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Predicting the future

Lead Summary
By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

There are lots of predictions concerning the future being tossed about today. Technology and climate change are subjects of keen interest, for instance.

We are seeing predictions out to 2050, 2100 or even 2121 (100 years). How has humankind done predicting the future in the past? What makes us think we are any better at it now?

For instance, let’s go back 300 years to 1721. Do you think in 1721, there were any predictions that in about 50 years a bunch of rabble rousers in North America would stand up and fight their colonial overlords? More improbably, that this little band would fight a war with their far bigger mother country and win? Then come up with a form of government that would last until now? Did anyone accurately predict this in 1721?

Or predict that perhaps some fellow named Maximilien Robespierre would be born in 1758 and be a principal leader in a revolution in France toward the end of the century, then have that revolution turn on him, and hence, he would suffer beheading in 1794? (Well, maybe that was a bad example.)

Do you think in 1821 great prognosticators could predict that the issue of the century in the United States would be slavery? Perhaps. But could they have predicted a Civil War that would result in the country not breaking apart?

On the technological front, in 1821, could they have predicted the steam-powered train? Maybe – it was close. How about the telegraph, the telephone or the camera? Did they predict the horse would be displaced by the automobile in 100 years? Not a chance.

How about that a baby, now 3 years old in 1821, would as an adult, develop a societal/governmental theory that would result in the deaths of millions of people in centuries to come? His name was Karl Marx.

Then, we come to 1921. Russia is already being run by the Bolsheviks and communism is taking root, so perhaps, other than the great loss of life coming there, one could not predict much new. Certainly no one could have predicted that an Austrian corporal in the German Army would cause much of a problem. But Adolf Hitler certainly did.

Someone might have predicted that Eric Liddell would make his mark as a runner in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, but it is doubtful that his death in China in a Japanese interment camp could have been predicted, even though the prediction that he would have spent his life as a missionary in China most assuredly could have been made.

In 1921, was the atom bomb predictable? World War II? Anything else that has happened in modern times – the computer, the internet and so forth? Likely not.

So, now in 2021, how come we are suddenly so filled with perspicacity that we can foresee events five years out? Twenty years, 50 years or 100 years? Seems unlikely.

Modern predictions are draped in mathematics. Yet, mathematics cannot predict what humans are going to do. Mathematics cannot predict humankind’s inventiveness or the courses of action humans will take in response to events around them.

In this little series, I want to explore the mathematics, the headlines and the possible human reactions we may see in the next 100 years. For certain, I will not get it right, but if I dislodge you just a bit from thinking the future is predictable, perhaps I will have done my job.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He may be reached at

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