When an elder preeminent scientist says that something is impossible, he’s probably wrong. When a elder preeminent scientist says something might be possible, he’s probably right.
— Clarke’s Law, Arthur C. Clarke
Most efforts to create better predictions today focus on maximizing accuracy. What if instead, predictions attempted to maximize agency by highlighting possible non-obvious actions? These predictions usually go by another name: science fiction. However people don’t treat science fiction as a serious predictive tool. As a consequence the people best equipped to write predictive science fiction - scientists, engineers, and economists - do not.
Myriad examples from history, economics, and psychology emphasize how strongly predictions influence outcomes. Predictions create and destroy fortunes; they shape research programs and policy; they fuel either optimism or pessimism.
A good prediction enables people to think thoughts they would not have thought before and ideally take action on them. To achieve this a prediction needs to be non-obvious and create agency. Obvious predictions won’t cause any new thoughts or shift any actions. Nobody cares if I predict the sun will come up tomorrow, or even that it will come up on this day five hundred years from now. Non-obvious predictions will usually be controversial or even heretical. Good predictions create agency by providing a clear path, either to make the prediction come true or to make sure that it does not happen. They can give you the mental tools to extend the prediction and riff on it, forming your own opinion of the future. While it’s not absolutely necessary, precise predictions can help on both fronts.
Scientists, engineers, and economists have the best tools to write good science fiction that is consistent with the real world. Some of the best, most predictive science fiction was written by people with technical PhDs: Clarke, Vinge, Sagan, Heinlein, Asimov - the list goes on. Science fiction written by experts could be used to explore complex predictions in nuanced ways.
Every piece of science fiction has at least one ‘conceit’ - a difference between its world and our world you need to assume is true. In SevenEves the big conceit (spoiler from first three pages) is that The Moon shatters. Without a conceit, science fiction is just fiction, but with too many conceits (especially about physics) science fiction becomes fantasy with space lasers. The tension created by the fact that good science fiction is self-consistent keeps conceit explosions in check. Predictive science fiction could take advantage of conceits to explore specific ideas.
Imagine financial science fiction written by economists exploring funding mechanisms and economic policy implications. The improvements over “my study says that this policy will lead to ruin” “well my study says that this policy will lead to bounty” cannot be overstated. You could go so far as to imagine experts with different views on the same subject wrote sci fi in the same world with the same conceits.
Writing science fiction could enable experts to create predictions that explore the consequences of changes in a way that non-experts can engage with, instead of being forced into a binary agree/disagree. Good science fiction creates a self-consistent world. Self-consistent worlds have rules. Rules allow you to apply logic to extend the world beyond the parts that you can explicitly see. This logic enable your mind to “play” around with that world. In a way the self-consistency of the story is supporting evidence as powerful as precise arguments. People are incredible at noticing when something is ‘off’ so suspension of disbelief is quickly shattered inconsistencies in a fictional world.
To some extent, people already treat science fiction as a prediction and act accordingly. In part, science fiction put rockets as the key to space into the heads of Werner von Braun and other driving forces behind the space race both in the US and the USSR. How many engineers now say that they’re trying to build The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer from Diamond Age, or OASIS from Ready Player One? You can argue which way the causal arrow points, but surely Black Mirror has given some people a negative outlook on the future.
You could go so far as to analyze science fiction as case studies from a future world. Good science fiction creates a self-consistent world that can enable you to draw off the edge of the map. If the sci-fi world is consistent with the real world, you could conceivably fill in the space between the two and end up with a roadmap for building the future.
Case study analysis entails picking apart a story into structured knowledge and actionable patterns. Since good science fiction is self-consistent, it should be able to stand up to the same probing as real-world case studies. We analyze case studies by asking a lot of questions. ‘Why?’ ‘What are the important pieces here?’ And ‘What would have happened otherwise?’ Conceivably, you could do the same thing with equal rigor for science fiction and add the question “What would need to have been done and discovered for this to become a reality?”
Would people ever take predictive science fiction seriously? Policy proposals and future predictions are Very Serious™ and science fiction is entertainment. On a short timeline, people will probably not take ideas from science fiction as seriously as a policy proposal or a paper. The mechanism of action for ideas embedded in science fiction is different. They’re meant to percolate through people’s heads over time. I realize I haven’t taken my own advice by writing this as an essay - let’s let that expectation change over time.
Thanks to Martin Permin and Rohit Jha for reading drafts of this piece.
Updated 2020-09-18 - Ready Player One doesn’t actually call OASIS a multiverse