In the Spring of 2021, Alyssa Goodman will teach a "GenEd" (General Education) course on Prediction at Harvard. Human beings are the only creatures in the animal kingdom properly defined as worriers. We are the only ones who expend tremendous amounts of time, energy, and resources trying (sometimes obsessively) to understand our futures before they happen. While the innate ability of individual people to predict has not changed much in the past few millennia, developments in mathematical and conceptual models have inordinately improved predictive systems. These systems have integrated comparisons to past results and quantified how “certain” we can be about various aspects of the future -- processes that were, in many cases, inconceivable at one point in the past.
This course is a coordinated investigation of the history and future of prediction, beginning with Ancient Mesopotamians reading signs in sheep entrails and ending with modern computer simulations for climate, health, wealth, and the fate of our Universe. In this class, you will design your own predictive systems to critically engage with assumptions about how the world works and situate your explorations in a study of how motivations and techniques for divining the future have changed–and not changed–throughout human history.
The Framework for Predictive Systems shown here captures much of the fundamental content of our curriculum. By the end of GenEd 1112, all students should be able to apply this Framework to the analysis of any predictive system.