Thursday, September 13, 2012

No facts about the future

One of my favorite quotations, going back 15 years or so, is all about what we know and what we don't know (Shouldn't that be obvious? Perhaps. But it's not)
There are no facts about the future
Dr David Hulett

Profound in its simplicity, this quotation always seems to beg two questions:
  1. If there are no facts about the future, what then do we know about the future?; and
  2. Where are the facts aboutt, if not the future?
The answers should be self-evident, but just in case, here they are for the record:
  1. There are only estimates (not facts) about the future, and the estimate is only as good as our conception (or model) for the future. Using facts (history) to project a trend line or construct a regression curve doesn't change this in any way. There are still no facts about the future
  2. The facts are in the past, but they are subject to interpretation; so facts may not be so factual. Well, actually, a fact is a fact, but the cause-effect may be in doubt, so also correlations. All we know with a fact is that it's a posterior consequence of some prior circumstance.
We see these things at work every day, in public life, private advice, and project plans:
  • According to Scientific American, we learn that: "In 1798 Thomas Robert Malthus famously predicted that short-term gains in living standards would inevitably be undermined as human population growth outstripped food production, and thereby drive living standards back toward subsistence. We were, he argued, condemned by the tendency of population to grow geometrically while food production would increase only arithmetically."
  • Financial planners solemly declare that you will (or will not) be able to retire and not outlive your savings and pensions
  • The EAC (or ETC) is really not an estimate of "estimate-at-completion" if calculated with earned value formulas; somehow, EAC becomes a fact. Nonesense. It's still an estimate, even if calculated with linear equations with known (historical) coefficients. The EV equations assume a model of the environment, the staffing, the quality of the requirements, the attitudes of the sponsor, and so on.  Change some element of this model and the equations are for naught, or at most they are for a case that's changed and may no longer be highly likely.
This whole discussion is probably at its worst in the public policy domain. Each side, no matter the issue, purports to know the facts. They don't. In the US, to fix short-term and near-sighted budgeting, we've gone to 10-year budget/benefit estimates. The effect is to set up policy debates that are valid under a specific set of assumptions, but the assumptions are more often than not lost on the general populance, leaving only the budget/benefit as a 'fact'.

The worst of the worst occurs when dealing with so-called wicked projects, projects for which the solution actually defines the problem (because no one else can because of so many circular conflicts). In the wicked situation, facts--such as they are--should probably be treated almost like 'sunk costs' (costs on which you shouldn't base a decision because they really have no impact on the future). Wicked facts are very weak as a driver for future outcomes.

Climbing back down from my soapbox....

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