Strange but True: It's not easy to predict the future


Q: Prognosticating is not one of humanity's strong suits. According to Jeff Wilser of "Mental Floss" magazine, what are a few of history's "not entirely accurate predictions"?

A: Referring to the historic signing of the "Declaration of Independence," John Adams on July 3, 1776, declared, "The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable date in the history of America ... I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival."

A Western Union internal memo of 1876 described the telephone as having "too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication," with no inherent value to the company.

As a New York Times editorial reported in 1920: "A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth's atmosphere."

Quipped Harry M. Warner of Warner Brothers motion picture fame in 1927, "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"

In 1929, at the brink of the Great Depression, Yale University economist Irving Fisher mis-predicted: "Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau."

"Popular Mechanics" magazine in 1949 opined: "Computers in the future may have only 1000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh only 1 1/2 tons."

And in 2006, New York Times tech columnist David Pogue, responding to queries about when Apple would come out with a cell phone, stated: "My answer is, probably never."

Q: Why did authorities at the Golden Gate Bridge stop reporting suicide stats when the death toll reached 997?

A: Unfortunately, Golden Gate Bridge has the dubious distinction of being the most popular suicide site in the U.S., says Dan Lewis in his book "Now I Know More." In 1995, "when the number hit 997, authorities stopped counting to avoid giving anyone the incentive of being jumper number 1,000."

Between 1937 when the bridge was built, and 2013, some 1,600 suicides were tallied, based on actual bodies recovered or eyewitness accounts. The number would have been greater had it not been for California Highway Patrol Sergeant Kevin Briggs, who since 1994 "has managed to talk an estimated 200 people out of jumping."

The world's most popular suicide bridge is widely regarded to be the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in China. Number of suicide deaths? Unavailable.

Q: After epidemiologists collected data on height and weight in 1975 and then again in 2014, how did George Davey Smith sum up the findings: "The world is at once fatter and ..." A. healthier B. poorer C. sicker D. happier?

A: Despite a massive public health campaign, worldwide obesity rates have "hurtled along like a freight train on greased tracks," says Meghan Rosen in "Science News" magazine.

In 2014, more than 640 million men and women were obese, up from an estimated 105 million in 1975. Analyzing data for more than 19 million adults, researchers calculated that overall individuals are "gaining about 1.5 kilograms (over 3 pounds) per decade — roughly the weight of a half-gallon of ice cream."

But over those four decades, "average life expectancy also jumped: from less than 59 years to more than 71 years." Epidemiologist Smith "boils the data down to a single, seemingly paradoxical sentence: 'The world is at once fatter and healthier.'" Did you choose A as the correct answer?

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