• The futility of predictions
    January 01,2014
     

    A year ago on New Year’s Eve, it would have been easy to make a few obvious predictions about 2013.

    Fresh off his victory over Mitt Romney, the president would be able to consolidate his gains and finally have the chance to enact his agenda. He’d be helped by the long-awaited roll-out of Obamacare. With millions of Americans signing up in the fall, the criticism of the program would, at long last, be put to rest.

    Equally obvious would have been that 2013 would see some tough legislation on guns. The Sandy Hook tragedy still seared the mind and clearly would propel Democrats and Republicans alike to embrace some overdue, commonsense controls.

    It would be a tough year for Boston baseball fans. Toronto looked set to dominate the American League. For the Red Sox, to put it kindly, it seemed to be a time to rebuild. The only uncertainty was whether the Sox would be worst or next-to-worst.

    The Patriots would be a different story. The team had an exceptional line-up in Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, and Vince Wilfork. With talent like that, coaching wouldn’t matter; Bill Belichick, it appeared, would only need to stand back and let the stars on the field have their way.

    Locally, the biggest story would be Tom Menino’s easy walk to a sixth term. In office for two decades, the mayor felt like a comfortable and reliable old shoe. In a tumultuous world, his grandfatherly presence offered a welcome measure of stability.

    All of these obvious predictions were, of course, completely wrong. Instead of a crowning year of achievement, 2013 was in the eyes of many Obama’s worst. The massive glitches in the health care website were but one example of what seemed a series of endless presidential snafus. Meanwhile, Sandy Hook came and went, and several shooting tragedies since still have not changed the dynamics around gun control.

    At home, the Red Sox bounced back and won the World Series, while several of the players the Patriots had counted upon were either injured or, in Hernandez’s case, in jail. And Menino, beset by illness, ended up taking a pass on another term. The race to succeed him was the region’s second biggest story. The biggest was a horror show no one foresaw: the Marathon Day bombings.

    One lesson to be drawn from all of this is that prediction is largely useless. As we now look toward 2014 and try to divine its secrets, even the best prognosticators are little more than street-alley psychics. Some make predictions that, like astrology, are so obliquely put that they can’t help but be right. But most are simply coin tosses.

    And why is that? One theory of history holds that events unfold almost fatalistically, driven by large changes in culture and environment. In that conception of the world, we are, as Tolstoy put it, just “history’s slaves.” The opposite view is the so-called “great man” theory — it includes women too, and “great” does not necessarily mean good, just influential. Its key idea: Individuals matter, in the large scheme of things and the small.

    Thus, the course of Barack Obama’s presidency is largely up to Obama and not a consequence of some grand and impenetrable machinations. Similarly, whether gun laws change will depend on specific legislators on either side of the issue. The success of the Red Sox shows how the human side of the sport — as opposed to the merely statistical — still matters. So too the Patriots’ winning season is the result of a coach and players who refused to accept what seemed to be inevitable losses. That Marty Walsh and not Tom Menino will be taking the oath of office Jan. 6 is also a testament to the singular importance — and frailties — of one person. And, of course, the April 15 explosions also tell us, in a grim way, how much effect one or two individuals can have on a community.

    It’s stuff like this that makes the prediction game so difficult. For good or ill, humans matter and humans are unpredictable. So a wish to you for this new year. May it be happy, but know as well that the only thing you can be sure to expect is that much will be unexpected.



    Tom Keane is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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