by Cameron Gibelyou, BHP Science Advisor
Michigan, USA

Note from the BHP Team: In the face of so many dire predictions of the future and so much uncertainty, where can we find reassurance? In our past, argues BHP Science Advisor, Cameron Gibelyou, in this month’s Big Q article. Cameron contends our future isn’t one certain, monocausal conclusion of doom and gloom, but rather, a range of possibilities that we must assess with the reasoning we develop from studying history. (Think: Environmental destruction is not necessarily guaranteed.) Use this article to supplement Unit 10, and students will revisit the causation, scale, discipline, and claim testing principles they’ve practiced all year long, to have a better, more reasoned conversation about if a robot-uprising is likely (or not).

(For more ideas on how teachers are using this new Big Question article in class, check out this blog post and this conversation in the BHP Online Community!)

Eager to make this article and the concepts in it come alive? Don’t miss a BHP Yammer Exchange with author, Cameron Gibelyou, May 21–23.

Have you ever thought about why you study history in school? There are many reasons, one of which is that studying history can help you improve your ability to reason about how changes happen over time. Understanding history can help you think through the causes, effects, and significance of things that happened in the past.

But if you can reason well about change over time, why not contemplate what the future might hold, too? There will always be some uncertainty, and usually a lot of uncertainty, when you make predictions. But applying the kind of reasoning you develop in history courses can help you avoid especially bad predictions, gain insight into how things might play out, and become a better judge of how reliable different predictions are.

Predicting the Future Using Science and History

Big History combines science and history to help you understand the past. Science and history usually predict the future in one of two ways:

  • Understand how something works, the “laws” that apply to a given situation, and use that understanding to predict what will happen. For example, understanding how gravity works allows astronomers and physicists to predict the movement of planets for millions of years to come. Astronomers can predict the exact timing of eclipses, phases of the Moon, and positions of the planets in our Solar System far into the future.
  • Have enough data from the past to identify a trend and make educated guesses about how that trend is likely to continue. For example, cosmologists can make predictions about how fast the Universe might expand in the future, based on an understanding of how fast the Universe has expanded over time up until now.

Likewise, population experts make predictions about how many people might live on Earth decades in the future, based on how world population has changed over time in the past. Technology experts make predictions about what computers may be able to do in the future, based on past trends. Historians can make predictions about how long it might take to transition from fossil fuels to renewable-energy sources, based on how long similar transitions have taken in the past (as when people in a given country switched from relying mostly on burning wood for fuel to using coal more frequently).



This slideshow requires JavaScript.

None of these predictions are certain. History never truly “repeats itself,” because the contexts and the people involved are always changing. In fact, historians are often reluctant to try to predict the future, because they know how much the details sometimes matter. Even the planets could be disrupted in their orbits in the distant future, and technology, population, and infrastructure can develop in unexpected ways.

So, our models are never perfect. But our goal here is not to have complete certainty about the future; our goal is to reason well, using an understanding of history to think more clearly about a range of possible futures and how probable a given outcome might be.

Principles for Applying Historical Reasoning to the Future

If we are trying to develop a set of reasonable expectations—educated guesses about what is likely to happen—it will help to remember a few big principles from Big History and apply those principles to how we think about the future.

  1. Causation

We have seen throughout Big History that practically every event or process, from the formation of the first stars to the Modern Revolution, has multiple causes. This means that many factors contributed to making something happen the way it happened. The Modern Revolution, for example, had a variety of agricultural, biological, cultural, economic, geological, political, and technological causes, as you saw in Unit 8.

Virtually nothing in the real world can be attributed to only one cause. But it’s hard to remember this when thinking about the future. When people think about the future, they often assume that a single big thing will dominate the entire course of the future.

For example, some authors assume that technology will “march forward,” changing people’s lives radically, and that human beings can’t do very much to influence which technologies come into existence and become popular. In contrast, authors writing about politics sometimes assume that social movements and the choices of powerful political leaders are all that matter for determining the future of society. Authors writing about climate change and other environmental issues sometimes assume that the future of government, society, and technology will all be determined almost entirely by environmental change. Movies, TV, and literature set in the future often reinforce one or more of these single-cause ways of thinking, as when dystopian stories present visions of the future where a single big event (like a huge war or an environmental catastrophe) changes every aspect of life for the worse.

The reality, however, is more complicated. Technology, the environment, society, politics, and many other factors are all connected to one another and influence one another. Any big change – from a shift in energy use to a change in population to a war or a peace treaty – has many causes. If you are thinking about all change in the future as being driven by one kind of factor (environmental, social, technological, or anything else), you should consider how other factors might affect what happens. Your understanding of how things might play out will become more complicated, but probably also more accurate!

  1. Scale and interdisciplinarity

Everything interacts with everything else. Different kinds of causes work together. This means that you cannot rely on just one single discipline – like Earth science, say, or history – to reason about the future. You have to draw on many disciplines, as we have done throughout Big History to reason about the past. (You saw this in action if you completed a Little Big History Project.) It is also important to keep multiple scales in mind, in both time and space.

To see why, let’s say that we are trying to predict whether and when a given society will produce most of its energy using renewable resources. In order to try to reason about a big topic like this, you have to think about everything from Earth science to politics to culture to technology. For instance: Do the technologies for widespread adoption of renewable energy already exist? If not, when (if at all) are such technologies likely to be invented? Politically, who would be affected by the change? Who would benefit from the adoption of renewable energy, in the short term and in the long term? Who would suffer, in the short term and in the long term? How powerful are those who would benefit compared to those who would suffer? What are the environmental advantages and disadvantages to a given kind of renewable energy (like wind power or solar power) in a given location? Are the social and environmental concerns for the local community different from those for the wider region, or for the world as a whole? All these questions involving different disciplines and different scales are related to one another and could influence how events play out.

  1. Claim testing

It’s easy to make claims about the future, but hard to test them. The ultimate test – whether a prediction comes true – hasn’t happened yet. Still, we can use claim testing to examine the plausibility (believability) of a prediction and consider how much confidence we should place in a prediction, even if we can almost never say with certainty what is going to happen.

Logic. Using logic to contemplate the future means thinking carefully about what is predictable and what isn’t predictable and considering how sound the reasoning is that lies behind a given prediction.

For example, why can astronomers predict what will happen to the Sun 5 billion years from now, or Earth scientists predict where the continents will have drifted 10 million years from now, but no one really knows exactly what the Australian economy or the makeup of the European Union will be like just 20 years from now? It may seem illogical to make claims that stretch so far into the future. However, what matters is not only the time scale but how complex a system is. Stars represent an earlier threshold in Big History, meaning that (at least by some measures) they are fairly simple, and therefore their behavior over time is easier to predict than something as complex as a national economy or an international political arrangement. Continents move slowly and fairly straightforwardly, so their movement can be predicted with some confidence, even millions of years from now.

Authority. Using authority to understand the future means considering how trustworthy a given person (or group) is who makes claims about the future. Have they made good predictions before? Do other claims that they make, ones about things you can investigate and check out, seem accurate? Do they give you a good understanding of why and how they make the claims they make? Do they justify their claims convincingly and avoid overconfidence? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” their claims about the future may be worth paying close attention to.

Experts in a given field, like economics, biology, or Earth science, are often in a good position to make predictions based on their own field, but one word of caution: specialists in a field sometimes do not take perspectives from other fields into account.

For example, Paul Ehrlich is a population biologist who, in the 1960s, claimed that the Earth was overpopulated and that catastrophic environmental disasters in the 1970s and 1980s would likely kill hundreds of millions or billions of people. Julian Simon was a business economist who responded to Ehrlich by arguing that economic progress and innovation would solve environmental problems and bring ever-increasing prosperity to people around the world. While Ehrlich made extreme predictions that turned out to be false, and sometimes supported inhumane policies based in his sense of panic about the immediate future of humanity, Simon made some rather extreme predictions of his own, and did not always seem to take real environmental issues into account. Ehrlich and Simon consistently “talked past each other” and failed to take insights from one another’s fields into account. This made both of them worse at predicting the future than they would otherwise have been.

Intuition. Using intuition to test claims about the future means learning when to “trust your gut,” and also learning when those “gut instincts” might mislead you.

For example, if you think of history as having an overall direction – either a story of progress, where things get better over time, or decline, where things get worse over time – this provides you an intuition for where the future is headed. This intuition might help you to evaluate a claim about the future, but it could mislead you, too. Things are almost never just getting better or just getting worse, and your ideas about what it means for things to get better and what it means for things to get worse might differ from someone else’s.

For example, will smartphones help people connect with one another, or will they make it more awkward and difficult to have in-person conversations and make it harder to connect? The reality is that phones can do both; they are neither a purely good influence nor a purely bad influence on how people connect with one another, and they influence different people in different ways. Similarly, almost any development in technology, society, politics, or economics has pros and cons. Your intuition can help you evaluate claims about the future if it leads you to challenge ideas that seem too one-sided.

Evidence. Using evidence to think about the future means carefully considering the justifications for a claim about the future.

For example, many predictions, especially in the political realm, are used to stir up strong emotions and convince people to make a change. Authors sometimes describe extreme scenarios for what the future may hold in an effort to warn people about the bad things that might result if people continue doing what they are doing now. It is important to consider the evidence behind these kinds of claims, and whether the evidence truly justifies the claims being made.

Final Thoughts

Whether we realize it or not, we are surrounded by ideas about the future. From news articles (consider how often “current events” are actually making predictions about the future) to dystopian fiction in literature, film, and TV, we are exposed to thoughts about the future all the time. Getting good at reasoning about causes and effects can help us sift through these thoughts and ideas and figure out a better approach to understanding what the future may hold.

In the end, I suspect that no matter how many predictions we make, the future will surprise us. Any one of us only sees a small part of a much bigger picture of what has happened in the past and present, let alone the future. But using your experience in Big History to help you reason about the future, keeping causation, scale, interdisciplinarity, and claim testing in mind, will help you see more than you might have otherwise. That, at least, is what I predict!

About the author: Cameron Gibelyou, PhD, is a teacher and educator based at the University of Michigan. He holds a doctorate in astrophysics and has taught Big History at high school and college levels, as well as college classes in physics, astronomy, psychology, English, and applied liberal arts. One of his regular courses at the University of Michigan is called “Predicting the Future.” Since 2011, he has worked with the Big History Project as a developer of teaching materials, expert reviewer, and science adviser.


Cover image: Bridge traffic at night in ShangHai China, © MarsYu/Getty Images.


One thought on “How can an understanding of history help us predict the future?

  1. Mostly, people are people, wherever and whenever one goes. Isaac Asimov was onto something with his fanciful psycho-history, even though we can’t quite crunch enough numbers to make it work today, sometime in the future, I wouldn’t rule out some sort of variant of it. Thanks for a great think piece! I wish more of us understood the inherent complexity of social/political/economic issues as you do. I grow weary of their horrribly reductionist, cosmogenic, one-size-fits-all explanations. Your work is a real breath of fresh air!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s