the seductions of prediction

Derek Thompson is an outstanding journalist, but this piece strikes me as way premature. I mean, good heavens, we’re not even two months into our current order. Even the Italian lockdowns only started in late February, and the shelter-in-place directives in American cities several weeks later. The most essential questions about the long-term effects of COVID–19 — How much long-term damage does it do to people who survive it? Will it weaken in the summer months? Will it come back in the fall, and if so, how strongly? When will we get a vaccine, and how effective will the vaccine be? — remain unanswered, and only when we have answers to them will we have any reasonable sense of the long-term effects on the economy. This is an article that simply should not have been written.

But everyone’s doing it, I guess. The seductions of prediction are irresistible. Note how Thompson regularly slips from the conditional — “The year 2020 may bring the death of the department store”; “The pandemic will also likely accelerate the big-business takeover of the economy” — to the unconditional: “Many of these spaces will stay empty for months, removing the bright awnings, cheeky signs, and crowded windows that were the face of their neighborhood. Long stretches of cities will feel facelessly anonymous.” It’s hard to tell whether these alternating verb forms reflect different levels of confidence, or whether Thompson just gets caught up in the mug’s game of prophecy and forgets to hedge his bets. I suspect the latter.

But in any case, if I were the world’s greatest computer hacker, I’d inject some code into stories like this that would insert, every five sentences, William Goldman’s justly famous and transcendently wise line: “Nobody knows anything.”