07/09/2013 10:41 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

The Power of Prediction

How many times have we heard, or possibly even said, "You can't predict the future"? It seems like a simple proposition on the surface. We live in the present, have experienced the past, and the future is subject to so many variables -- not the least of which is human behavior -- that it would be foolhardy to try to predict what's going to happen next.

But in many respects, the future is utterly predictable. The sun will set tonight at 8:48 p.m. EST. No real doubt about that, barring something completely unforeseen. As Annie sang in the eponymous musical, "The sun'll come up/ Tomorrow/ Bet your bottom dollar/ That tomorrow/ There'll be sun!" The planets in their courses, the moon in its ritual dance with the Earth, are all studied so thoroughly that our predictions are correct to within milliseconds. Nor should the residents of the 21st century feel too smug about our predictions of the planets. The Maya civilization in southern Mexico and Central America had equally accurate star tables to predict these phenomena, including eclipses and other esoteric cosmic events. To add insult to injury, the Maya were far more sophisticated in tracking planets than the Spaniards who came to conquer them. The Maya did not see that one coming.

Our powers of prediction are not limited to events on a cosmic scale. We know that when a magnet is placed near an object containing iron the two will be attracted. Chemists realize that when various chemicals are combined in the presence of energy, specific reactions will occur. It is utterly predictable. In fact, a fantastic career could be built if the predicted reaction did not take place!

To quote a line from the musical The Fantasticks, "Plant a carrot, get a carrot, not a Brussels sprout." Even in the biological world, much is predictable. Of course, that radish must be planted when conditions are appropriate to grow the vegetable we expect. That brings up the issue of the weather. Of all natural phenomena, weather has traditionally been among the least predictable, but it is also considered a topic of dull and predictable conversation. As much as we might complain about the unpredictability of the weather, by and large modern science has taken much of the edge off the issue, and it has become far more predictable than ever before. Major storms are now tracked and predicted several days out, and although the local perturbations may be unpredictable, we know they are coming and what to expect. Hurricanes can spawn tornadoes when they land, but we do not know exactly where the tornadoes will go. And, of course, now we have sophisticated Doppler radar and GPS monitoring to track the storms and give us minutes of advanced notice.

Human behavior is a major holdout in our ability to predict the future. But increasingly, psychologists and sociologists have made great strides in analyzing human behavior and being able to predict, to a greater or lesser degree, what human reaction will be to specific stimuli. The herd instinct is alive and well in all of us. Bad news causes the stock market to fall. But even in our own persons, we have a high degree of predictability. Shakespeare asked, "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" Medicine is built around the idea of predictability. When things do not work the way we expect, we seek medical assistance or search for new cures.

In fact, our lives are so wholly predictable that we sometimes yearn for excitement or actively seek it. How dull music is when it is predictable. Composers set up patterns, only to break them. Artists make rules, and then violate them in order to provoke thought, please us, or at least attract attention. Indeed, much of artistic creation plays with violating self-imposed rules which, in other words, plays with unpredictability.

So higher education gives students a glimpse into this predictable world. By pursuing a broad curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences, we give students an ability to learn the rules of predictability. Then they have the opportunity to see what happens when those rules are violated, or to understand the patterns of violations which they themselves may use. We all take predictability so much for granted, that we only notice when things do not turn out the way we expected. We say, "Wow, the world sure is unpredictable!" When in fact, what we really mean is that in an extremely predictable world, what caught our attention stood out because it did not occur as we had expected.

The kicker is that no matter how hard we try to hogtie and constrain the future, it has a way of eluding us. Earthquakes still come seemingly out of the blue. Interpersonal relationships are undoubtedly the locus of more frustration and consternation about unpredictability than any other realm of human existence. We are an idiosyncratic species. We do unexpected things. Try as we may to console ourselves in the predictability of the world, eventually it will turn around and gob-smack us, bringing us up short. In that moment, we remember our humanity and our hubris for thinking we can predict the future. That's really what higher education is about. What are you going to do when things don't turn out the way you planned? With a broad liberal education, you have options.

The short story of higher education is that the best educators teach us to learn through observation, in order to anticipate the options that new circumstances present. The response to unpredictability is observation and opportunity. But the corollary to predictability is not randomness. There is order. We simply need to work harder to find it. At the same time, a little randomness gives spice to life, and unpredictable or unexpected discoveries frequently bring new knowledge. Good old observation, analysis and communication are always needed to make sense of new discoveries and to figure out how to apply those discoveries to the everyday world. It is the role of the professor, teacher, and mentor to provide educational experiences to prepare and train student to make use of the realities that both the predictability and the unpredictability of life present us with.

So the next time someone complains that the future is unknown, recognize that like all other aphorisms, it's a half-truth. And in the exceptions, we are constantly growing and learning.