Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Misjudging the Future

It is amusing to see how badly people in the past, some of them very knowledgeable people, have misjudged the future. Here are a few examples which should make us careful about making unequivocal predictions.

In 1899 Charles H. Duell, Director of the U.S. Patent Office, urged President William McKinley to abolish the patent office. His reason was, "Everything than can be invented has been invented". Even before the birth of Albert Einstein some prominent physicists were counseling young men not to go into the field of physics because they thought the scientific community was on the cusp of knowing everything there was to know about physics. In 1928 physicist and Nobel Prize winner Max Born said to a group of visitors to Gottingen University, "Physics as we know it will be over in six months". That was fourteen years before the birth of Stephen Hawking, undisputed successor and equal to Albert Einstein, and seventeen years before the first atomic bomb. In 1943 Thomas J. Watson of International Business Machines opined, "I think there is a world market for maybe as many as five computers".

When Irving Thalberg, film studio executive, heard that Louis B. Mayer was planning to make a movie of "Gone with the Wind", he said to him, "Louis, forget it. No Civil War picture has ever made a nickel". After Clark Gable's acceptance of the Rhett Butler role in "Gone with the Wind", which Gary Cooper had declined, Cooper commented, "'Gone with the Wind' is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history, and I am glad it will be Clark Gable who will be falling on his face and not Gary Cooper".

Some of the most bizarre failed predictions of the future have come from the prophets of doom who have presumed to predicted dates for the end of the world. These foolish predictions have bedeviled the innocent and the ignorant for two-thousand years. Each time the date passes and the world does not end, most of these prophets recheck their figures and without blinking an eye set new dates. It is amazing how many followers of these prophets of doom continue to believe in the new dates. Stephen Hawking observed that these predictions often triggered a sell-off on the stock market. He said, "Beats me why the end of the world should make one want to sell stocks for money, since, presumably, you cannot take either with you." But the beat goes on!

Just recently Harold Camping, civil engineer turned prophet, predicted that the world would end at 6:00 P.M. on May 21, 2011. Of course, it did not happen, just as it did not happen when he predicted it would in 1994. However, if you are interested in that sort of philosophy, not to worry. Brother Camping has rechecked his calculations and reset the date for Oct. 21, 2011. So, get ready, whatever that means.

In 1870 a college president addressed the Indiana Annual Conference of the Methodist Church. He said, "I think we are going to see things happen in our lifetime that right now are just unbelievable". The presiding bishop was so intrigued that he interrupted the speaker and asked, "What kind of things do you mean?". "Well, all kinds of things, Bishop. I believe, for example, that one day we will be able to fly through the air like birds". The Bishop reprimanded the college president and said, "Why, that is heresy. Just heresy. The Bible says that flight is reserved for the angels alone. We will have no such talk here at this Methodist Conference!" When the conference was over that Bishop, whose name was Wright, went home to his wife and two small sons, whose names happened to be Wilbur and Orville!!

In 1903 Orville and Wilbur Wright sent a telegram to their sister back home in Dayton, Ohio, from Kitty Hawk where they were carrying on their flight experiments. The telegram read, "First sustained flight today, fifty-nine seconds. Home for Christmas". The sister took the message to the Dayton newspaper. The next morning a brief news item appeared under the headline, "Popular local bicycle merchants will be home for the holidays". That was a hundred and eight years ago. Bishop Wright is dead. I do not know what happened to the newspaper. It probably died as well. But, not to worry. Their kind live on in equally unimaginative bishops and newspapers who if they had been present at creation would have voted for chaos because it was there first.

Predicting the future is at best hazardous and at worst foolish and hurtful. Only God knows what lies ahead, and God has not leaked the word out. Robert Frost once wrote, "We dance around in a ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows".

I rather like that understanding of how things are.