Fabulously Failed Forecasts

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Predicting the future accurately is always a daunting challenge, even when it entails merely assessing the potential of a single person. Walt Disney was fired from his first newspaper job by an editor who declared that he had no imagination or original ideas. Michael Jordan failed to make the cut on his high school basketball team.  Steven Spielberg was rejected three times when he applied to University Of Southern California film school. Elizabethan playwright Robert Greene famously scoffed at a newcomer on the theatre scene, a certain young “upstart crow” named William Shakespeare. Network executives urged Gene Roddenberry to “get rid of the pointed ears guy”. Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first TV job because she was “unfit for TV”. A newspaper editorial during the 1992 presidential campaign predicted that George Bush would win reelection quite easily, with Ross Perot coming in a distant second, and dismissively added that “Bill Clinton is not considered a factor.”

The difficulties are magnified astronomically when you are dealing with groups of people, and entire cultures. There are so many butterfly-effect variables, so many of which are unforeseeable. In 1962, when a new major league baseball team made its debut, they were truly horrible, winning only 40 out of 160 games. Everyone wrote them off as hopeless, forever doomed to be a laughing stock. Nobody saw it coming when, 7 years later, this ragtag team called the New York Mets made an abrupt pivot in mid-season, surged into the playoffs, and decisively defeated the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles to win the World Series.

Not surprisingly, then, many people who have predicted the future, including individuals who were extremely knowledgeable about the topic, have been drastically, embarrassingly off track. So to take a break from the grind of current events, let’s reflect on some of the most memorable of these. There’s a great deal of material to choose from — at least one entire book has been compiled of flawed assessments. But let’s look at some of the most interesting; and for the most part, let’s narrow the field by sticking with actual predictions as opposed to just bad evaluations. Okay, let’s give that old Ouija board a good whack and see what comes up.

History and society

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable epocha, in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival.”  — John Adams

“I tell you Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad soldiers; we will settle the matter by lunchtime.”  –Napoleon at Waterloo, 1815

“There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” —  Abraham Lincoln, 1858

“I guess we’ll get through with them in a day.”– General Custer at Little Big Horn, 1876

“Over the next century, Law will be simplified. Lawyers will have diminished, and their fees will have been vastly curtailed.”  — Junius Henri Brown, American journalist, 1893

“[In the coming century], war is to be robbed of its ghastliness… machines will do the fighting… and sustain all the hard knocks.”  — Columnist George Kilmer, 1900

“I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that.”  —  Edward John Smith, Captain of the Titanic, 1912

“You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.”  — Kaiser Wilhelm II to his troops, 1914

“Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote. The relative positions assumed by man and woman in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence than ours.”  — Grover Cleveland

“Whatever happens, the U.S. Navy is not going to be caught napping.” —  Frank Knox, Sec. of the U.S. Navy, 1941 (3 days before Pearl Harbor)

“The actor’s first duty is to his profession. Hence, you can rest assured that I will never again run for mayor or anything but head man in my own household.”  — Ronald Reagan, 1955

“Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!” —  leader of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev addressing the “capitalist states”, 1956 (Note: Although many westerners construed this remark as threatening, he was just using a colorful idiom meaning “We will outlast you.”)

“It will be years — not in my time — before a woman will become prime minister.”  — Margaret Thatcher, not long before she became prime minister..

“I’ve decided to live to be a hundred” — health food guru J.I. Rodale while taping an interview on the Dick Cavett Show, 1972 (He died on the set a few minutes later, at age 72.)

Arts and entertainment

“He has learnt nothing, and will never do anything in decent style.” — music teacher Johann Albrechtsberger of his pupil, Ludwig Van Beethoven

“We fancy that any real child might be more puzzled than enchanted by this stiff, overwrought story.”  –Review in Children’s Books of Alice in Wonderland, 1865

“The growing gentleness of mankind will abolish, as barbarous, games which take the form of modified assault, as football, boxing, wrestling, fencing, and the like.”  –T. Baron Russell, 1905

“Movies are a fad. Audiences really want to see live actors on a stage” — Charlie Chaplin, ca. 1914

“Moving pictures need sound as much as Beethoven symphonies need lyrics.”  — Charlie Chaplin, 1928 (Maybe Charlie was unaware that in fact Beethoven himself inserted lyrics into one of his symphonies.)

“Gone With The Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. I’m glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling flat on his nose, not Gary Cooper” — Gary Cooper, turning down the role of Rhett Butler, 1939

“Certainly on the road to failure.” — teacher’s comment on report card of John Lennon

“I saw the rushes from yesterday; you’re never going to make it in the business. Just forget about it.” — studio executive to Harrison Ford

[Rock ‘n’ roll] will be gone by June.”  — Variety, 1955

“Sean Connery can’t play the sophisticated James Bond. He looks like a bricklayer.”   –producers of Dr No, 1962

“Guitar groups are on the way out… the Beatles have no future in show business.” — Decca Records executive, 1962 (2 years before they dramatically rewrote the history of popular music)

“Twelve million youngsters are in jeopardy from foolish grotesqueries deeply larded with ungrammatical Madison Avenue jargon.” —  TV critic Terence O’Flaherty on Sesame Street,  1970

Science and technology

“People give ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens… This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy.” –Martin Luther on Copernicus, 1543

“What can be more palpably absurd as the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?” — Quarterly Review, 1825

“The abolishment of pain in surgery is a chimera… It is absurd to go on seeking it today. — Dr. Alfred Velpeau, 1839  (7 years before anesthesia was introduced)

“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, 1876

“One day there will be one in every city.”  — anonymous mayor on the telephone, 1876

“The ordinary ‘horseless carriage’ is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and though its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.” –The Literary Digest, 1889

“It is apparent to me that the possibilities of the aeroplane, which two or three years ago were thought to hold the solution to the [flight] problem, have been exhausted, and that we must turn elsewhere.”
— Thomas Edison, 1895

“The energy necessary to propel a ship would be many times greater than that required to drive a train of cars at the same speed; hence as a means of rapid transit, flying could not begin to compete with the railroad.” –Popular Science, 1897

“Fooling around with AC electricity is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.”  — Thomas Edison, 1899

“While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming — Lee De Forest (“father of the radio”), 1926

“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable.”   –Albert Einstein, 1932

“At present, few scientists foresee any serious of practical use for atomic energy. They regard the atom-splitting experiments as useful steps in the attempt to describe the atom more accurately, not as the key to the unlocking of any new power. –Fortune magazine, 1938

“The atomic bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert on explosives” – Adm. William Leahy, 1945

“Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and weigh only 1.5 tons.”  –Popular Mechanics, 1949

“How do we know? Fallout may be good for us.” — Edward Teller (“father of the hydrogen bomb”), 1950

“If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one.” — National Cancer Institute, 1954

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — computer expert Ken Olson, 1977

“I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and, in 1996, catastrophically collapse.”  — computer expert  Robert Metcalfe, 1995

And my favorite among them all:

“It doesn’t matter what he does — he will never amount to anything.”  — school teacher to the father of Albert Einstein

So what can be learned from all these colossal flops in prognostication? Well, for one thing, obviously the experts can be wrong — sometimes severely so. But it’s false and dangerous to conclude from this, as many people do, that it’s a mistake to trust the experts at all.  Experts may be wrong sometimes, but they still have a much greater success rate than does the general public. If you don’t believe it, try composing a Beethoven symphony yourself, with or without lyrics.

What’s more important to keep in mind is that the future often depends on unexpected developments that even the most knowledgeable among us are powerless to foresee, forestall, or influence. On the one hand that can be frightening — as the U.S. presidential election of 2016 starkly demonstrated. But it’s also encouraging; the same unpredictable forces that got us into this mess can get us out of it. What seems impossible can happen so decisively that it seems inevitable. So take heart already. Just ask the New York Mets.

12 comments

  1. It was Elizabethan playwright Robert Greene (not Ben Jonson) who referred to “Shake-scene” as an “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers” in his posthumously published Groatsworth of Wit (unless Nashe or Chettle was the actual author as some charged at the time). By the time Jonson started making waves Shakespeare was well-established as a writer with Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Errors, and many others to his credit. Jonson of course was disparaging about Shakespeare’s craftsmanship in later years (“Would he had blotted a thousand” lines) but he did love the man and honor his memory (this side idolatry) as much as any.

    I’ve made my share of wrong predictions–one of my favorites being that Bush would narrowly defeat Gore in the presidential race. What was wrong with that? you ask. Well, the election in question was 1992, and Clinton (whom I didn’t even consider as a candidate) beat Bush (the father, not the son).

  2. I used to collect unfavorable reviews of books that went on to become (let us say) classics. That review of Alice was one of them, as was a Life review of Huckleberry Finn that couldn’t find any humor in the book, a Galaxy review of Fellowship of the Ring that lumped it in with another book the reviewer also couldn’t finish consigning both to the “rune-lovers,” and a contemporary review of Jane Eyre that found the main characters so unlikeable that they had to end up together because certainly nobody else would have them.

    I don’t know if it’s true or apocryphal, but one of my favorite stories is the one about the network executives telling Gene Roddenberry to “get rid of the pointed ears guy” or at least keep him in the background. As the series launched and Spock proved popular Roddenberry (according to the story) received a puzzled inquiry from those same executives wondering why he wasn’t featuring the character more prominently. Roddenberry’s reply was to send them copies of their previous instructions without further comment.

    Also originally the second-in-command on the Enterprise was supposed to be a woman, but the network executives found the idea of a woman in command of a ship incredible and insisted that Roddenberry change it. I don’t know if they were any happier with having an alien as second in command, but anyway that’s the story–and again, it may well be apocryphal.

    • I had the privilege of seeing Roddenberry many years ago, and that’s when I first heard about the network’s comment about the pointed-ears guy (he said that it illustrated the “infinite wisdom” of the TV execs). As you may know, Majel Barrett, who played the role of the second in command (and then the nurse) was Roddenberry’s girlfriend, and later his wife. The network suits may have felt that he was trying to put her into a major role just because he was romantically involved with her.

    • Good point. But wealth is a relative term with very wide variance. In the U.S., even people on welfare often drive cars of some sort. They might be considered wealthy in some countries, but certainly not in the U.S.

  3. Hello POP, I left a comment here a couple of days ago that is now gone. Was there anything wrong about it or just a computer glitch causes by me or you?

  4. When I was in High school my friends and I were often told about the wonders of the future. But many of these wonders were actually not expected to happen. Here are some of the predictions that were not believed by millions of people to be possible, before they actually happened—predictions that were made as long as fifty yeas ago.

    Some things that were considered impossible in my lifetime included the idea that billions of people would own personal computers (because at that time computers filled up entire rooms. the idea that we would someday receive hundreds of television channels at our disposals (which we would pay for), or that we would be able to stop live television and easily record our favorite shows with DVRs.

    We also had no idea that digital technology would revolutionize nearly every aspect of our lives—that we would be able to use a small rectangular form of plastic to pay for bills, as well as create phones, laptops, smart cell phones, HD television, and the technical ability to engage in face to face personal calls simply by using Skype!

    We would have consider ourselves daft for believing that small handheld “communicators” would enable us to talk to others thousands of miles away. And that these “communicators,” would flip open like those on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise as well as in the homes of billions of others!

    We also did not dream of the harnessing concentrated beams of light that could cut through solid steel, or that virtually all of our cars would come with A/Cs, or that, we would have power door locks, power steering, and vehicles with (anti-lock brakes). We also did not believe that passenger cars would be able to run on electricity (or hydrogen), and that airplanes would soon be able to travel several times the speed of sound. And, whom among us could have known that GPS systems would soon enable ordinary drivers to drive safely, virtually anywhere we might want to go, including specific residential addresses?. And (as Sonny and Cher) said long ago–“the beat goes on and on.”

    it really is strange though, that the same scientific knowledge which has bought us so many marvelous digital tools, such as Google, and which lets us examine thousands of google hits concerning virtually any topic we’re interested in, is now being regularly attacked by far right special interest groups who want to deny AGW (anthropogenic global warming), the effectiveness of vaccines, the use of health threatening products like cigarettes and/or saturated fats–or that we would witness Trump’s own lack of scientific knowledge embolden him to turn his back the on the clock and deny the very real need for us to reduce C02 concentrations.

    It is often true that world seems to be getting stranger and more complex for older people like myself. And every day when we try to pay for our groceries at the auto checkout areas in Supermarkets, we find the effort daunting, as well as the maze of button pushing that’s often necessary to just pay our bills or speak to a real person? and which yet, make most of us want to bang our heads against the wall when our PCs flabbergast us when simply doing the things that our grandchildren find easy?

    I still don’t understand why we need to continually update our Blu-Ray DVD players, or why there are not simple standard Blu-ray players, used to play simple standard Blu-ray discs? I’m not saying we should deprive anyone else who wants to buy and use more and more complicated players–just that technically deficient rubes like me, should have the option to buy and use standard Blu-ray players to play standard Blu-ray discs. Isn’t that simply a reasonable desire?

    Perhaps it’s the way so many technological devices seem to surround us with ever more confusing tasks–which seemed so much simpler way back when? Thus, I am happy you pointed out that on the whole, science has worked for us all.

    What I still want to know however, is what a computer’s firewall is, and why I might need to “disable ” it, when Geek Squad does technical remote work on it? None of we ordinary people could have predicted the many problems we would confront when digital technology supposedly made our lives easier. Even though tech confusion can give anyone a headache!

    Recently, when I tried to pay a bill at our local utility company I found that they would not accept my cash–even though I had a photo ID and my driver’s license in my hand—Why? Because too many robberies have happened, and of course, checking accounts and money orders cannot be used to easily abscond with real valuables and/or real money.

    None of us could have predicted any of these things, both good and bad, which would happen years later or how our minds and bodies would encounter falsehoods and lies from anti-science politicians each and every day. So we are wrong about the things which we doubt, as well as the events in our future which we constantly try to anticipate.

    As Tommy Lee Jones character said at the end of a relatively recent movie–This is no Country for Old Men.”

    • Interesting you should quote that line. It was borrowed from the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats, which also seems somehow appropriate for the topic.

      • Thanks for the factoid. I only know that line from the movie of the same name in which Tommy Lee Jones played an aging police lieutenant. However, it does sound like it could be common phrase used to describe the inherent travails of aging.

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