Everybody makes mistakes, and it’s not hard to see why. The world is a complicated, messy, unpredictable place, and nobody was born with a roadmap. It stands to reason that ordinary people will make lots of mistakes when trying to predict the future. What do we know, after all? – However, it’s supposed to be different from experts. These are people who claim to know a thing or two about their subjects, and the rest of society has no choice but to look to them for analysis and explanation of the scary world around us. All of which makes it more jarring (and funny) when the world’s foremost so-called “experts” get it dead wrong and make some of the dumbest statements ever.
1. “X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” – Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, 1883
This isn’t as dumb as it sounds at first, but to understand why you have to know a thing or two about where physics was at in the late 1800s. A few decades after the linking of electricity and magnetism by Maxwell’s equations, physicists were going through one of those once-in-a-century bursts of discovery, when new particles and properties of matter were being announced in every issue of the physics journals. The electron was first described around this time, as were ultraviolet light and other forms of radiation. There were also a lot of false starts, as expected results failed to pan out. About 20 years after Lord Kelvin’s pronouncement regarding X-rays, for example, a respected French physicist named Blondlot announced the discovery of N-rays, an odd type of radiation that could only be observed by Frenchmen. In this context, Kelvin’s skepticism was understandable, though that probably didn’t lessen his embarrassment when X-rays were confirmed to exist in 1893, ten years after his rejection of the concept.
2. “Reagan doesn’t have that presidential look.” – Unnamed United Artists Executive, 1964
This gem came from an unnamed (for a good reason) executive at then-industry giant United Artists, regarding then-actor Ronald Reagan. The occasion for this value judgment was casting for a 1964 film, The Best Man, which starred Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson as sly, ambitious presidential candidates who were vying for an endorsement from the sitting president, Art Hockstader. Reagan had auditioned for the role of the president but was turned down because at least one UA executive felt he lacked the gravitas necessary for the position, and that audiences wouldn’t accept Ronald Wilson Reagan, of all people, as a president. In the event, the job went to Hollywood veteran Lee Tracy, and the picture was nominated for an Oscar. Ronald Reagan was elected the 40th President of the United States 16 years after this snub. It is not known whether he took time out from his State of the Union address to check in with his old friends from UA regarding optics, but it is dearly hoped that he did.
3. “The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper; no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works… How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc… Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure.” – Clifford Stoll, quoted in a 1995 editorial from Newsweek.
Bertrand Russel is supposed to have said that it is difficult to get a man to see a fact when he depends for his paycheck on not seeing it. That accurately describes the mental state of old media to the internet in 1995, and in 2017, for that matter. In this article, author Clifford Stoll did what he could to predict where internet technology would be in 25 years. In a savage twist of irony, the two most wrong things about that quote are the way he capitalized “internet” and the notion that anybody would pay for something like Newsweek online. The article, preserved here in all its glory, is like a crash course in being wrong. Consider this gem, from the lede itself: “Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. Moreover, the freedom of digital networks will make the government more democratic. Baloney.”
In case you were wondering where you could get a hard copy of that article, try eBay; Newsweek discontinued its print edition and moved entirely online in 2012.
4. “We expect within two or three years to have virtual parity with the NFL.” – Owner of the ill-fated U.S. Football League’s New Jersey Generals, 1993
Pro sports leagues are tricky things to organize. Any sports team is bound to be pricey, and no league will see significant revenue until games pull large TV audiences and the advertisers that go with them. Football is more fickle than most sports, and several entrepreneurs have gone under trying to compete with the top dog NFL over the years. Arena Football alone was an epic financial catastrophe that left backers with nothing to wear but wooden barrels and suspenders. It isn’t surprising that the U.S. Football League could only struggle through a couple of seasons, never attract serious interest, and eventually die off.
Maybe the only interesting thing about the over-optimistic quote from the team owner above is that Donald Trump owned the New Jersey Generals. A quarter-century later, his dreams of managing a pro-ball team dashed, Mr. Trump had to console himself by becoming the 45th President of the United States.
5. “Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.” – Dr. Dionysius Lardner, 1830
This is a classic of the “If God Wanted Mankind to Fly, He’d Have Given Us Wings” genre of failed predictions. Dr. Lardner’s, perhaps overconfident, pronouncement came at a time when the first steam engines were slowly and painfully dragging small loads across level tracks at a top speed of around 10 mph. When some crazy dreamers suggested that a steam locomotive could be built that went three times as fast, Dr. Lardner – who had invented the concept of a science writer – balked at the idea. It is not clear why he was skeptical about humans’ ability to survive a ride at 30 mph, especially since that’s roughly the top speed of a racehorse, and jockeys have never reported a problem getting air into their lungs at that speed. Even if nobody had ever ridden a horse before, Dr. Lardner could have reasoned to the correct position from first principles: the stress a human body feels is due to the acceleration from one speed to another, not the absolute speed it’s traveling. People living on the equator, for instance, are continuously moving eastward at around 900 mph, and it doesn’t seem to be killing them.
6. “A hundred years from now, it is very likely that The Jumping Frog alone will be remembered.” – Literary critic Harry Thurston Peck on the works of Mark Twain, 1901
Artistic opinions are famously subjective, and this is, even more, the case for literature, where a simple turn of phrase can make the difference between smooth and fantastic reading. Mark Twain spent his life hunting for memorable turns of expression, and when he found them, he produced some of the best works of American literature. The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County was among Twain’s earliest short stories, and citing it as his only likely legacy, Peck was subtly hinting that Twain’s entire life’s work had been in vain. Perhaps the most succinct analysis of Mr. Peck’s calculated insult would be: Harry Thurston Who?
7. “It will be years – not in my time – before a woman will become prime minister.” – Margaret Thatcher, 1974
Other people aren’t the only false prophets out there. Sometimes we’re wrong about ourselves. The British politician quoted above was a Conservative Party insider who knew the Tories from top to bottom, and who had given much thought to whether British politics would ever get behind the idea of a female prime minister. In the event, the politician in question, who had been so sure in 1974 that Britain was decades away from letting a woman move into 10 Downing Street, was none other than Margaret Thatcher herself. Just five years after this prediction, Mrs. Thatcher went on to falsify it herself by becoming Britain’s first female PM, an office she held for 11 years.
8. “Hitler will end his career as an old man in some Bavarian village who, in the Biergarten in the evening, tells his intimates how he nearly overturned the German Reich… The old man, they will think, is entitled to his pipe dreams.” – British Professor Harold Laski, 1932
Failed prophecies are just as likely to be the result of strong bias as they are of insufficient information or inadequate imagination. In this case, Professor Laski was a devout Communist and admirer of Stalin who wrote extensively about “Soviet democracy” and the materialist critique of what he thought was late-stage capitalism. In his worldview, history was a process, like a reciprocating steam engine, and the inevitable path forward ran through socialism to pure communism. An aberration like Hitler was completely impossible in this progressive view, and so Professor Laski assumed that a weirdo like Hitler could never be more than a footnote. It is a grim consolation that he wasn’t the only European intellectual whose vision was clouded like this about the Nazis.
9. “In today’s regulatory environment, it’s virtually impossible to violate rules.” – Bernard Madoff, speaking of Wall St. regulations, 2007
Bad judgment isn’t always an honest mistake. In this case, the hedge fund manager who boasted of the tight regulations and adequate controls over the market was Bernie Madoff, who was thankfully speaking in front of a video camera at the time and thus recording one of the most breathtakingly cynical moments in living history. He went on to explain to the suckers in the audience (and to historians of the future who are writing dissertations in chutzpah) that no serious violation can go undetected for long, and that federal thrift regulator is like, entirely on the ball. About a year after this interview, Bernie Madoff was charged with defrauding over $50 billion from trusting investors, a group that included pension funds, school districts, and freaking Holocaust survivors.
10. “I don’t need bodyguards.” – Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, 1975
The wise man said that pride goeth before a fall, and that those whom the gods would destroy, they first make proud. Jimmy Hoffa may not have had a lot to be proud of, but he certainly did walk off a cliff as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. From his position, Hoffa had the power to shut down traffic, starve retail outlets of goods, and leave port facilities across America without workers to run them. Naturally the Mafia took an interest in this kind of thing, and usually, Mr. Hoffa took an interest in their money. Unfortunately for the well-connected boss, the FBI took an interest in him, leading to a significant legal case that ended when President Nixon pardoned him in exchange for a promise not to get involved with the union until at least 1980. At the time he made these remarks, Hoffa was already recruiting support and raising funds to run for union president again. This must have pissed somebody off because he – traveling without bodyguards – disappeared a month later. Hoffa was declared legally dead in 1982.