Selling the Future: The Perils of Predicting Global Politics by Ariel Colonomos

| March 9, 2018
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Selling the Future: The Perils of Predicting Global Politics, Ariel Colonomos, trans. Gregory Elliott (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 224 pp., $37.50 cloth.

The subject of Ariel Colonomos’s book is the future: how it is conceptualized, what information is used to predict it, and how the normative responsibilities of future professionals should be defined. The author first offers a descriptive tour of how the future was predicted in ancient Greek and Roman times up through how it is now predicted by social scientists, think tanks, and credit agencies. Following his descriptive summary and critique of contemporary practices, he then outlines a set of normative principles to guide the responsible practice of predicting the future. By drawing together very different institutions and practices, Colonomos deftly demonstrates the structured contemporary practices of predicting the future of global politics, and he makes a convincing case for treating the future as a subject of interest in its own right and as subject to certain normative constraints. However, for reasons I discuss below, the normative prescriptions he advances are not always convincing.

As Colonomos tells it, Greek oracles and Roman fortune-tellers offered messages that played a central role in public life. Interpreted in ways that were salient for the public good, oracles were governed by a central authority according to a strict set of rules concerning who could be recruited to interpret and understand them. Oracles and fortunes shaped the future by influencing the actions of those who sought them.

Though it is common to think of oracles and fortune-telling as quaint relics, Colonomos argues that there are strong structural parallels between the practices of ancient times and today. A specific set of rules still governs who counts as an expert in predicting the future; and educational and disciplinary pedigree is especially salient in the contemporary world. Forecasting is to different degrees oriented toward politics, both in the content of what is predicted and in the implicit or explicit audience whose actions will be influenced by predictions.

Colonomos discusses the details of how the future is told in three major domains—academia, think tanks, and credit agencies—and emphasizes the limitations of current practices in each. With respect to academia, particularly in the social scientific fields, Colonomos writes that indicators used to measure and evaluate the state of societies (for example, in the field of development) and make predictions are too narrow. Moreover, there is a presumed linearity with respect to past and future and to the constancy of the causes of events across societies. Such presumptions notably contributed to the Sovietologists’ inability to predict the fall of the Soviet Union. Finally, disciplinary constraints lead to inertia and stagnation. Colonomos argues that the penalties for thinking outside the disciplinary box are such that academics would rather be wrong, but conventional, than be right in a nonconventional way.

Focusing next on think tanks in the United States with an emphasis on those in Washington, D.C., Colonomos argues that they make predictions based on what is important for ensuring the dominance of the United States in the global order. Populated by defense and security specialists who have PhDs from a small group of schools, predictions in this domain are based on an even narrower set of narratives than those considered in academia; Marxist analyses, for example, are not taken seriously. Attention is focused on what regionally or topically is considered in the national interest to examine. As with academics, there have been notable failures to anticipate major shifts in the international landscape, such as what is known as the Arab Spring.

Risk markets and credit agencies are responsible for assessing the likelihood of a debt being honored by political entities like the state, and this function similarly leads to predictive shortcomings. Underpinning such analyses is a concern with providing a peaceful climate for investment and ensuring that previous commitments to pay back debt are satisfied. The problem, Colonomos argues, is that credit agencies enjoy a monopoly on authoritative analyses, which renders them immune from any reputational damage and thereby reduces the quality of their assessments.

In the face of these limitations, Colonomos offers three main normative criteria to ensure responsible and more accurate practices of the study of the future. The first is truthfulness, a responsibility to make predictions on the basis of verifiable empirical claims, to be transparent about the evidential basis for predictions, and to be open to revising one’s judgment if new information comes to light. The second is pluralism—in both the narratives that will shape expectations for how state or political actors will act in the future and in the sources from which respectable predictions may come. Pluralism entails both the expansion of conversations within disciplines and the creation of a public sphere in which an array of experts and non-experts can articulate diverse visions of the future. Such an intellectual environment will be more likely to correct blind spots and overcome the inertia that prevents academics from taking risks in articulating what the future might hold.

The third criterion is pragmatism. Predictions influence action, and responsible predictions of the future must take this into account. Negative predictions may increase the likelihood of negative outcomes one wants to avoid. Conversely, more optimistic predictions may be warranted if by making such predictions the probability that a more optimistic scenario will be realized increases. However, such optimistic predictions are to be distinguished from wishful thinking by being grounded in facts.

Selling the Future focuses sustained attention to a subject that is not well-recognized, and for that the author deserves much praise. Colonomos is right to push for an expansion of the range of possibilities considered when conceptualizing the future. He is also right to underscore the importance of a willingness to consider nonmainstream positions rather than simply reiterating dominant theories or prevailing wisdom. However, his substantive critiques of the three domains are less convincing, which affects the plausibility of the normative prescriptions he defends. Two general flaws characterize his more detailed analyses.

First, Colonomos misses important developments and sources of debate within fields, debates that are precisely focused on the limitations he identifies. This is unsurprising and somewhat inevitable given the vast range of materials covered, but it undercuts the force of the critique advanced. For example, in his discussion of transitional justice Colonomos argues that the field is defined by a certain linearity of thinking, oriented toward the attainment of specifically normative desirable ends. This characterization is dated. More recent work in the field precisely questions both the empirical linearity of transitions as well as the normative desirability and necessity of certain ends, including democracy. Indeed, Thomas Carothers’ “The End of the Transition Paradigm” appeared in 2002.

Second, Colonomos fails to adequately consider the contextual reasons for the shortcomings he identifies and, conversely, the costs of the proposals he advances. For example, his critique of academia does not acknowledge and grapple with the reasons why academics situate their discussions within existing debates and frameworks and the risks of abandoning the training and credentials he sees as impeding progress. Among these reasons is the fact that publication is necessary for securing tenure and promotion. Standards for publication require a demonstration of a novel contribution. Making the case for the novelty of a claim is more plausible and convincing when it is situated against background knowledge of claims already advanced and defended. Failing to engage with established scholarship makes it more difficult to assess the novelty and the quality of research. Putting experts and non-experts on par may expand the range of views as to the shape of the future, but Colonomos never considers the costs of giving up on placing a certain weight on the predictions of those who can claim to have expertise. Yet the erosion of respect for expertise is arguably one factor among many making it possible for phenomena like denial of climate change to take root.

Such shortcomings aside, there is no doubt that the future will become an evermore important topic for such exploration, as global challenges with long temporal horizons demand new policies in the present. To this end, Colonomos provides an invaluable framework for debating how, by whom, and for what purpose responsible predictions about the future should be made.


—Colleen Murphy

Colleen Murphy is professor of law, philosophy, and political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


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Category: Book Review, Issue 32.1

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