by David McElroy
At the beginning of the primary election season last year, a friend here in Alabama asked me what I thought of an obscure Republican gubernatorial candidate. The guy was a state legislator and physician who I’d never heard of before he announced he was running for governor.
“Robert Bentley?” I asked. “Who’s he? He has no real campaign experience. He’s never done anything that anybody’s heard of. He has less chance of getting elected governor than my dog Lucy does.”
Six months later, this obscure guy was elected governor in a landslide. Lucy still hasn’t announced her candidacy for anything.
I spent most of two decades working in Alabama politics among Republican campaigns. I was just as qualified as anybody to be considered an expert about who had a shot. But I was absolutely, positively, 100 percent wrong.
The iPhone is pretty darned ubiquitous these days — including the iPhone 4 that’s with me pretty much 24 hours a day — but many experts predicted its failure when it was announced early in 2007. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer certainly hoped Apple’s new phone would flop, but he sounded as though he was absolutely confident in April 2007 when he said the following:
“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60 percent or 70 percent or 80 percent of them, than I would to have 2 percent or 3 percent, which is what Apple might get.”
So why do so-called experts get things so wrong so frequently. Was I less informed about state politics than I thought I was? Was I just an idiot who was falsely sure of his opinions? And what about Ballmer? He’s a very successful head of one of the world’s largest companies. How could he have been so wrong about the iPhone, as compared to his own failing Windows Mobile platform?
The late baseball manager Yogi Berra was noted for his warped sayings, but he was right when he said, “It’s tough to make predictions — especially about the future.” That doesn’t stop people from trying. They’re simply wrong much more often than not. Oddly, people frequently are more interested in predictions themselves than in the accuracy of the predictions. (Economist Robin Hanson had a terrific article about this at Cato Unbound last week. I highly recommend it.)
I think I have an idea of what’s coming for the world. I think the state is going to give way to something else. I have vague ideas about what that might be, but I’m not arrogant enough to think I have a good picture of it — or that whatever picture I do have is right. Most people pretty much expect the world to continue as an extension of what we have today. Experts have always predicted more of the same — and they’re frequently wrong. As an iconoclast, I love watching experts be wrong, so I love the book called “The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation.” Buy it. Read it. Laugh at the idiots. And then laugh at yourself for being just as wrong as they are.
I talk a lot at this site about what I think the future holds. I think I’m being pretty realistic to see the state going away and something much more diverse taking its place, but I might be wrong. I like to remind myself of that. And I like to remind those of you who do see the continuation of the social democratic state that you might very well be wrong, too.
Just because it’s fun, I’m going to close with various examples of experts who weren’t so expert when it came to predicting the future. All of these come from “The Experts Speak.”
All of us — regardless of what we believe the future holds — need to have the humility to realize we might be wrong. If we’re too confident in what we believe, we might end up being quoted in a future edition of this book.
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
“I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” — The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957
“But what…is it good for?” — Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” –Western Union internal memo, 1876
“The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” — Sir William Preece, chief engineer of the British Post Office, 1876
“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” — David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s
“While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility.” — Lee DeForest, inventor
“The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.” — A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express)
“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” — H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927
“I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper.” — Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in “Gone With the Wind”
“A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make.” — Response to Debbi Fields’ idea of starting Mrs. Fields’ Cookies
“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” — Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962
“Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” — William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, British scientist, 1899
“So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.'” — Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and HP interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer
“If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this.” — Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M “Post-It” Notepads
“It will be years — not in my time — before a woman will become Prime Minister.” — Margaret Thatcher, 1974
“I see no good reasons why the views given in this volume should shock the religious sensibilities of anyone.” — Charles Darwin, The Origin Of Species, 1869
“With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market.” — Business Week, August 2, 1968
“That Professor Goddard with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react–to say that would be absurd. Of course, he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.” — 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard’s revolutionary rocket work
“You want to have consistent and uniform muscle development across all of your muscles? It can’t be done. It’s just a fact of life. You just have to accept inconsistent muscle development as an unalterable condition of weight training.” — Response to Arthur Jones, who solved the “unsolvable” problem by inventing Nautilus
“Ours has been the first, and doubtless to be the last, to visit this profitless locality.” — Lt. Joseph Ives, after visiting the Grand Canyon in 1861
“Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy.” — Workers whom Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859
“Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” — Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929
“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” — Albert Einstein, 1932
“The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.” — Admiral William Leahy, U.S. Atomic Bomb Project
“Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” — Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre
“There will never be a bigger plane built.” — A Boeing engineer, after the first flight of the 247, a twin engine plane that holds ten people
“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” — Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872
“The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.” — Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873