A time for prophecies

In this last leg of the journey to exercise our right to self-determination, the fight on the arena of self-fulfilling prophecies will be to the death

We are experiencing quite the onslaught of short-term forecasts --with the 27S election only 50 days away-- that exceeds even our own hunger for predictions. And I fear that, as we near the election date, the avalanche of prophecies --be it as opinion polls, pseudo-expert analyses or delirious rants-- will all but escalate. Needless to say, there will be wholly contradictory predictions depending on the sources and the media that make them and they will not be innocent at all.

To prophesy about social matters is to become part of the actual logic of such events. In other words, playing oracle is, in itself, a way of intervening in the direction of social changes. Social sciences usually make allowances for the difficulty in making predictions, but also for how predictions themselves have an unexpected effect on social reality. Classic authors such as Max Weber wrote extensively about what we know as the “unintended consequences of social action”, showing the paradox of social logics which end up bringing about the opposite outcome to that which they sought. Weber found a prototypical example for study in the Protestant ethic which, while paving the way for capitalism, actually ended up “digging its own grave”, Weber wrote. To bring it to our present context, it is exactly like those who resort to apocalyptic predictions in an attempt to stop Catalan independence and, rather than deter anyone with their warnings and threats, they actually provide even more arguments for those whom they meant to put off.

Wishful thinking --a concept from psychology that Bruner and Goodman studied in the mid-20th century-- is yet another mechanism to do with predicting the future. It refers to the sort of thinking that confuses one’s wishes with reality. In some cases, maliciously. But it is certainly true that, as they say, “a hungry man dreams of the bread market”. And so there are many analysts who honestly confuse what would suit them with actual reality. None of us are exempt from this danger, but when you turn your wishes into the main criterion for your forecasts, you end up with egg all over your face.

I have made the most of these early August days to go through a mountain of articles, analyses and interviews that I have been collecting in a box over the last few years. And I have discovered among them true masters at calling the death of the Catalan independence process, even repeatedly over time. I don’t need to tell you that the prophets were as vehement as was their desire for the process to die a true death.

Lastly, I shall refer to self-fulfilling prophecies, a term coined by Robert K. Merton. While baseless when first uttered, such predictions have the potential to fulfill themselves provided they become credible. In this case we could be also be looking at the product of innocent self-deceit, or otherwise they might be spread in the hope that any credence they receive may actually help them to come true. This mechanism presents variations, such as the placebo effect. But, at any rate, it may elicit positive or negative feedback. Parents who keep telling their child that he will fall over are actually instilling a lack of confidence that might eventually cause him to fall over. On the contrary, fostering self-esteem --in a reasonable manner-- is generally the best way to make one’s dreams come true.

So, in this last leg of the journey to exercise our right to self-determination, the fight on the arena of self-fulfilling prophecies will be to the death. Fortunately, a good deal of pro-independence voters do not need to be told that they will win in order to stay true to their commitment, nor will they lose their cool by thinking that they might lose. But the more fearful voter might allow himself to become intimidated by empty threats. This voter might be influenced by interpretations based on wishful thinking and he might be swayed by false prophecies, thus allowing them to fulfill themselves.

Perhaps I should add that all three mechanisms affect all the parties that compete against one another in the election. I could also give examples of how the other side has also misused forecasting in the exact opposite way. All the more reason to be picky about the prophecies of our political opponents as well as --perhaps even more so-- the ones from those whom we regard as being on our side.