SOC 165                                                                                             Prof. Akos Rona-Tas

TuTh  5:00-6:20

WARREN Lecture Hall



Office Hours: T 11:00-12:00

                        Th 2:00- 3:00  or by appointment

                        SSB 488



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. You will also need two chapters of Orrell’s book, The Future of Everything. I recommend you buy it. It is a great book.

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.

            To access the articles off campus or the movies, you need to use a VPN. Here is the necessary info:


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 predictions (see list)

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

Task 3. 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 Canvas 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 Canvas. The whole debate (with transitions) will take about 45 minutes.

You will have to sign up for a debate by October 3.


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 long. 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 each work? What would be good examples of each? Why do they end up with opposite results (fulfilling vs. frustrating their predictions)? 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 predictions based on them can be beneficial. How so? This can be about excessive optimism/pessimism or about card, tea leaf, coffee grind reading, necromancy, astrology etc. (or both) and you have to give a rational argument (see below).
  4. Elaborate on a theme in Harari’s Homo Deus.
  5. Or you can propose a paper topic related to prediction. I have to sign off on your topic.

The paper should present a clear argument supported by facts and scholarly literature on the topic. The paper must start with an Abstract, which is a short summary of the main argument in your paper (about 150 words). You need at least 5 scholarly references (academic articles or books) listed at the end of the paper (called Reference section). Use the MLA format. You will submit a first draft by November 26 11:59 pm and the final version by December 13, 9:59 pm through Turnitin on Canvas. The paper must be entirely your own work. Plagiarism is a serious violation of university rules so is purchasing papers, or getting someone to write your paper as a favor. You must see me to discuss the paper at a scheduled appointment during the week of November 11-15. Of course, you are welcome to see me at other times as well.


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


Your grade will be determined as follows:


Tasks (3 @4% each)                            12%                 (you get full credit for doing them on time)

Debate                                                 20%                 (you can get full credit even if your team

loses the debate)

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

Midterm                                              15%

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 26       Introduction


TASK 1: Make Predictions in Canvas.

            A). The value of Tesla stock at market close on December 2, 2019. Also write down the current value.

B). The grade you will get in this class.

            C). If there will be rain on campus on our last day of classes (December 5, 2019).

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

            E). If something will happen that will have a major impact on the history of the United States this November.


October 1     Time, Knowledge and Freedom

Past, present, future: Presentism vs. Eternalism

Speed of time

Why the future is different from the past and present

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

Illusion of hindsight


Required Reading:

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

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

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


Further Reading:

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

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


The Curse and Use of Randomness

October 3     Randomness, Superstition and Control


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


            What is randomness?

            Cognitive control

             Seeing patterns

Tarot cards, Tea Leaves, Astrology, Dreams

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 )


Further Reading:

Here is a nice blog by Ed Yong explaining these issues to a wider audience:


October 8     Prophets and prophecy


Tiresias in Homer’s Odyssey

Augurs of Delphi

Religious prophets

Secular prophets


Required Reading:

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

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 10         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. 2007. 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 15          Medical predictions: Genes and Diseases

            How doctors make prognoses


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


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. 1999. Death Foretold. Prophecy and Prognosis in Medical Care.


Predicting the Social World

October 17     Imagining the World Many Years from Now

Film: Blade Runner

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 22     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, February



October 24     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 29       Sorting People: Personality and Intelligence Tests

            Stabilizing who you are

            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


Predicting What You Do

October 31        College Admission and Applying for Credit

            Estimating future academic performance

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 Canvas.


Required Reading:

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


November 5       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 7     Film Minority Report


DEBATE 2: We should do predictive policing.


November 12          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.

Webb, Amy. 2017. The Flare and Focus of Successful Futurists. MIT Sloan Review of Management


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 14         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 podcast

November 19    MIDTERM

November 21    NO CLASS


November 26          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.

November 28      THANKSGIVING 


December 3     Predicting or Making It Happen?


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


Required Reading:

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

 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

December 5    Review

Required Reading:

Harari,Yuval. 2017. Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harper 464 pages