The Power of Prediction

By | June 10, 2024

Guest post by Kevin Mills

This year will see elections being fought for political control of both the USA and the UK. Campaigns are in full swing in both countries, and the pollsters are busy making their numerological predictions. Even though such supposed foresight is rarely accurate, it is said that politicians use the results of polls to shape and target their messages and canvassing strategies.

If prediction looms especially large in the democratic process and public consciousness at election time, it is no less an integral part of everyday life. Economists produce regular forecasts of growth, downturn, boom, bust or stagnation; sports commentators speculate on the outcome of forthcoming competitions; journalists offer opinions on what politicians are likely to say or do next. Designers of clothes, food producers, car manufacturers and everyone who takes their products and/or services to the marketplace, do so on the basis of predicted demand. We sometimes plan our activities around weather forecasts, and, particularly in the UK, love to know meteorological details in advance. Most importantly of all, these days, climate change and the likelihood of environmental disaster are subjects of predictive calculation. The capitalist system, and, it now seems, the future of humankind, depends upon our having some sense of what is coming our way, even though we cannot actually predict very much at all with any degree of certainty. In many ways, the future is as dark to us as it was to our ancient forebears.

In prehistoric times, the natural world was fraught with inexplicable events and processes, and human life was subject to the play of unseen forces. The ancient Egyptians told the story of Ra’s nightly journey in his sun-boat across the waters of the underworld. Each and every night he was obliged to undertake the perilous voyage, repelling repeated attacks by the serpent Apophis. If he was victorious, the sun would come up in the morning; if he was defeated, darkness would reign. We have no way of knowing how those who created and passed on the story understood it, but it clearly indicates the extent to which even the most predictable aspects of the natural world were open to doubt as long as nature’s laws remained hidden.

To some extent, myth might be thought of as functioning as (among other things) a prediction engine. If nature and other people could confront you with potentially threatening behaviours out of the blue, you could at least seek to take back control by telling stories which made sense of your observation and experience. Narrative patterns could impose a kind of logic on expected outcomes. On the basis of those stories, rituals could be devised which enabled you to be a participant in the struggle rather than a passive observer or victim, thus making disaster less likely and putting wind in the sails of good fortune.

As modern people living in science-informed cultures, we have some advantages over the prophets and mythmakers of old. Scientists can measure the accumulation of greenhouse gasses and can reason from cause to effect in ways which were not possible for pre-scientific humanity. Meteorologists have at their disposal  an array of empirical data and technological devices, including satellites, which can model changing air pressure and the global shifting of wind and cloud. We know about the Earth’s orbiting of the sun and its axial rotation, and we can be certain that the sun will rise and set as long as the solar system remains intact. And yet, there is much we cannot foretell: no-one knows who will be in power this time next year. Even if we could rely on the opinion polls, we cannot know who will be alive, what accidents might occur or to whom, what diseases might arise in which bodies or populations, what natural disasters may strike us or what their aftermath may confront us with. We cannot say for sure what the global economy might do nor how its vicissitudes might affect our political systems or our everyday lives. Perhaps that is one reason why we still tell stories, many of which draw on, repeat or recycle the most ancient stories of all. I predict that we will always be storytellers and that future stories will continually return to those from the immemorial past, not least because most of us remain subject to the whim of giant forces beyond our scrutiny, be they natural or political.

Kevin Mills, author of Myths and Ancient Stories, is Professor of English Literature at the University of South Wales, UK. He has published widely in the field of literary studies, including three monographs and numerous essays and chapters. Three collections of his poetry have been published by Cinnamon Press. He is course leader for the MPhil in Writing and teaches, amongst other things, on Myth and Narrative.

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