Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Dan Gardner

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Dan Gardner (photo credit: Marilyn Mikkelsen)

Just as we tend to end a year with "Best of" lists, we like to begin a new one with predictions for what's to come. Is this the decade we'll see the death of the book? What's next after Stieg Larsson? Which authors are the ones to watch? We might be eager for answers to these questions, but according to Ottawa-based author and journalist Dan Gardner, we shouldn't trust anyone's predictions. In his brilliant and darkly funny new book, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail — and Why We Believe Them Anyway (McClelland & Stewart), Gardner delves into research that proves pundits who are more famous are less accurate — and the average expert is no more accurate than a flipped coin. And though we may begin the year with predictions, we somehow forget to check and see if last year's ever came through....

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail — and Why We Believe Them Anyway.

Dan Gardner:

I love reading history and if you spend any time trolling through the past you will come across esteemed experts of the day who were sure the future would turn out very differently than it did. Or to put that a little more succinctly, history constantly surprises — and experts who think they know how it will unfold are deluded. So why is it that when we open the newspaper, or turn on the TV news, or look at list of best-selling books, we find esteemed experts who are sure they know what will happen in the future? Why are they so confident? And why do people listen to them? Future Babble answers these questions.

OB:

Can you give us an example from Future Babble of a situation in which experts failed to predict the outcome of an event — one that you find particularly striking?

DG:

Whole books could be filled with nothing but examples of failed expert predictions. Many have been. Remember the big best-seller of 1999? Dow 36,000. If you read that and were convinced, you lost a lot of money. A decade before that, the book everyone was reading — it spent almost two years on the New York Times best-seller list — was The Great Depression of 1990. Do I have to say that there was no Great Depression in 1990?

Or how about the hugely influential 1992 book Head to Head, in which MIT economist Lester Thurow assured readers that China "will not have a big impact on the world economy in the first half of the twenty-first century." Scientist and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said we would all be driving hovercraft by the 1990s. Several months before the First World War erupted, H.N. Norman, a leading British journalist, said there would never again by a major war. In 2008, economist Jeff Rubin said oil would cost $200 a barrel in 2010, which turned out to be $120 too high. I could go on. And on. And on and on. But I think you get the idea.

OB:

You say your first book, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, was inspired by a lecture by psychologist Paul Slovic. What was it about Slovic's lecture that so captivated you?

DG:

Slovic's lecture was essentially my introduction to basic psychology and its application to specific issues. And it was startling. For many years, as a journalist, I saw how distorted media reporting was, and how out of synch people's fears were with reality. Psychology connected the dots. It was a revelation. It really transformed my understanding of the world.

OB:

What is your writing process like?

DG:

Writing is the least of it. The overwhelming majority of the work involves research, and most of that is sifting through heaps and heaps of books, articles, reports, and studies. Happily for me, the depths of the cognitive coal mine also happens to be my ideal environment for the development of ideas and conceptual frameworks. That's the creative stuff. It's seldom a conscious effort. It just happens, usually while I'm having my morning shower. With the heavy labour done and concepts in place, it's finally time to write — the simplest and easiest part of the job.

OB:

In addition to being a journalist and author, you are also a lecturer. Do you prefer writing for the page or speaking to an audience?

DG:

Lecturing was, at first, only something I did out of necessity. I had published a book. People asked me to talk about it. So I did. And I enjoyed it about as much as anyone enjoys public speaking. But with experience, I've come to appreciate the lecture as a distinct experience with unique qualities. It's communication of an entirely different sort. When the audience is truly engaged, it's a thrill for me. But the best of all is an audience that is engaged and smart and asks challenging questions. Then it's inspiring.

OB:

Which non-fiction writers do you most admire, and how has their work influenced your own writing?

DG:

At least one choice would be easy. That's Steven Pinker. It was The Blank Slate that first got me thinking about evolution, biology, human nature and public policy. So thoughtful and such lucid writing. I got quite a thrill earlier this year when a political scientist I know happened to be speaking with Pinker and told him he should read Future Babble. He did. And he said some very nice things about it that will be on the cover of the next edition. I've won various awards and whatnot, but the praise of one of the world's leading thinkers certainly tops my list of career highlights.

OB:

Can you predict what your next writing project will be?

DG:

I do have a sense of what my next book may be, but I will take my own advice and hold my tongue.


Dan Gardner is a columnist and senior writer for the Ottawa Citizen, specializing in criminal justice and other investigative issues. Trained in history and law, Gardner worked as a senior policy adviser to the Premier and the Minister of Education before turning to journalism in 1997. His writing has received numerous awards, including the National Newspaper Award, Amnesty International’s Media Award. He lives in Ottawa with his wife and two children. Visit him at his website, www.dangardner.ca.

For more information about Future Babble please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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