Predicting Outcomes? Or Producing Them?

A reader of this blog recently sent me a link to an article about prognostications, noting that its central message had application to the discussions that take place on this blog–especially in the comments.

She was correct.

The article began with a story about the author’s brother, who had been born with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other conditions that made the doctors believe he’d be unlikely to live past his first birthday; they informed the parents that there was a 95% probability that the baby wouldn’t make that birthday.

Nevertheless, year after year, the brother outlived the doctors’ predictions.

Jason’s ‘95 per cent’ wasn’t just an indifferent number. My brother’s life is evidence of the politics of probability: the life-defining feedback loop that exists between our values and the information that shapes them. What we know about the future depends, in part, on what we think is worth knowing – and what we think is worth knowing depends, in turn, on what we believe the future already holds.

Researchers who measure various physical phenomena frequently worry that the act of measuring  may affect the behavior of what is being measured, leading to inaccurate results. The author of this article has a similar concern about the act of prediction:

In other words, if a condition is thought to result in a low chance of survival, it translates into less care for the person with it. Invoking probabilities can create a fatal cycle that shapes how people understand the range of options at their disposal, and even the value of their children’s lives. Disability communities know this all too well. The idea that disability implies disadvantage is regrettably widespread, as loose talk about ‘tragedy’ and ‘struggle’ suggests. A wealth of research suggests that doctors routinely misjudge the quality of life that people with disabilities enjoy. If one judges such a life not worth living – as even Socrates ignominiously suggested – there’s no point fighting for treatment or questioning the conditions that generate the chances of success. Probability, far from being neutral, can directly contribute to injustice.

The political application of this observation is obvious: if we believe that the district in which we live and vote is “safe” for the other party, we are much more likely to skip voting; if enough of our neighbors do likewise, we have created the predicted result.

If the public response to yet another mass shooting is limited to bemoaning the “fact” that the NRA’s influence is too strong to overcome, Americans will fail to do the organizing and agitating that can counter that influence.

There has been a wake-up call prompted by the election of Donald Trump; many, many  people who previously didn’t follow political news have become aware of the “brokenness” of America’s government. If they respond with angry acceptance–if majorities of Americans believe that the country is so far down the road to corporatism and corruption that a return to more democratic, ethical governance is unlikely–then we will fail to organize, agitate and vote in numbers sufficient to effect that change.

Being human, we will always engage in prediction. But we need to be careful that we don’t act in ways that reinforce–or even bring about– our gloomiest prognostications.


  1. Sheila,

    Thanks for writing about this because it is so pertinent to these times, particularly when the reporting of “facts” has morphed into conjecture by talking heads and social web sites masquerading as news. And then there is the ever present challenge of the “facts” we are not aware of, do not see, much less understand because mankind’s knowledge has not advanced that far.

    Living in this era demands an awareness rooted in reality and a discerning mind open to new “facts”.

  2. Resilience in the face of overwhelming odds and repeated defeats is key to thriving. Not just surviving but bringing joy to life. Lives worth living as either a successful athlete or a broken bodied oldster who still has friends and things to do. Not being polly anna about how hard change is, but creatively circumventing the ‘it will never work’ and ‘there is no way’. Being hopeless but still trying:) Permanent discouragement is the selfish devils best tool. It gives the illusion of sucking the oxygen out of a room. Suffocating hope and change, but it is a lie.

  3. I am taking Pete’s suggestions about voting. I interpret them thus:
    Vote in November, 2018 and in 2020.
    Vote NO to any GOP on your ballot.
    Vote YES to any DEM.
    Do not DILUTE your vote by voting YES to “other” (unelectable third party)
    Vote NO to any GOP congress and senator.
    Thereby clean out the GOP majority and stumbling leadership of McConnell, Ryan and all committee chairs.
    The health of our country depends on YOU.
    BONUS: Rein in the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

  4. “Predicting Outcomes? Or Producing Them?”

    Another term for this condition is a “self-fulfilling prophesy”. The Weaver family, led by self-appointed prophet, wife and mother Vicki, fled civilization due to her prediction of the coming of Armageddon. Their total distrust and disregard for government laws and living within the norms of civilization led to their personal Armageddon at Ruby Ridge, Iowa. Weaver’s Armageddon came in the form of countless military level armed federal agents, members of a number of government departments, local public safety officers, including jeeps and tanks to attack one family and one friend in their mountaintop shack, killing Vicki as she held their infant daughter in her arms, their 13 year old son and their dog plus one government agent.

    Another self-fulfilling prophesy regarding religious disregard of government and predictions of attack, led by David Koresh, was the mass killing and destruction by our government at the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas.

    “Researchers who measure various physical phenomena frequently worry that the act of measuring may affect the behavior of what is being measured, leading to inaccurate results.”

    While the Weaver and Koresh situations are at the extreme end of “self-fulfilling prophesies” by individuals; we are now dealing with the entire government body doing the “measuring” and predicting, going beyond our national borders to do its measuring to fit into the boundaries set by self-appointed prophet Trump, has many of us considering an international nuclear Armageddon. Does anyone who watched the much awaited announcement by South Korean officials last night expect Trump or Kim Jong Un to actually meet to arbitrate nuclear solutions? I could have missed something while watching the milling crowd of members of the media awaiting the announcement but I keep wondering why Trump did not appear to make this announcement. It is his pissing contest, “measuring my bombs are bigger than your bombs and my bombs work”. Both have those red buttons on their desks.

    “Being human, we will always engage in prediction. But we need to be careful that we don’t act in ways that reinforce–or even bring about– our gloomiest prognostications.”

    I predict the meeting will either never happen or will end in failure to negotiate a nuclear pact safe-for-all-nations, between two diplomatically, inept, childish world leaders. Will they even be able to decide on a meeting place let alone produce denuclearization of all nations?

  5. Theresa, “Open minds” are the devil’s work. “Liberals are evil.”

    You don’t need to understand who developed our intricate web of propaganda (see Noam Chomsky) to manipulate Americans into believing this way. All you have to do is see who benefits and who loses.

    Same with the DNC…who benefits from their programs? Who do they target for manipulation?

    The winners and losers are easy to see in our society. Alabama was heralded as having the most extreme poverty, yet the poor whites consistently vote against their own best interests. The blacks in Alabama vote democrat, yet their lot in life hasn’t improved either.

    We’ve already witnessed millions who are hopeless because one election cycle after another doesn’t cause life to improve for the working class. They don’t want to be billionaires–they just want respectable work so they don’t have to choose between healthcare or groceries.

    Miracles, or the unexplained, happens all the time. Instead of economists being interviewed all the time in our media, we need to hear and read from the sociologists and environmental economists. The media uses the stock market to gauge how our country is doing. They pull out GDP figures to show how we’re growing.

    None of this equates to happiness or improvements in the social order.

    Indiana is looked upon as a model state for conservatism but our roads and bridges continue to crumble. We have $2 billion in the bank but we’re starving public schools intentionally so we can choke out the one remaining public union–teachers.

    I see hope in the younger generations, but not everybody has access to the internet or knows how to use a smartphone. 😉

  6. But if we fight the Kochs and their puppets in government offices the Kochs will be forced to spend even more money on their propaganda. That would be so mean of us. It could cause them to go hog wild with even more extravagant lies that might enable the citizens who have believed their BS to finally see through it.

  7. I would love to see the youth in this country mobilize a campaign to demand that Citizens United be overturned and demand that PACs and all other forms of monetary influence be ruled as illegal.

    It is going to take the energy of the youth to turn this country around.

  8. We have to scrimp and save every penny for koch bros taxcuts. There is no money to treat the needy. Simple fact of life. Just ask Drumpf and wingnuts.

  9. i am NOT making light of someones disabilites. but,were dealing with corp ceos,and this is thier obvious thinking,,buisness is survival at all costs,even people. the sick,taking up money and resources,ignore them till they disappear,,check.. welfare people,,take this minimum wage job and live with it,your into my profit,check..disabled,why should we accommodate,check.(hitler would be proud)..we need roads to improve our delivery system,tax everyone who enjoys our products,check…we donate to law makers,(bribes) ( see make rules and laws non existant,for our survival,,,and since its from our profit to lobby,raise the price again,check…the koch bros need new shoes,tax someone,check…trump is being sued,find a way to eliminate the issue,,buy fox news,,check. its 2018- and we still tolerate this crap!

  10. Committing to being a certain way in the face of no agreement and being in action on that commitment is what produces results. And sometimes, transformation.

    Is it a prediction if the results occur within the same day and/or hour? Or is that mere coincidence? Is it happenstance that a community organizes to push back against a policy that inhibits, restricts and even destroys neighborhoods, and becomes the cause celebré for rethinking the future of a major highway network? Was that a prediction or a result of production? Does it matter if the outcome is the same?

    I don’t have the answers. I just know it feels good and productive and right to be part of a group that stands for improving lives and communities and making a difference in what the future can be rather than accepting what the future is said to be by others with no “skin in the game”.

  11. First, a 10 second commercial: statistics, like math, express reality usefully only to people who have adequately learned them. Shortage of statistical literacy is like our present shortage of civic and scientific literacy, and reminiscent of our former reading and writing literacy, a huge handicap.

    A significant portion of the American electorarate are suffering from one or more items of inadequate literacy and therefore are open to the idea that government screws workers, poor people are merely slackers, and wealth measures everything good and noble.

    The rest is history.

    This is an existential problem that took decades to form and will takes decades of people dying and being replaced by decades of people catching up to what has to be known now to correct.

    If we wait decades for the problem to be solved the window of opportunity to solve it and maintain democracy will be closed.

    This is an emergency requiring emergency drastic measures.

    Vote Ds only this year and and in 2020. Once we have saved the republic we can return to fixing it.

  12. Carrie,

    “I don’t have the answers. I just know it feels good and productive and right to be part of a group that stands for improving lives and communities and making a difference in what the future can be rather than accepting what the future is said to be by others with no “skin in the game”.”

    Ditto. And I might add, the lack of any notion of “ETHICAL BEHAVIOR.”

  13. Thank you Sheila,

    Regardless of what I’m doing, whether it’s working, reading or doing anything else what you’ve described tends to always be in the back of my mind. I read a lot of history, always have, and I’ve read all sorts of stuff regarding American renewal that has occurred countless times over the last 240 years. I find myself wishing that I had a time machine so that I could go back two each one of these leaps forward and get a feel for how people fought at the times they were happening. I wonder if they were is disheartened as we are now. Surely with the events that led up to the American civil war and the secession of almost half the country from the union people had to have been wondering where are we headed and how do we fix this.
    We’re definitely in one of those periods, sort of a trough, where nothing seems to be working in virtually everything that we have been brought up to revere and to preserve seems to not be working in the leadership that we need, which of course we lack, seems nowhere on the horizon. We have a total buffoon in the White House that right now thinks that negotiating with the North Koreans will be akin to a big real estate deal, that a trade war is good for America, that more Co2 is good for the air, and any other thing that he can think of that throws a big monkey wrench into the way things have traditionally been done in regard to orchestrating governmental policy in whatever realm it applies to.

    We have this buffoon sitting in the White House because a sizable portion of the American people, actually a third or less, bought what this buffoon was saying where he can fix everything, that he would drain the swamp in Washington and make government work again. They actually bought into the ideas of Steven Bannon, a self-professed Leninist of all things, where he not only wanted to do that but also essentially destroy the existing governmental structure of this country on the premise that it no longer met the needs of the average American ever that person happens on any given day. Thus we end up with totally unqualified former hedge fund managers being on the National Security Council of all things.
    Bannon at least half way convinced the buffoon that his highly destructive ideas played directly into his hands in coopting those that were highly disillusioned in their government and felt left behind because of the uneven economic development in this country that has existed over decades. The buffoon told all of them to put their trust in him and that he would fix it all for them and do everything differently and restore the country for them which, in the long run, was no different than what any other political candidate would say to curry favor and just as hollow as what the others were offering on the Republican and Libertarian side.

    This country has been blessed that at these times of upheaval true leaders have a merged that if guided the country out of the doldrums that it found itself in and lead the renewal that is happened so many times in key periods of our history. Right now, we have no such a leader nor, given an at least a cursory overview of who could possibly fall into that category, we come up short. Meanwhile, the buffoon is acting like a one man wrecking crew and it some point in time, probably soon, those that elected this the buffoon are going to realize the mistake that they made and the devils that they’ve made bargains with because they are going to see that those that they put their faith in our incapable of delivering what they promised them. Concurrently, this lack of leadership and responsible governance is going to set this country back instead of leading it forward with ramifications that go far beyond our borders and threatened a rack the international environment which traces its lineage back to the end of the First World War and then reinforced and renewed again after the Second World War.

    We know nothing other than this, particularly baby boomers in any one born after 1945. It has been such a constant in our lives that we don’t even think about it, even people that followed international affairs since it was such a constant. Now we have a buffoon that threatens to wreck it along with our country and not due to any grand design but do that have jet total incompetence along with a heavy dose of greed and avarice and collusion with people that none of us would allow in our own living rooms. We have to do more than just stand back and watch the daily her raid of four stories emanating out of Washington, DC and realize, perhaps now more than ever before, that we’re in for the fight of our lives to save this country, to save our way of life, ultimately the rest of the world. It’s pretty obvious right at the moment that the political class in this country whether they’d be at the local, state, or Federal level are not there to do business for us since we have just stood by and let this happen to ourselves. We live in an era where the communication of ideas regarding what we should do are readily available but even with that we have taken our hand off the teller once again and run the risk of descending into even further chaos. Ultimately we have to make a choice. Do we take an interest in what goes on around her own little worlds and stand up against the forces that are arrayed against us which come from several quarters simultaneously or do we just cave and just figure that it’ll all work out in the end? Right now there’s no more than an even chance that it won’t.

  14. I live in a 2-1 Republican county here in Florida and haven’t missed a single election primary through general. Even if we lose local elections (and we do) we are contributing votes for Republicans by statewide and federal count when we stay at home. We need to remind ourselves that Lincoln lost many more elections than he won, but persevered, winning the big enchilada. Those who “predict” loss due to gerrymandering or other voter suppression techniques are therefore short-sighted in that their absence from the polls make their predictions ring true – but across the board. Thus it can be argued that the people who did not vote did vote, and for those they didn’t want in office. The lesson? Always vote, even if you are the only Democrat in your precinct. The democracy you save may be your own.

  15. What Pete said. We need to win elections. Once we have done that, then we can concern ourselves with replacing DINO’s with progressives, although we need to realize that some DINO’s would likely be more progressive if the D’s have a healthy majority.

  16. I predict that a number of criminals will be unearthed, exposed, indicted, convicted, and jailed. I expect a number of FBI sorts to suffer that fate, a couple of AGs, maybe even a former President and his Secretary of State if, of course, they broke all those laws. No complaints, I’d assume from a law school professor?

  17. I agree with Leon Dixon, except that the criminals unearthed, exposed, indicted, convicted and jailed, will be the current White House crowd, Hannity and crew notwithstanding. And the Buffoon may well be at the top of the list.

Comments are closed.