SOC 165                                                                                             Prof. Akos Rona-Tas

Office Hours: M 11:00-11:50

W     1:00-1:50

SSB 488



MWF 12:00-12:50




Predicting the Future: From Tarot Cards to Algorithms: A Sociological Introduction


No one can see the future, but everyone must try. We must predict the future every day.  We brush teeth predicting fewer cavities, buy ice cream expecting to eat it, choose spouse anticipating happiness. College students choose majors and take classes with an eye on their future career. Loan clerks, college admission officers, stockbrokers, and parole boards and many others predict for a living, betting on future outcomes. Most classes are about the past or the present. In this class, we look at ways people try to peek into the future.


For most classes there will be required readings, all are on ereserves or linked in the syllabus, except the only book you need to read: Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus that you can buy on Amazon. It is a fun book but a long one, so start reading it well in advance of December when we discuss it. Be prepared to discuss the readings in class.

There are also two movies you have to watch: The Minority Report (2002) by Steven Spielberg (2 hours and 26 minutes), and Blade Runner (1982) by Ridley Scott (1 hour 57 min). This is the original version not the sequel. Both you can stream through e-reserves.

Finally, there is one podcast you must listen to, The Sorting Hat, an episode of Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam (51 min). You must do the readings, the listening and watch the films before the date they appear on the syllabus. (Further readings or listenings are optional.)


This is a small class, and I expect you to attend all classes and to participate actively. You can miss one class without excuse. 

You will have three simple tasks spread through the quarter:

Task 1. Make some predictions (see list)

Task 2. Find your horoscope read it and bring it to class

Task 3. To retrieve your free credit bureau report


You will participate in one of three debates with two or three other students as a team. (In the other two debates you will be a member of the audience, and will have lighter duties.) You can divide the work on your team as you see fit, but I expect every member to be equally involved. Two teams will debate the following propositions:

Debate 1. People should never be held criminally liable for predictions.

Debate 2. We should do predictive policing.

Debate 3. We should make important decisions always using algorithms rather than human judgment whenever that is possible.

The rules of the debate will be as follows. One team will argue for (Affirmative Team or AT), the other against the proposition (Negative Team or NT) but which team gets which side will be determined by a coin toss moments before the debate, so you and your team must prepare to argue both for and against. Your team will have to do your own research.

Round 1. The debate will start with the statement of the AT, followed by a statement by the NT, five minutes each. (10 min)

Round 2. The two teams rebut the other’s points. Starting with NT, the two teams take turns. Each will have three turns and each turn will be 2 minutes. Up to 1 minute for the question and the rest for the answer. (2x3x2=12 min)

Round 3. Questions from the audience and me to each team. (18 min)

Everyone (team members and audience members) vote on the proposition through TritonEd before the class where the proposition is debated. At the end of the debate, the audience votes again on the proposition and on who won the debate again, using TritonEd. The whole debate (with transitions) will take about 45 minutes.

There is a short midterm. You will be given 4 questions about the readings from which you choose three to answer. (If you answer all four, I will count the best three.) You will need a blue book.

There is a final paper that should be 6-10 pages. You can use 1.5 lines paragraphs and 12 point fonts. It should have a reference section that does not count towards the page count.

You can choose from the following topics:

  1. Compare and contrast two types of predictions (e.g., predicting earthquakes vs. the stock market, outcomes of sport events vs. illnesses). What makes them different?  Which one is more likely to succeed and why?
  2. What is self-fulfilling and self-frustrating prophecy? How do they work? What would be good examples of each? Why do they end up with opposite results? Give examples and explain the mechanisms through which they work. Use examples from the scholarly literature.
  3. Sometimes wrong or unfounded beliefs about the future and prediction can be beneficial. How so? This can about excessive optimism/pessimism or about card, tea leaf, coffee grind reading, necromancy, astrology etc. (or both).
  4. Elaborate on a theme in Harari’s Homo Deus.
  5. Or you can propose a paper topic related to prediction.

The paper should present a clear argument supported by facts and scholarly literature on the topic. The paper must start with an Abstract, a short summary of the main argument in your paper (about 150 words). You need at least scholarly 5 references (academic articles or books) listed at the end of the paper (called Reference section). Use the MLA format. You submit the final paper through Turnitin on TritonEd. The paper must be entirely your own work. Plagiarism is a serious violation of university rules. You must see me at least once about your paper at my office hour.

The final paper is due on the Thursday, 11:59 pm of finals week (December 13). You may pre-submit your paper by Saturday noon, December 8. I will read it and either send it back with comments or offer you a grade with comments. If you got a grade and accept it, you are done. If you did not get a grade or you don’t like the grade you received, you can improve on the paper and turn it in by the final due date.


There will be three pop quizzes on the readings up to that point. Simple questions to check if you did the readings or watch the movies at all. The best two of the three will be counted in your grade.


Your grade will be determined as follows:

Tasks (4% each)                                  12%                 (you get full credit for doing them on time)

Debate                                                 25%                 (you can get full credit even if your team

loses the debate)

Pop quizzes (best 2 of 3, 4% each)       8%

Midterm                                              10%

Final paper                                          30%                

Class participation                               15%                


I predict that anyone who takes the course seriously, engages with the material actively and plays by the rules will get a B+ or better.  


The Big Questions

September 28             Introduction

Why we care about the future?


October 1       Time, Knowledge and Freedom

Past, present, future

Speed of time

Why the future is different from the past and present

Can we imagine a world with change but without a future?


TASK 1: Make Predictions in TritonEd.

            A). If Tesla stock will be over $300 on December 1.

B). If the Democrats win the House this November.

            C). If the Democrats win the Senate this November.

            D). If the Democrats win both the House and the Senate this November.

            E). The probability that you will ever meet your perfect soulmate. [Give a number between 0 and 100]

            F). If something will happen that will have a major impact on your life this October. If so, what would that be?

Required Reading:

Adam, Barbara, 2010, History of the future: Paradoxes and challenges, Rethinking History, 14:3, 361-378

Watts, Duncan J. 2011. Everything is Obvious. Once You Know the Answer. Crown Press. Chapters 5-7.

Further Reading:

Jens Beckert, 2016. Imagined Futures. Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics. Princeton University Press

October 3       Illusion of hindsight


October 5       Presentism vs. Eternalism

Required Reading:

Kristie Miller. 2013. Presentism, Eternalism and the Growing Block. In Heather Dyke and Adrian Bardon. A Companion to the Philosophy of Time.

Further Reading (the Cliffs Notes version):

Sam Woolfe. Presentism and Eternalism: Two Philosophical Theories About Time.


The Curse and Use of Randomness

October 8       Randomness, Superstition and Control

            What is randomness?

            Cognitive control

Tarot cards, Tea Leaves, Astrology, Dreams

TASK 2: Find your horoscope and bring it to class. Answer the questions on TritonEd.

Required Reading:

Whitson, Jennifer A. and Adam D. Galinsky. “Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception.” Science 322, 115 (2008) (online version at )

Damisch, Lysann, Barbara Stoberock and Thomas Mussweiler. 2010.”Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance.”  Psychological Science, 21(7) 1014–1020 (online version at )


October 10     Seeing Patterns

Required Reading:

Blog by Ed Yong:


October 12     Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient World

Tiresias in Homer’s Odyssey

Augurs of Delphi

Required Reading:

Schutz, Alfred, 1959, Tiresias or Our Knowledge of the Future.  Social Research, Vol. 26, No. 1 (SPRING 1959), pp. 71-89


October 15     Modern Prophets

Religious prophets

Secular prophets

Required Reading

Dawson, Lorne L. 1999. When Prophecy Fails and Faith Persists: A Theoretical Overview. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 60-82

Balch, Robert W. and David Taylor. 1977. Seekers and Saucers. The Role of the Cultic Milieu in Joining a UFO cult. American Behavioral Scientist


Same as It Ever Was: Predicting the Natural World

October 17         Laws of Nature

Forecasting Earthquakes, Weather and Climate Change

Required Reading:

Cartlidge, Edwin. 2011. “Quake Experts to Be Tried for Manslaughter.” Science 332 (6034) :1135–1136

Orrell, David. The Future of Everything. Chapter 4. Red Sky at Night. Pp.123-173.

Further reading:

Orrell, David. 2007. The Future of Everything. Thunder’s Mouth Press

International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting for Civil Protection. 2011. Operational Earthquake Forecasting. State of Knowledge and Guidelines for Utilization. Annals of Geophysics, 54, 4, pp. 319-391.    


October 19     Medical predictions: Genes and Diseases

            How doctors make prognoses

Required Reading:

Kondziolka, Douglas et al. 2014. The accuracy of predicting survival in individual patients with cancer. Journal of Neurosurgery, 120:24–30

Orrell, David. The Future of Everything. Chapter 5. It’s in the Genes. Pp. 174-217

Further reading:

Christakis, Nicholas A. 2001. Death Foretold. Prophecy and Prognosis in Medical Care. Chicago: University of Chicago Press


October 22          First Debate

DEBATE 1: People should never be held criminally liable for predictions.


Predicting the Social World

October 24     Imagining the World Many Years from Now

Film: Blade Runner (1982)

Required Reading:

Scherker, Amanda. 2014. “11 Visions of the Future That Were Utterly Wrong.” Huffington Post, January 3

Davis, Lauren. How Our Predictions for the Year 2000 Changed Throughout the 20th Century.”


October 26     Path Dependence: The Long Hand of History

            When things don’t change much

Required Reading:

David, Paul A. "Clio and the Economics of QWERTY." The American economic review 75.2 (1985): 332-337.  JSTOR   

Stan J. Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis. 1990. Fable of the Keys. Journal of Law and Economics, 33/1:1-25.

Arthur, W. Brian. 1990. "Positive Feedbacks in the Economy." Scientific American


October 29     Predicting Aggregate Behavior

Predicting the outcome of a large number of people’s actions



Economy (prophets and profits)


Required Reading:

Congressional Budget Office. 2013. CBO's Economic Forecasting Record: 2013 Update. January 17.

Homa, Ken. Nums: Why’s the Fed so bad at forecasting?

Further Reading:

Tetlock, Philip. 2006. Expert Political Judgment. How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Princeton University Press


October 31       Sorting People: Personality and Intelligence Tests

            Sorting people by future potential

Required listening:

Sorting Hat. Hidden Brain Podcast by Shankar Vedantam.

Further reading:

Fourcade, Marion and Kieran Healy. 2013. Classification situations: Life-chances in the neoliberal era. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 38, pp. 559-572


November 2   Predicting or Making It Happen?

Required Reading:

Robert Merton. 1948. “The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.” Antioch Review, 8/2


November 5   Self-fulfilling and Self-Altering Prophecy

Required Reading:

Richard L. Henshel. 1982. “The Boundary of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and the Dilemma of Social Prediction.” The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Dec., 1982), pp. 511-528


Predicting What You Do

November 7        College Admission

            Estimating future academic performance


November 9    Applying for Credit

Guessing who will default and who will pay up

TASK 3. Retrieve your free credit record from one of the three credit agencies. Answer the questions on TritonEd.

Required Reading:

Rona-Tas, Akos. 2017. “Off-label Use of Consumer Credit Rating’s”, Historical Social Research,


November 12             Veterans’ Day


November 14     Film Minority Report 


November 16             Midterm


November 19 Predicting Future Crime

            Preventing crime: policing, sentencing and parole

Required Reading:

ProPublica. Machine Bias.

Further readings:

Harcourt, Bernard E. 2007. Against Prediction. Profiling, Policing and Punishing in an Actuarial Age. University of Chicago Press


November 21 Debate 2

DEBATE 2: We should do predictive policing.


November 23     Thanksgiving Holiday


November 26 Expert Predictions

                How good are experts at predicting in their area expertise?

            Expert judgment vs. statistical calculation

            Heuristics vs. algorithms

Required Readings:

Dawes, Robyn M., David Faust, and Paul E. Meehl. 1989, "Clinical versus actuarial judgment." Science 243.4899 : 1668-1674.

Further Reading:

Tetlock, Philip and Dan Gardener. 2015. Superforecasting. The Art and Science of Prediction. Crown Publisher

Gigerenzer, Gerd. 2007. Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. Viking


Sociology of the Future

November 28         The World of Big Data

            Privacy and prediction

            Does Google and Facebook know you better than you know yourself?

Required Reading:

Kerr, Ian and Jessica Earle. 2013. Prediction, Preemption and Presumption. How Big Data Threatens Big Picture Privacy. Stanford Law Review, September 3

Further listening:

            The Privacy Paradox. Note to Self: The Podcast


November 30             The Rule of Algorithms

How predictable are humans?

Required Reading:

Wakefield, Jane. 2011. When Algorithms Control the World.” BBC News, August 22,

Wang, Yilun and Michal Kosinski. 2017. Deep neural networks are more accurate than humans at detecting sexual orientation from facial image. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

December 1    Debate 3

DEBATE 3: We should make important decisions always using algorithms rather than human judgment whenever that is possible.

December 5    Homo Deus

Required Reading:

Yuval Harari. 2015. Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harper: New York

December 7    Review