At the start of each new year, newspapers convince their pundits to put their reputations on the line and make predictions for the year ahead. And on the whole, those predictions are completely worthless.
That’s not necessarily because they’re wrong. It’s because they are imprecise: the pundits won’t fully commit to anything. “The year ahead will be difficult for Boris Johnson,” that sort of thing. Whatever happens, it’ll be hard to say whether that prediction came true or not.
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What’s much more worthwhile is making clear, well-defined, falsifiable forecasts, with fixed timetables: forecasts that commit you to say “OK, I got that wrong.”
I had a go here, here and here during the pandemic (an embarrassing number of which have been wrong). But since it’s the new year, I thought I might stake my own reputation on a few forecasts for 2022.
To do so, I’m going to use the Phil Tetlock “superforecasting” model, of giving lots of forecasts with levels of confidence. So I might say it’s 60% likely that Boris Johnson will have another child in 2022, or that there’s only a 10% chance that Keir Starmer will be prime minister by the end of the year. At the end of the year, I’ll look at all my forecasts. Ideally, about 60% of my 60%-confident forecasts should have come true, and about 10% of my 10%-confident forecasts, and so on1.
I’ve used the prediction site Metaculus for my questions. When the site had a good question on it already, I’ve used that; when I needed to make up my own, I’ve done that. I’ve linked to the questions so you can make your own predictions and see what the wider Metaculus community thinks.
I think that this year will see things return pretty much to normal in Britain. Every so often there’ll be a bit of a flare-up, and some people will call for an immediate return to mandatory masks and closed pubs and all that. But 90% of the population aged over 12 has now had at least one jab and 60% have had three, and most people have probably had the actual disease as well (13 million confirmed cases, which is likely an undercount by at least 60%). So the actual risk to British people is low.
That said, about 100 people are still dying every day with Covid. That sounds bad, and it is, but it’s only about one in every 16 deaths in the UK. Still, if it carries on at that rate for the whole year, we’d expect another 35,000 to 40,000 deaths this year. It may not carry on at that rate all year, but I can’t imagine it’ll drop so much that we see fewer than 20,000. So I’d say it’s 75% likely that we see 20,000 or more deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid test in Britain in 2022.
Also, I think we’ll get a few scares from new variants. The WHO has announced five “variants of concern” since the pandemic began, the most recent being Omicron. Given a base rate of about 2.5 a year so far, it’s pretty likely that we’ll see more this year. Whether any of them will be as devastating as Delta or Alpha is a bigger question, but I’d say it’s 90% likely that the WHO will announce at least one new variant of concern in 2022.
Relatedly, if new VoCs do arise, will one of them overtake Omicron as the most commonly detected strain of Covid in the world? Again, I think this is pretty likely – I’d say there’s only a 30% chance that Omicron will be dominant by next January. Six weeks ago we’d never heard of Omicron and Delta was dominant; the original Covid was overtaken by Alpha only eight months or so after it was declared a pandemic. So far no variant has remained dominant for more than a few months and Omicron appears to be petering out in South Africa.
The UK’s booster campaign has rolled out with impressive speed since it was announced in September. But there have been suggestions that we will need to do annual Covid jabs, as we do for flu. So I predict it is likely (65%) that we will offer fourth jabs to healthy British adults before the end of 2022.
Not that I think we should do this. I think the vaccines we’ve already had will probably protect people very effectively against severe disease and death even once the measurable antibodies have declined, and I think each new jab will do lots more good in the arms of unvaccinated people in lower-income countries than they will in the arm of a triple-jabbed pensioner in Reading. But given that governments have a duty to look after their own citizens, and, more pressingly, a need to curry favour with those citizens to avoid being voted out, I think it’s pretty likely that we’ll do it. Metaculus forecasters think it’s likely in the US, as well.
The important thing will be whether we vaccinate the world, and especially the poorest countries. It should be said that despite a widespread and understandable feeling that the West has hoarded all the vaccines, almost 60% of the world’s population has received at least one jab, and even lower-middle income countries (which include places like Bangladesh and Egypt) have vaccinated more than 50%.
But the truly poor countries – places like Afghanistan, Sudan, North Korea and many sub-Saharan nations – are lagging badly behind, at only about 8.5% coverage. It’s been speeding up, and in richer countries vaccinations have followed an S-shaped curve – slowly, then quicker and quicker, then slowing down again. But looking at the curve on the Our World in Data page, it looks like the low-income countries are taking off at about a quarter the speed that the rich ones did.
It took rich nations about six months to get to 50% coverage: the world makes vaccines faster now, but also there are still huge logistical and incentive problems for getting those vaccines to poorer countries. I’d guess that between 30% and 60% of inhabitants of the world’s poorest countries will have had at least one jab by 2022. I think it’s also pretty likely (75%) that at least one country will still have fewer than 10% vaccine coverage, just because there are a lot of poor countries, some of which have basically no working health infrastructure.
The world will continue to warm, on average, over the next few years. There’s too much carbon in the atmosphere already for that to change.
But there’s a lot of variability from year to year. Most years are somewhat hotter than the one before, but not always: of the 20 years leading up to 2020, 13 have been hotter than the previous year, and seven have been cooler, according to the Met Office. So the base rate is that it’s about 65% likely that 2022 will be warmer than 2021.
That said, 2021 has been a relatively cool year, due to La Niña, an atmospheric and oceanic phenomenon that brings cold water to the surface of the oceans. La Niña finished some months ago, so it shouldn’t affect 2022. I think it’s therefore very likely (85%) that 2022 will be hotter than 2021, when the data eventually comes in.
There’s a cruel joke that goes to the effect that “fusion energy is 30 years away and always will be”. That said, in the last few years, there’s been a lot more excitement about it, and several new companies have started up, with nearly two billion dollars of funding backing them.
It’s very unlikely that fusion energy will reach any of its milestones – “ignition” or “breakeven” or profitability or anything – this year, and pretty unlikely that they’ll do it this decade. But I do think that the excitement will carry on building. According to a survey by the Fusion Industry Association, there are “at least 35” fusion companies around the world, most of which have been founded in the last 10 years. I think it’s likely (65%) that number will go up in 2022, as the technical questions continue to be answered, and as investors and entrepreneurs get more excited about the possibility of a viable, profitable industry.
Also, the cost of solar energy has plummeted over the past decades. It will almost certainly continue to do so, but since it is already cheaper than any form of fossil fuel, cost is no longer the sticking point. Now, the bottleneck for renewable energy is making it available when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing – having loads of sunshine in August is no good for heating your house in December.
There are various ways of doing that, such as installing cables between countries, so the UK’s offshore wind can supply Spain when it’s windy, and Spain’s solar can supply the UK when it’s sunny. But the most obvious is storage, and the most obvious form of electricity storage is batteries.
The cost of electricity storage has also dropped enormously – according to Bloomberg, it’s gone from a global average of about $300 per megawatt-hour in 2018 to $138 in 2021, mainly driven by the electric car industry. Despite supply chain issues and increased cost of various raw materials, mainly metals, I think that’s probably going to carry on – I think it’s 80% likely that the next Bloomberg report will find that the global average drops in 2022.
We’ll still rely on fossil fuels for some years to come. But I think in 2022 we’ll see some of the pieces of the zero-carbon future start to come together.
There will be more fusion companies at the end of 2022 than there were at the end of 2021 (65%)
The cost of battery storage will be lower per megawatt-hour at the end of 2022 than it was at the end of 2021(80%)
The biggest thing in medicine this year has been the Covid vaccines. And they’re pretty astonishing things. Remember that at the start of 2020, there were zero approved mRNA vaccines in the world: now billions of people have been given one, and millions of lives have been saved.
You can use mRNA vaccines for pretty much any disease, and in the next few years we’ll doubtless see them for all sorts of things. One that really interests me is cancer. Cancer “vaccines” aren’t like vaccines for measles or Covid – they’re treatments, given to people who have already been diagnosed with the disease, rather than prophylactics given to people at risk of contracting them. As I understand it, it involves presenting the immune system with the RNA sequence for a protein specific to that patient’s cancer, which will help the body fight that cancer. It’s a sort of personalised advance on existing immunotherapy, which has already turned various previously fatal cancers into largely manageable chronic illnesses. So this could be a really big deal in coming years.
Lots of drug companies have plans to make cancer mRNA vaccines. For instance, BioNTech has four ongoing Phase II trials. I think it’s pretty likely that we’ll hear good news from at least one of them, and that a Phase III trial with thousands of participants will be announced. Let’s say 55%.
Until a week or so ago Liverpool were one point off the lead and looking good: then they drew with Spurs, lost bizarrely to Leicester after missing a penalty, and then drawing with Chelsea despite being two-nil up after half an hour. And Man City should have lost to Arsenal but Arsenal decided to be Arsenal and gave away a penalty and had a man sent off within 10 minutes and threw it away.
So now Liverpool are 11 points off the top (albeit with a game in hand) and let’s face it the title race is over in January. I reckon only about a 10% chance of turning it around. Still, there’s always the Champions League.
Prediction: Liverpool will win the league this year (10%)
I wanted to add another couple of questions, but they’re hard to do good data on. For instance, I bet that global extreme poverty will be lower in 2022 than it was in 2021, as it has been almost every year for the last 40. But we won’t get good data for a few years. I also bet that even though the world will get better on most metrics, such as life expectancy, wealth, etc, an increasing share of people will still think that it’s getting worse, because that’s how we work. But that’s hard to get into a straightforward question, and again, even if we could, the data for 2022 won’t be around until 2025 or something anyway. Still, I think those things are probably true.
My final prediction is that these predictions will not be very accurate. I’d love it if you would have a go and see if you can do better.