13. Errors connected with the conflation of short-term,
intermediate term and long-term forecasts

A short-term forecast considers the current condition of a system, and the majority of discussions focus on that theme when considering policies for actions to actually take. Intermediate term forecasts consider further possibilities of a system and consider its current tendencies and direction rather than just its immediate state. Long-term forecasting is much more expansive and considers a variety of long-term possibilities and end states.

Consider we have a ship with gunpowder on which sailors go and smoke. It is in short term possible to argue that if sailors smoke in a certain place, as far away as possible from the gunpowder, an explosion will not happen. But in the intermediate term, it is more important to consider general statistics, such as the quantity of gunpowder and smoking sailors which define the probability of explosion, because sooner or later a smoking sailor will appear in the wrong place. In the long term, there is an essentially unsafe situation, and an explosion is bound to occur. The same holds with the threat of nuclear war. When we discuss its probability over the next two months, the current concrete behavior of world powers matters. When we consider the next five years, we should take to the account the overall quantity of nuclear powers and missiles, and not focus too much on current events, which may change quickly. When we speak about the prospect of nuclear war over the timescale of decades, an even more fundamental variable comes into play, which is the overall technological difficulty of enriching uranium or producing plutonium. Different logical frames are useful for best considering different time frames.

Thus in different areas of knowledge the appropriate time scale of a forecast may differ. As interesting as the relationship between Obama and Putin may be for current world affairs, it is not likely to be relevant to the long-term unfolding of nuclear war risk. Depending on the industry or area under consideration, what is considered a “short-term forecast” or a “long-term forecast” may vary. For example, in the field of coal output, 25 years is a short-term forecast. In the field of microprocessor fabrication, it may be as short as 4 months.