Forecasting has fascinated people for thousands of years, sometimes being considered a sign of divine inspiration, and sometimes being seen as a criminal activity. The Jewish prophet Isaiah wrote in about 700 BC
Tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods.
One hundred years later, in ancient Babylon, forecasters would foretell the future based on the distribution of maggots in a rotten sheep’s liver. By 300 BC, people wanting forecasts would journey to Delphi in Greece to consult the Oracle, who would provide her predictions while intoxicated by ethylene vapours. Forecasters had a tougher time under the emperor Constantine, who issued a decree in AD357 forbidding anyone “to consult a soothsayer, a mathematician, or a forecaster
May curiosity to foretell the future be silenced forever.” A similar ban on forecasting occurred in England in 1736 when it became an offence to defraud by charging money for predictions. The punishment was three months’ imprisonment with hard labour!
Forecasting: Principles and Practice
Forecasting is required in many situations: deciding whether to build another power generation plant in the next five years requires forecasts of future demand; scheduling staff in a call centre next week requires forecasts of call volumes; stocking an inventory requires forecasts of stock requirements. Forecasts can be required several years in advance (for the case of capital investments), or only a few minutes beforehand (for telecommunication routing). Whatever the circumstances or time horizons involved, forecasting is an important aid to effective and efficient planning.
Some things are easier to forecast than others. The time of the sunrise tomorrow morning can be forecast precisely. On the other hand, tomorrow’s lotto numbers cannot be forecast with any accuracy. The predictability of an event or a quantity depends on several factors including:
how well we understand the factors that contribute to it;
how much data is available;
whether the forecasts can affect the thing we are trying to forecast.