘s Wall Street Journal essay, excerpted from his book Capitalism 4.0. (Caveat: I have not read the book, so I’m not sure how much danger the rest of it poses to your scalp, or to your sanity.) Mr. Koletsky’s “proof” that some questions “cannot be answered, even in a probabilistic sense” is this:
In 1980, nobody would have put any significant probability on computer sales exceeding car sales by a factor of 10 to 1.”
But that’s not all! There’s also this:
What is the probability that someone in the next hundred years will invent a soft drink more popular than Coca-Cola? This probability must surely rate at almost 100%, yet that would also have been true in 1910. There is no rational way of making such an assessment(!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). [Snarky emphasis added.]
Look. This isn’t rocket science. Over the course of a hundred years, a whole lot of things happen. When a whole lot of things happen, some of those things (like a particular set of Powerball numbers or the computer revolution, or the continued success of Coca-Cola) will have been extremely unlikely. That’s how probability works. If, over the course of the past century, no very unlikely things had happened, then we’d know that our probabilistic models weren’t working. So far they seem to be working just fine.
Of course the same models predict that more likely events will occur more often. For example, I could easily have predicted a year ago—or even a decade ago—that with extremely high probability, a lot of nonsense would be published in the year 2010. Thanks to Mr. Kaletsky for doing his bit to confirm that prediction.