Global Cooling And Other Wobbly Prophecies


Attributed, like so many uncertain dicta, to Yogi Berra, is the declaration that “prediction is very difficult, particularly of the future.” Quite true! But since things change so violently, one must indeed take many predictions with a grain of salt. In the investment business, we would love to have in hand reliable economic predictions, but almost nobody believes that in its present state economics is a predictive science: rather, a series of hypotheses. One thinks of Keynes’ warning that very many businessmen who think they are independent thinkers are in fact slaves of a defunct economist: now true as to Keynes himself. 

1. Climate

Perhaps you remember The Day After Tomorrow. In that film, which I see periodically on TV, New York and most of North America are overwhelmed by a vast coat of ice. The hero, actor Dennis Quaid, sets forth north from down south into polar conditions to retrieve his son, actor Jake Gyllenhaal, frozen into the New York Library. The two of them are saved by a providential helicopter, although millions of the rest of us New Yorkers are frozen stiff. In June 1974, Time revealed that global cooling meant that civilization would soon be ruined. Newsweek, not to be left behind, chimed in the next year, observing that since 1945 the temperature in the Northern Hemisphere had just in that short time declined by half a degree fahrenheit. “The central fact is that…the Earth’s climate seems to be cooling down…Meteorologists are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century” said the magazine. Fortunately, the process (and the meteorologists) seems to have eased up for the moment.

2. Media

On the subject of uninspired predictions, let us consider media magnate Darryl Zanuck in 1946, upon beholding TV: “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tire of staring at a plywood box every night.” In the same spirit, President Eisenhower opined that “I can think of nothing more boring for the American people than to have to sit in their living room for a whole half hour looking at my face in their television screen.” For that matter, the great Lord Kelvin, who gave his name to a measurement of temperature, declared in 1899, “Radio has no future.” (Also that the airplane would never get off the ground, and that the x-ray was a hoax.)

3.  Military 

Early in World War I there was actually a cavalry charge by lance-bearing bicycle troops, odd as that sounds. Given the terrible conditions of trench warfare, people did not expect this elegant form of combat to persist. Witnessing a tank in action, Field Marshall Douglas Haig marched straight forward. “The idea that cavalry will be replaced by those iron coaches is absurd. It is little short of treasonous.” No doubt he could easily imagine his beautifully polished brown leather boots being scuffed by the metal. Therefore, perhaps, “treasonous” because his degraded appearance would sap the morale of his stalwart followers.

Another tiny trifling military miscalculation was purveyed by the great Marshall Foch, immortal hero of Verdun. “Aeroplanes are interesting toys,” he assured his listeners, “but of no military value.” (Interesting citations are found in “History’s Worst Predictions” by Eric Chaline; London, History Press, 2011.)

And in war, so common are amazing surprises and upsets that the service academies, which traditionally have taught military history and the rules one learns from it, now teach that above all a commander must keep flexible. Until recently, who ever heard of vehicles being attacked from below, by IEDs, or from a clear sky by drones? And you certainly never directly attacked the opposing commander.

Anyway, stay loose!