The WORST Predictions From History
It was a bitterly cold Monday morning in New York. The year was drawing to a close in what would be one of the worst ever years in the history of the US stock market. The S&P 500 index was down nearly 40%, the housing bubble had well and truly burst, and there was mass unemployment across the country. Things were looking bleak, and there didn’t seem to be an end in sight. It was on this day that the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled: “As if Things Weren't Bad Enough, Russian Professor Predicts End of U.S.”
In the article, the Journal looked at a 1998 prediction made by a Russian professor and former KGB analyst, Igor Panarin. He predicted that in the year 2010, the United States would collapse. He even detailed exactly how that collapse would play out. The cause of this would be mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation — this would trigger a civil war and the collapse of the dollar. Now, it’s quite a prediction to make that the richest country in the world will collapse. But that’s not what was so ridiculous about this prediction. Rather, the absurdity comes from the way in which the collapse was supposed to happen. Panarin predicted that the US would split into 6 different pieces: 4 new republics for the “lower 48” states, plus Alaska and Hawaii, all of which would either join or be under heavy influence from a different outside entity.
Starting over on the West Coast, there was to be the Californian Republic, in which the state of California would form the nucleus, and the surrounding states would just be okay with joining for some reason. This new republic would join China, or be under Chinese influence. Next, there would be the Central North-American Republic, a seemingly random collection of states connected only by their proximity to one another. This would become part of Canada, or be under Canadian influence. Texans will be happy to know that there would be a Texas Republic, which is made up of not only the state itself, but also the surrounding states in the South. This isn’t quite the independence Texas nationalists dreamt of, though, as it would join Mexico, or be under Mexican influence.
Finally for the lower 48, a collection of eastern states would be organised into what would be called Atlantic America and… “may join the European Union''. Because why not at this point. That just leaves Alaska and Hawaii. Given that this prediction was made by a Russian, and Alaska used to be part of Russia, it’s probably obvious what he thought the fate of this state would be.
Hawaii would be a protectorate of China or Japan. Looking at this fantasy map, it’s almost hard to decide which part of this scenario is the most insane. The implication that either Mexico or Canada would have enough power or influence to just take or control a bunch of US states; that China could control California and all the surrounding states from across the Pacific? But I think if I had to pick, it would probably be the eastern states forming an Atlantic alliance and considering joining the EU. What?
Even the part that might initially seem to make the most sense - Alaska being returned to Russia - actually doesn’t. The US purchased Alaska from the Russian Emperor in 1867, but it was only actually controlled by Russia for less than 100 years, and was never fully colonised. Very few Russians ever actually lived there; and those that did, left after the sale. Alaska is physically close to Russia, but only to Siberia. Russia’s power and influence is heavily concentrated over on the European side of the country, in and around Moscow. If anything, joining Canada would likely make more sense for Alaska.
I could look more into the specific reasons for why this prediction is so bad, but even granting it such consideration would be giving it more credit than it even deserves. Now, what’s arguably more ridiculous than the prediction itself, is the very fact that the Wall Street Journal actually ran an article about it. A well-respected, American newspaper, actually gave this prediction the time of day, writing an entire full-page article about it. It does offer a bit of an insight into how bad things were during the height of the financial crisis panic. Or perhaps it was just fear-mongering to get more clicks and sell more papers.
That’s not to say the Journal actually implied this scenario was likely… although, there was no comment on how unlikely it was, either. It was this prediction that inspired this whole video. Although, as bad as it is, it’s far from the only terrible prediction that’s been made throughout history. *** For the next one that we’ll look at, let’s go more than 500 years back in time, to the voyages of Christopher Columbus. The main thing to look at here is not that Columbus
wanted to sail west to India, nor that the Spanish Crown initially rejected the voyage; rather, it’s one of the reasons why they rejected his request. With the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Turks cut off the European trade route to Asia along the highly profitable Silk Road that had been used for more than a millennium. Enter Christopher Columbus who had a bright idea - why not sail west to India. This was a bad idea, and it was known at the time. Contrary to what became a popular urban legend, Columbus did NOT face resistance to his idea because everyone at the time thought the world was flat. All intellectuals knew the true shape of the world from as early as 2000 BC.
He faced resistance because he had significantly underestimated the size of the Earth; its real size was already well established, and to a surprising degree of accuracy. Columbus went to Portugal with the idea to try and get funding for the voyage, but the Portuguese were content with taking the really long route around the southern tip of Africa. So he took his idea to the Spanish Crown instead to see if he’d have better luck there. Spain also, rightly, rejected Columbus at first. Yet, of all the legitimate reasons for the rejection, there was one that stood out which couldn’t have been more wrong if it tried.
“So many centuries after the Creation it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.” What makes this quote so ridiculous is that it actually does acknowledge the possibility that new land could be discovered on a voyage, but completely dismisses the idea of it being of any value. Spain eventually did grant him funding, ships, and a crew, mostly because they didn’t want him to go to their rival, France; and also it was figured that the risk was minimal, but the potential reward was enormous. Columbus was promised 10% of all revenues from any newly discovered land for the rest of his life. After the discovery of the New World, this 10% would have been an unimaginable amount of money for one man. Unfortunately for Columbus,
when he demanded payment, the Crown refused, and he died just 2 years later. The legacy of his voyages started what became known as the Age of Discovery, and competition over the Americas between Spain, France, and Britain was one of the main reasons for conflict between the major European powers. This was due to the incredible wealth that was generated from the newly discovered land. *** Now, one section of history that is ripe for a whole host of truly horrible predictions relates to the time surrounding the World Wars. This next one comes from a famous turn-of-the-century English author, HG Wells. Although he was mostly known for his fiction writing, at the outbreak of the First World War he began writing non-fiction pieces about the conflict. One of his books, composed
of various newspaper articles written at the beginning of the war, stands out in particular. The book was titled “The War That Will End War”. Now, when you actually read the book and the context beyond the title, it’s clear that this wasn’t exactly a prediction, per se; it was more of an idealistic view, rather than what he genuinely thought would happen. His motivation for writing seemed to be to inspire the young soldiers being shipped off to fight in a brutal war; a war in which many would never return. Still, it’s hard to overlook such a bold title for a book while the whole world was at war.
And while the book does contain some actually pretty spot-on predictions (especially to do with the future of certain countries and territories), there are definitely some passages that really stand out with the benefit of hindsight. “This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war–it is the last war!” Wells portrayed this war as a fight against German militarisation; a war that was being fought for peace on earth - not just for the present, but for the rest of time. Over the course of the war, the title of the book evolved into a popular war-time phrase. These days, the phrase is commonly presented as “the war to end all wars”. Of course, the longer the war went on, and the worse the situation got, the more that phrase turned from inspirational to bitterly ironic. Even by 1918, some people still clung to that phrase, though by that point it was less about hope and more through desperation than anything else. The so-called “Great War” led to so much
death, destruction, and despair. It’s unimaginable how awful it must have been for those who lived through it, and especially for those who didn’t make it; so it is perhaps understandable that some might have tried to take solace in the idea that, despite how bad things were… at least it was for a good cause. Victory was the light at the end of the tunnel, and if it could just be achieved, the world could move on from the horrors of war, and live in peace forever. The war to end all wars was, of course, proven completely and utterly incorrect. Just two decades after the Great War ended, an even bloodier one would just be getting started… And this brings us onto our next prediction.
*** On the 30th of September, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s plane touched down in London. He had just returned from Germany, and was greeted by a crowd of cheering citizens. Chamberlain made a brief speech to the small crowd, proudly showing off a piece of paper, which had been signed by himself, and a certain German chancellor who you might be familiar with… [Chamberlain] We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples… never to go to war with one another again! The agreement in question was called the Munich Agreement, and is widely viewed by historians as an act of appeasement to the Nazi party and Hitler. In fact, the Munich Agreement is probably THE most quintessential example of appeasement. Chamberlain and Hitler shaking hands is literally the photo used in the Wikipedia article. For context about the agreement, Nazi Germany had already annexed Austria, without consequence or much reaction at all from the international community.
Hitler next set his eyes on Czechoslovakia. There were some bordering parts of the country which had a lot of ethnic Germans - this was called the Sudetenland, and Hitler wanted it. In a speech in Berlin, Hitler had proclaimed that the Sudetenland was "the last territorial demand I have to make in Europe”. Seems legit.
Czechoslovakia wasn’t even invited to the meeting which would decide the country’s fate. It was Britain and France negotiating with Germany and Italy. Once the decision had been made that Germany would annex the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia was heavily pressured to accept the terms. The foreign minister of the country, Jan Masaryk, had this to say about the agreement: ‘If you have sacrificed my nation to preserve the peace of the world, I will be the first to applaud you. But if not, gentlemen, God help your souls!’ Neville Chamberlain somewhat naively referring to the Munich Agreement as “peace for our time” would become a horrible irony just 1 year later, as the world was plunged into the bloodiest war in all of human history. That agreement that Chamberlain had so proudly showed off to the cheering crowd turned out to be not worth the paper it was written on. *** Moving on, and unsurprisingly, one area where we can find some really, really bad predictions is… technology. Whether it’s predicting what’s possible or impossible for the future,
or how much of an impact a recent innovation might have, there are countless examples of well-respected, intelligent people who had to eat their words. Sometimes literally. My favourite example comes from a 1903 newspaper article in the New York Times. The title of the article was “Flying Machines Which Do Not Fly”. The article talked about the recent “fiasco”, as they called it, by a man named Samuel Langley in his attempt to build a flying machine. The Times article seemed to almost take pleasure in the unsuccessful test flight which spectacularly plunged into the Potomac River. It went on to talk about how and why the
“Langley flying machine” had been unsuccessful. Though, rather than seeing the potential in his design, the article compared Langley to Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. The article then takes a strange turn by making a somewhat odd comparison between human innovation and evolution. By using birds as the example, the author bizarrely conflates the two, and implies that innovation would take significantly longer than nature took for birds to be able to fly. “Hence, if it requires, say, a thousand years to fit for easy flight a bird which started with rudimentary wings, or ten thousand for one which started with no wings at all and had to sprout them ab initio, it might be assumed that the flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years” It may not have been by Langley, but two brothers by the names of Orville and Wilbur Wright completed the first ever successful flight in an airplane. Somewhat ahead of schedule, I would say. *** Airplanes are undoubtedly one of the greatest inventions of all time. Though, an even better invention, one
which allows you to watch this very video - the internet, had plenty of sceptics back in the day. [Paxman] “It’s just a tool, though, isn’t it?” [Bowie] “No it’s not… no. No, it’s an alien lifeform!” Many didn’t quite grasp its true potential, while others dismissed it as something of a fad.
While technically the internet was “invented” in the 1960s, it didn’t really become anything special until the World Wide Web - which opened up to the public in 1991. This was when the internet’s full potential was unleashed. That’s what makes the following prediction all the more embarrassing. It was made in 1998. The prediction made by Nobel prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman, was that “By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet's impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine's” For a long time, this quote had actually been long forgotten. It wasn’t until 2013 when it was dug up and made the rounds on social media.
At that time, Krugman wrote an article for the New York Times titled “Bitcoin is evil”. As you can probably imagine, 2013 Bitcoin enthusiasts didn’t take too kindly to this article. So someone must have found this quote from 1998, and spread it around to undermine his credibility. In a follow-up article by Business Insider which confronted Krugman on his prediction, he attributed the quote to a New York Times article in which he was looking at the world from some distant future in an alternate reality… or something like that. However, a Snopes article found that, actually, the quote was from a site called Red Herring, in an article that was, somewhat ironically, titled Why most economists' predictions are wrong.
Reading the quote in its full context, it’s clear that it was very much a genuine prediction. When Snopes confronted him about the mix-up he replied by acknowledging the confusion, then somewhat dismissively saying “Anyway, I was clearly trying to be provocative, and got it wrong, which happens to all of us sometimes”. “I don’t even know what that means” “No one knows what it means but it’s provocative” “No it’s not it’s–” “Gets the people going!” While the late 90s Internet was a shell of the modern equivalent, it was still quite capable compared to fax machines. You could view newspaper articles, communicate by email, look at funny pictures, play basic games, download music, and… other things. Sure, the Internet was painfully slow, dial-up was still the norm, and you had to make sure no-one else needed to use the phone line. But still.
Fax machines were always going to be limited by what could be put on a piece of paper. The internet didn’t just have a monumental impact on the economy, but on society as a whole, and our very way of life. It is, arguably, the greatest invention of all time. Of course, this would have been impossible to know for sure, but for a Nobel-prize winning economist, predictions made are going to be held to a certain level of scrutiny above that of the general population. And if, as he claims, it was done purely to get a reaction out of people, then that just seems rather irresponsible. Without a crystal ball, the future will always remain a mystery until it becomes the present. Getting a prediction spot on can make you look like a genius, but getting it horribly wrong… well, that’s how you end up in a video like this one! If you want to avoid making terrible predictions of your own, it helps to stay informed about what’s going on in the world. You can do just that with this video’s sponsor, Morning Brew.
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