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The World Didn't End: The Next Monumentally Wrong Prediction

It's now after 11:11 a.m. GMT on Dec. 21, 2012 -- and I feel fine.

The failed Mayan-calendar doomsday prediction reminds me of a minor event in my minor life.

As a kid, I tagged along with my dad, a physician, to a conference on HIV/AIDS. It was the late 1980s, so the epidemic wasn't far removed from when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially recognized it in 1981. Being a Lisa Simpson-like kid, I tried to pay attention and pretend I knew what people were talking about. Most of medical jargon went over my head, but one line stuck with me. One of the researchers from a leading university ventured that HIV/AIDS would be cured in 10 years.

The prediction was comforting to a child, but telling to an adult.

Earlier this year, more than 20 years after that conference, a different expert (the chief of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS) had this to say to The Wall Street Journal: "A cure for AIDS could be found in 10 years."

The reasons for going out on a limb and making a bold, long-term prediction are many. The downsides are, saddeningly, few.

Coming from an expert on AIDS, doesn't "10 years" sound more learned than "I have no clue"? Doesn't it make getting research money easier if there's an end in sight? If you're an expert at a get-together, don't you want to weigh in when some audacious amateurs are getting all the attention with their brazen shots in the dark?

The professional and social benefits are immediate. The downsides? They won't come for 10 whole years -- if anyone remembers your prediction. And if they do? The same reasons you're wrong can conveniently be called upon as reasons no one could have predicted it in the first place.

Perhaps more troubling, you don't need to make predictions too far into the future to reap the benefits. Our ever-shortening attention spans have moved us to bolder and quicker analysis, where Twitter is our top news outlet. A day's worth of shouting matches on ESPN can surely net 100 predictions that eventually prove wrong. I'll take the over on 100 if you're watching a day of CNBC. You'd probably come close to reaching the quota while watching a broadcast of Jim Cramer's Mad Money.

When the volume of predictions reaches such epic proportions, prognosticators are bound to be right sometimes. As with those stock schemes where you call half the phone book and say the stock's going up and then call the other half and say it's going down, there are bound to be some great calls with which to gloss over the bad ones.

Why not take some stabs when one bold call can make your entire career?

Ask Meredith Whitney, the Wall Street analyst who, in October 2007, called the eventual Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) meltdown. She went from unknown to financial-crisis media darling. Later, in 2010, she went on 60 Minutes and made a 12-month call for massive defaults in municipal bonds. She said: "You could see 50 sizable defaults. Fifty to 100 sizable defaults. More. This will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of defaults."

That hasn't quite panned out -- but no matter. Recently, she has come out as newly bullish on banks. Regardless of whether she ends up being right this time (or the next time, or the time after that), her bold call on Citigroup will keep her relevant in the financial press.

The correct prediction makes the headlines, while the mea culpa (if there is one) makes the footnotes. More the better when the headlines appear today and the footnotes come decades hence.

With that in mind, will the U.S. be basically energy-independent by 2030, as BP predicts? Will China and India be the world's two largest economies in 2050, as consultancy PwC predicts? Will the U.S.'s debt-to-GDP ratio will be well more than 1,000% by 2080, as the IMF predicts? Will the world's population be at 10.1 billion in the year 2100, as the UN predicts?

If you believe Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, as well as oodles of research on the prediction capabilities of experts, the honest answer is, "No one has a clue."

The next time you see me at a party, let me tell you in advance that I don't know how bad it would be if we went over the fiscal cliff. I don't know whether Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) will beat earnings estimates next quarter. And I don't know what the stock market's going to do in 2013.

But that's all right.

It's not the end of the world.

Read/Post Comments (31) | Recommend This Article (66)

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  • Report this Comment On December 21, 2012, at 9:38 AM, matthewluke wrote:

    The Myans never said the world would end this year (or any year). Never. Not once.

  • Report this Comment On December 21, 2012, at 9:54 AM, NickD wrote:

    Just as the calendar you have on your kitchen wall does not cease to exist after December 31, the Mayan calendar does not cease to exist on December 21, 2012. This date is the end of the Mayan long-count period but then -- just as your calendar begins again on January 1 -- another long-count period begins for the Mayan calendar.

  • Report this Comment On December 21, 2012, at 10:11 AM, nicole123slb wrote:

    days not over yet. LOL

  • Report this Comment On December 21, 2012, at 11:03 AM, byzeev wrote:

    Sorry about it but 2038 is the challenging year for humanity. I say that to everyone bringing up this topic. Two events I see:

    1. The simple challenge: A new Y2K issue in 19 Jan 2038 03:14:07 UTC.

    This is 2147483647 seconds since January 1st 1970, meaning signed 4 byte integer wrapup. One second later every PC, Server, Controller, RTU, Automative part, that have its time 32 bit rather than 64 bit, will bounce back to Fri, 13 Dec 1901 20:45:53 UTC.

    Read more in here:

    2. The scary part is "Armagedon" Apophis asteroid due to hit earth April 13th 2038.

    Here is an article in Daily Telegraph:

  • Report this Comment On December 21, 2012, at 11:15 AM, byzeev wrote:

    Appologize again, seems the WEB is full with stories. I just noted the article is not accurate. According to wikipedia they will know it by upcoming January: "If we get radar ranging in 2013 [the next good opportunity], we should be able to predict the location of 2004 MN4 out to at least 2070." So, hopefully this is false alarm.

  • Report this Comment On December 21, 2012, at 11:34 AM, NickD wrote:

    It rates 4 on the 10 point Torino scale 60 to 1 odds.

    so theirs a 98% chance in the years to come it will completely miss and run right into the sun and get it's self burned.

  • Report this Comment On December 21, 2012, at 1:22 PM, NickD wrote:

    I make about 15-20k a month.

  • Report this Comment On December 21, 2012, at 1:35 PM, TMFBomb wrote:



  • Report this Comment On December 21, 2012, at 1:42 PM, hbofbyu wrote:

    Predicting the future is a futile endeavor. We won't even know the vocabulary of our children's children 50 years from now. To quote Michael Chrichton:

    People in 1900 didn't know what an atom was. They didn't know its structure. They also didn't know what a radio was, or an airport, or a movie, or a television, or a computer, or a cell phone, or a jet, an antibiotic, a rocket, a satellite, an MRI, ICU, IUD, IBM, IRA, ERA, EEG, EPA, IRS, DOD, PCP, HTML, internet. interferon, instant replay, remote sensing, remote control, speed dialing, gene therapy, gene splicing, genes, spot welding,

    heat-seeking, bipolar, prozac, leotards, lap dancing, email, tape recorder, CDs, airbags,

    plastic explosive, plastic, robots, cars, liposuction, transduction, superconduction, dish antennas, step aerobics, smoothies, twelve-step, ultrasound, nylon, rayon, teflon, fiber 11 optics, carpal tunnel, laser surgery, laparoscopy, corneal transplant, kidney transplant, AIDS... None of this would have meant anything to a person in the year 1900. They wouldn't know what you are talking about.

  • Report this Comment On December 21, 2012, at 1:55 PM, EvanBuck wrote:

    Great article which illustrates a key, yet IMO harmful concept which is taking hold in market analysis today. :)

  • Report this Comment On December 21, 2012, at 2:15 PM, NickD wrote:

    Explosives where like 1600's.. radios 1890's.

  • Report this Comment On December 21, 2012, at 3:03 PM, Zinj wrote:

    Your photo is of the Aztec calendar, not the Mayan.

    Also, the Mayans didn't say the world would end today - just that it was the end of the 13 baktun and they didn't document any time beyond that point.

    My checkbook calendar happens to end this December 31, but I don't interpret that as my bank saying the world will end.


  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 12:08 PM, 9sec93lx wrote:

    The cure for HIV/Aids in 10 years comment, reminds me of a line from the old Tom Hanks movie "The Money Pit." Whenever Tom or his wife Shelley Long asked when they were going to be finished with the remodeling project. The answer was ALWAYS "Two Weeks."

    It gives them a sense of hope that a solution to the problem is in sight, instead of saying "I Dunno."

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 12:45 PM, Gidiga wrote:

    Very interesting comments, but what I remember most about life is: "in the long run, we're all going to be dead!" As one ages, he thinks more of today than tomorrow. On a more positive note, the Motley Fool boys usually help me increase my net worth.

    Merry Christmas!

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 2:57 PM, 48ozhalfgallons wrote:

    "I make about 15-20k a month" Are you talking about crabs or rupees?

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 3:06 PM, jm7700229 wrote:

    @ byzeev, Apophis was never a real threat, despite some speculative analysis. It's pretty small; not much would remain after passing through the earth's atmosphere. The nearest actual threat is 101955(1999)RQ36, which will come close in the 22nd century, but will not hit unless its path deteriorates more than is expected. It is about 5% of the size of the meteor that killed off the dinasaurs: serious, but not Armageddon.

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 3:19 PM, jm7700229 wrote:

    Oops! I know how to spell dinosaur. As far as predictions go, they can be self-fulfilling or self-defeating, and the uninformed can be counted on to misinterpret them. The world-wide famine predicted by the Club of Rome in the '70s didn't happen precisely because people believed in it and changed their behavior on a global scale. Y2K was not a hoax; if people hadn't finally panicked into fixing what they should have been working on for the previous two decades, disaster would have happened (though not of the type or on the scale that the media hypsters predicted). And the Mayans never predicted the end of the world. This whole rumor seems to have been started by a single nut who read and misinterpreted what an archeologist had said and then got his fifteen minutes of fame.

    My guess is that the guy who predicted a cure for AIDS in 10 years did not put any money behind it; he was simply speculating. I can make some informed predictions today myself; some will be mostly right. I predict I'll be alive in ten years; in fact I do bet on that. Does that mean I'm stupid if it turns out I don't live that long? We make many predictions every day of our lives; if we didn't, we'd never eat, or get to work, or get back home again. We'd never attend a concert or a ball game or clean the guest bedroom for a visit from the kids.

    I think the point to be taken from this article is that 1. predicting the future is not a science, and 2. we should pay attention to the level of expertise of the prognosticator when considering his predictions.

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 3:27 PM, 48ozhalfgallons wrote:

    "It is about 5% of the size of the meteor that killed off the dinasaurs" Well, we're about 5% the size of dinosaurs.

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 8:57 PM, kthor wrote:

    the only time the world is going to end in about a few billions years is that if humans #$%$# things up ....

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 9:02 PM, NickD wrote:

    I was commenting on a post that has been removed.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2012, at 12:35 PM, WallStreet23 wrote:

    I knew the world wouldn't end because the Mayans failed to predict their own collapse

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2012, at 3:15 PM, interdependent wrote:

    Scientific method is all about forming a hypothesis and proving or disproving it to add to our knowledge, so that we can predict future events. For instance, if we add gasoline to a fire, if we electrify a wire, if we plant corn in Kansas, what happens? Unlike talking heads making guesses about the economy, rocket scientists and brain surgeons are not guessing when they build a space station or open up your skull, we can predict what will happen based on what we know to be true.

    (I'll let you add your own joke here about what we predict when brain surgeons crack open talking heads.)

    John Tyndall proved what CO2 does in the atmosphere before we fought the Civil War, allowing James Hansen and other scientists to predict the future back in 1981. Observing the amount of CO2 in the troposphere at a given time, we find a corresponding amount of warming or cooling, including the ice ages and warmest periods of the last 800,000 years. And temperature in our own radically transforming lifetime.

    Increasing earth's CO2 by 39% since the industrial revolution leads to the kind of warming and extreme weather we've experienced in the last decade. 2012 marked more extreme weather events than any year in history. This is observed weather data, the extreme climate history of the modern era. The business foundation of world's reinsurance groups who have everything to lose:

    We know we must act now to avert or at least minimize certain catastrophe. To not act now, knowing what we know, is immoral.

    One simple prediction based on everything we know to be true about the physical earth, that concerns our survival on it, did not seem worth mentioning in this article. To not mention global warming in your article on predictions seems bizarre.

    Now is the time to act. We have a tremendous purpose and challenge before us right now.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2012, at 8:58 PM, interdependent wrote:

    Two things James Hansen and the climate scientists did get wrong in 1981...

    No, not the science predicting the melting ice caps, the opening of the fabled Northwest Passage or rising sea levels or drought-prone areas developing in North America and Asia --we know they got all that right, of course, since it happened. The science was dead on and holds up to all scrutiny, but the mistakes were critical errors nonetheless.

    First, they got the timing wrong. That is, the models were too conservative, since global warming is happening just a bit faster than they originally predicted:

    Global warming is happening faster than predicted, but the physics and calculations were perfectly accurate. We are warming faster only because of the second thing they got wrong...

    Scientists incorrectly assumed that humanity would level off and reduce CO2 emissions once the first impacts were observed, sometime around the end of the 20th century, if not before.

    But we haven't.

    Instead, human CO2 emissions keep racing higher than projected right along with the temperatures in the hottest decade yet.

    They got the science right, but the human response wrong. They were wrong to think that humans wouldn't continue to self-destruct once we saw the fruits of our carbon-enhanced century -- worse droughts, water scarcity, crop failures, bigger floods, stronger storms, bigger wildfires, rising seas and higher temperatures, which we've seen all year.

    We keep burning fossil fuels and investing in 19th century energy.

    "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." --Upton Sinclair

    And for those of us who already understand that we are destabilizing our climate, what will it take to get us to change? Record wildfires, record drought, record ice loss, record ocean temperatures, Sandy, Irene, that didn't do it.

    Here's a new mathematical prediction: Hansen says now we need to cut CO2 emissions 6% a year going forward, and also plant 100 Gt/Carbon reforestation, starting now, if we want to get CO2 back down to the upper limit of the safe level for life on earth by the end of this century.

    Our kids are going to live hot lives on a changing planet, and even hotter if we don't start today. If we wait until 2020, then the scientists calculate we will have to cut CO2 15% a year, and it will cost trillions more to do the same job had we started now. If we had started in 2005 only 3% a year could get back to the safe limit. If we don't act at all, we risk triggering runaway global warming planetary feedbacks.

    And will Hansen's new prediction prove as accurate as his 1981 article?

    Well he doesn't predict that we will do it. He only predicts that if we do it, the math says we have some chance at preserving life on earth as we know it, more or less.

    The exciting part is this: the only way to test his prediction is to start now reducing CO2 and see if we can in fact make it through the hottest century since we became humans, without triggering runaway warming and mass extinctions.

    That sounds like a worthwhile experiment to me, abandoning carbon fuels as soon as possible to see if we can stop this steam engine we fed for over a hundred years and reverse the effects in the next hundred. That's much better than the experiment we are running right now which has us racing faster for certain catastrophe this century.

    I prefer to run the experiment that gives us a chance. I would rather begin to test the calculations on survival than continue to test the calculations on destruction.

    Better get started now.

    Make a change in 2013, something big to reduce your carbon footprint at least 6%.

    #1) Conserve more energy. Spend money to save more CO2 and cut your energy bills. That's easy. And probably cuts more than 6% of your footprint.

    #2) Divest from fossil fuels. Let your retirement money earn a better return somewhere else this year, somewhere you can feel good about when the droughts and floods and fires set new records in the next decade.

    Create peace on earth.

  • Report this Comment On December 27, 2012, at 4:36 AM, The1MAGE wrote:

    Thanks "interdependent" for your propagandist speech. (But good job taking us somewhat off topic.)

    First 6% is a big joke, especially taking into account the fact that all human activity is only responsible for 3% of all CO2 released into the atmosphere.

    Plus the fact that many countries, such as China, and many of the developing countries are going to ignore this advice, leaving only an extremely small part of the worlds population to follow this advice. Even if you got every American and European to cut 50% of their CO2 production, the effects would not be noticeable.

    But at the same time, many of the doom and gloom worries that are put out, even the most pro global warming (real) scientists state that certain events will not occur for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

    But the single worst piece of fraud being perpetrated is that nobody has proved that a warmer environment is a bad thing. All the fears are simply guesses as to what will happen.

    I get tired of seeing Polar Bears being shown playing on a piece of ice, as if they don't know how to swim. (They swim very well.) Or acting as if there won't be enough living space for them, not realizing how vast the area is.

    I will almost agree we are still using 19th century energy. (Oil really is more of a 20th century energy.) And we should move on beyond it. But that means only one thing. Nuclear. It is the only non-fossil source of energy that is viable. (And what they can build now are orders of magnitude safer then what exists now. And the waste is so minute, especially since it is ~96% recyclable.)

    I could go on, easily, but I do notice you (interdependent) have posted here before, but only about Global Warming. This is an investing site, so I can only believe you are here for ulterior motives. One of the people out there who joins websites only to post about a single issue.

  • Report this Comment On December 28, 2012, at 12:58 PM, Dantherugman wrote:

    " Will the U.S.'s debt-to-GDP ratio will be well more than 1,000% by 2080, as the IMF predicts."

    Pretty hard to believe information supplied by business writers when they do not know that you can never have more than 100% of anything. Just ask your 4th grade Math Teacher. The correct statement would be 10 times greater. A 1000% is "Sales Math" designed to make the statement appear more important. Same is true when they tell us that you can have 564% return on an investment. BS!! The only way you can get 100% profit is if you are given or steal the asset. Other wise the correct math is as follows: Say you bought stock for $100.00 then sold it for $564.00 = $464.00 in profit. gross profit $464.00 divided by total sale $564.00 = 82.27% profit not 564% as writers will tell you. It would be ok to say that you sold your stock for 5.64 time more than purchase price. 82.27% is a great return just not as exciting as 564%!!!! ROI. Come on folks give us believable numbers.

  • Report this Comment On December 28, 2012, at 1:50 PM, MeirRatsky wrote:

    Dan, your financial illiteracy is showing! ROI is Return On Investment. The formula is Sale value less original investment, divided by the original investment.... 464% in your example. You are confusing margin % with ROI. Margin % is a relatively meaningless number in terms of investing, useful for analyzing profitability of a business.

  • Report this Comment On December 28, 2012, at 2:26 PM, MCRECON wrote:

    The only one that knows when everything ends isn't on this earth so people should try to live in

    peace and try to better themselves and there communities. Stop listening to the media hype

    and Hollywood people that sensationilze stories to make movies or documentaries that make them millions. Get on with your lives and be the best person that you can be. Happy New Year!!!!!

  • Report this Comment On December 28, 2012, at 3:00 PM, Knightmare535 wrote:

    "It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future." - Yogi Berra

  • Report this Comment On December 30, 2012, at 2:56 PM, interdependent wrote:

    In response to The1mage:

    I post here to inform Fools of the need for all of us to divest from fossil fuels, and to consider how the investing choices we make today alter our planet's future habitability. Totally self-serving, a one-issue post, an invitation to let your money make a difference for all of us, all true, but you and I will both feel the consequences in the next few years and my kids will have to clean up a much bigger mess unless we start now. Investing in fossil fuels, or divesting from fossil fuels, has greater consequences than just the returns.

    Statistically speaking, the United States is the only place on earth that matters on global warming. Our emissions, and our manufacturing base in Asia that makes so much of our stuff now, contributes more than half of global CO2. The rest of the world is truly helpless to make a difference without our cooperation. China doesn't follow our orders, but China follows our orders for goods. The United States is the only major emitter that never signed the Kyoto Protocol, stubbornly refusing to cooperate with the rest of the world to take much-needed action.

    You and your money make more of a difference than anyone else on earth right now.

    Reducing CO2 6% per year for a few decades is no joke; it's the minimum required if we start now to reduce CO2 to the upper limit of safe levels by the end of the century. Human activity is responsible for raising CO2 levels to 393ppm from less than 300ppm a century ago. 300ppm was the highest level on earth over the last 700,000 years. That fact is now accepted by even the most vocal "climate change deniers" in the scientific community. Look up the B.E.S.T. study at Stanford, funded by Charles Koch!!, which surprisingly found that CO2 was the only possible explanation and matched the climate record so exactly that it set the bar too high for any other possible theory to compete.

    That means that our kids and grandkids may not know a decade as temperate as the one that we just lived through, which was the hottest on record, simply because we have refused to transition away from fossil fuels.

    The first impacts, according to to 99.8% of scientists, have now begun, have been observed, and become measurable. In North America in 2012 alone warming was enough to damage our sluggish GDP. The continuing drought, record western wildfires, the derecho storm and Isaac and Sandy along with 2 heat waves and flooding, all were made more extreme and more likely to occur than was possible in the old climate, pre-1980. But human activity has now changed that climate enough for us to see the effects unfolding.

    If you examine the increased frequency and intensity of severe weather events of this decade against the historic record, you begin to understand what we have set ourselves up for in the next decade.

    As for "imagining" polar bears with no place to live, maybe you missed the arrival of Grolar bears. Look it up. Of course polar bears do swim well but they require ice to hunt from, and yes, to rest on when they've been swimming for miles at a time without food. When you understand the vastness of the area, you will be surprised at the disappearance of ice the size of India and an 18% drop in one year. As an investor you must appreciate that an 18% drop means the survival of the ice cap going forward in ever-warming oceans grows tenuous at best. That ice is our air conditioner.

    But if you take more interest in resource scarcity, economic instability and wars, than in polar bears or ice, global warming still has a lot to offer you.

    As an investor, please think about what your money is doing in the global marketplace, and in the actual physical world. Think about how you want your retirement to be making money 5 years from now or for the next decade, which I can easily predict will be the hottest on record, now.

    Money talks. But for our wealthy carbon polluters, the United States would have joined the other nations to ratify the Kyoto Protocol 20 years ago and earth would be well on our way to a sustainable future by now. But instead we've increased yearly global CO2 emissions over 50% since 1990.

    Now is the critical moment in time to let your money talk. Or at least stop doing self-destructive damage.

  • Report this Comment On December 31, 2012, at 10:02 AM, enthuskeptic wrote:

    China and India may very well overtake the US economically speaking if US politicians continue the idiocy that's going on now.

  • Report this Comment On December 31, 2012, at 10:36 AM, survivalengine wrote:

    Interdependent, you don't understand the Scientific Method. A hypothesis can never be proven, only falsified.

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