Humans seem to be forecasting machines. We are obsessed with trying to figure out what's going to happen. Specialists attempt to predict everything from the weather to interest rates, award winners, elections and the outcomes of sporting events. Millions are spent every year by individuals consulting fortunetellers who give them the skinny on relationships, health, employment possibilities and winning lottery numbers.
Every New Years Day prophets and predictors weigh in on the coming months. But, it doesn't stop there as we all know. Weather, meteors, political scandals, wars, more sporting events, economic indicators....well, it all seems so important. And most of the time, the forecasters of whatever stripe are wrong. But sometimes, and generally only sometimes, they're right, so the idea that we might have missed something gets us hooked again.
Nate Silver, the guy who correctly predicted that Barack Obama would win re-election, has written a book about our obsession with prediction. In The Signal and the Noise, Silver discusses what it takes to be a good predictor of specific events or phenomena. Essentially, it takes an ability to absorb a vast amount of data and focus in on recurrent patterns that others might miss.
Silver argues that most folks don't have the patience or ability to sift through data in this fashion. It does seem to require a certain kind of person. Disciplines, such as weather forecasting, have to crunch so much information that humans really can't do it. That's why computers are used to generate the patterns that have made weather forecasting much more accurate than it used to be.
Problem is, the public is impatient and seems to want perfection. Whether the forecaster is an astrologer or a meteorologist, he/she is dealing in the realm of probabilities, not absolutes. Right now, given the state of the art, meteorologists are really happy if they can predict a hurricane landfall, where and when, with ~70% accuracy. Considering where hurricane prediction was 50 years ago, this is really extraordinary. But it doesn't seem to help much if your home was unexpectedly hit due to unanticipated factors.
Good astrologers don't often deal in specifics but rather in general trends. Most western astrologers don't prophesy as much as they counsel folks in how to cope with transitions when they occur. The mavericks who still engage in forecasting, generally called Predictive Astrology, do so very generally. 'Horoscopes' tend to be very broad and most Americans don't take them too seriously.
However, none of our predictive techniques can help when the truly unexpected, unknown event occurs. Astronomers had been predicting the flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14 for many months, but no one knew that a smaller meteorite was going to explode over Russia within the very same time frame. Scientists confirmed that this was a very unusual coincidence, but that the two events were not connected in any way.
Events like this just go to show that predictions only work with information already known. We go forward with that, assuming that circumstances in the future will be somewhat the same. This is why absolute accuracy in predicting small meteors or who the next mass shooter will be is almost impossible. We feel powerless over unknown information.
In American society, this powerlessness expresses itself in conspiracy theories: the Newtown shooting was a hoax, or the shooter was connected to a world-wide fascist network. A Russian politician floated the rumor, picked up by cranky U.S. media outlets, that the Russian meteor was actually a U.S. weapons test. If we think that someone 'out there' knows and has the answer, then all we have to do is get to 'the truth' and somehow, we'll be safer.
The facts are simpler: a troubled young man, for many reasons, largely unknown, decided to kill almost 30 people in Newton, CT a couple of months ago. A few days ago, a previously unknown and probably largely undetectable piece of space debris exploded over Russia causing much damage and injuring (not seriously) over 1000 people. That's the kind of universe we live in and sometimes the protection that we think prediction might provide is simply not available.