Interdisciplinary Honors Seminars

The History of Predicting the Future (and Getting it Wrong)

01:090:292:02 Index# 10534
Professor Jamie Pietruska, SAS - History
M TH 9:50-11:10A
Honors College Rm S124
College Ave Campus


Will Count Towards SAS - History Major and Minor

In this seminar we will examine the history of human attempts to predict the future ranging from antiquity to the present, with an emphasis on the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The course begins from two basic premises, the first of which is that predicting the future is not a timeless human activity. Rather, ideas about prediction and methods of forecasting have changed over time in response to major changes in political economy, society, and culture. The second premise is that visions of the future have often exerted influence on the present. Decision-making in a particular historical moment is shaped by what human actors anticipate will come next, as well as by their illusions of control over an unpredictable future.

            Our approach will be historical, but we will engage with topics and concepts from disciplines including meteorology, economics, statistics, computer science, behavioral economics, psychology, and literature. We will spend the semester reading and discussing a combination of primary and secondary sources that will illuminate five key questions: At which historical moments has forecasting been the most consequential, the most controversial, and why? How and why have some forecasters become recognized as experts while others have not? How have forecasters claimed authority for their visions of the future? How have forecasters reckoned with and communicated the uncertainty inherent in predicting the future? How have failed predictions affected public trust in experts and in the nature of forecasting itself?

            The seminar will be divided into four thematic units that proceed chronologically, with some overlap. We will begin by examining traditions of prophecy and ways of predicting the future of nature (both human and non-human nature) from antiquity to the twenty-first century. Topics in this unit will include religious prophecy, astrology and fortune-telling, almanacs and weather forecasting, utopianism, science fiction, agricultural statistics, and climate modeling. Next, we will explore the relationship between science, technology, and capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, considering how forecasting emerged as a new form of risk management that sought, often unsuccessfully, to tame uncertainties in economic life. Topics in this unit include the rise of statistical and probabilistic judgment, industrial accidents and insurance, commodity futures trading, and business forecasting. Third, we will adopt a comparative and global framework for our study of prediction and geopolitics in the twentieth century, which will focus on how political and racial ideologies influenced efforts to model and control the future. Topics in this unit will include eugenics and population control, Cold War scenario planning for nuclear disaster, weather and climate control during the Vietnam War, and the emergence of geoengineering as a potential technoscientific “fix” for global warming. Finally, the seminar will conclude with a unit on big data and predictive analytics in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries that examines how new methods of calculating, storing, and analyzing digital information have produced new algorithmic tools for forecasting as well as new ways of understanding our relationship to the future. Topics in this section will include weather derivatives trading, crime forecasting, tracking and prediction of disease outbreaks, predictive marketing and online consumer culture, online dating, personal tracking and the Quantified Self movement, and the role of public opinion polling and poll aggregators in presidential elections in the United States from 2008 to 2016.

JAMIE PIETRUSKA is an Assistant Professor in Department of History, where she specializes in the history of culture, science, and technology in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States. Her research focuses on how knowledge is produced, circulated, and contested. She has written a book titled Looking Forward: Prediction and Uncertainty in Modern America (University of Chicago Press, Dec. 2017), and she has published articles on cotton yield forecasting, long-range weather forecasting, and the meteorological infrastructure of American empire.