2020 is going to feature a lot of huge changes: There are presidential and congressional elections in the US, a scheduled Brexit in the UK, and ongoing crises in China and India as the countries’ governments attempt to crack down on their Muslim minorities.
And predicting just how those changes will unfold is incredibly important. The easiest way to see this is in retrospect: It would’ve been helpful if the Bush administration had foreseen a lengthy, bloody quagmire after invading Iraq; if regulators and bankers foresaw that over-leveraged investments in mortgage securities would lead to a recession; if governments saw the 1919 Spanish flu coming while there was still time to prepare.
The good news is that people can get better at forecasting, per Philip Tetlock, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist who holds forecasting tournaments to learn how humans can better predict the future. Among other ways to improve, Tetlock suggests practicing.
So last year, the Future Perfect team at Vox decided to start trying to predict the coming year. These were merely our personal predictions. We don’t speak for anyone else at Vox, or even for each other. That said, we did pretty well — 12 out of our 16 predictions came true — and in the interest of practicing and getting better, we’re doing it again for 2020, this time with 18 predictions. We assigned probabilities to each event, so you should judge us not only on whether we get the direction of the prediction right, but also on whether we bungle ones we were confident would go the other way, for instance.
A number of other writers — like Scott Alexander, Rodney Brooks, the Financial Times staff, Zachary Jacobi — have also been practicing for the past few years, making predictions and then looking back to see how they did in a kind of annual tradition we’ve decided to emulate. If you want to try your hand, the site Metaculus is a good place; the successor company to Tetlock’s Good Judgment Project also runs competitions.
Without further ado, here’s what we think will happen — and what will not happen — in 2020. And click here if you want to try your hand at predicting these events.
The United States
Donald Trump will win reelection (55 percent)
This is a close one, but I think the balance of evidence favors a Trump reelection. The basics are simple: Decades of political science work on election forecasting imply that presidents running for reelection enjoy an incumbency advantage, that a strong economy helps the incumbent’s party, and that high levels of US military fatalities hurt the incumbent’s party.
In short: Trump is the incumbent, the economy is growing while unemployment stays very low, and despite some close calls, Trump hasn’t started new wars or expanded existing ones in ways that kill a lot of US service members. Combine that with Trump’s geographic advantage over the Democratic nominee in the Electoral College, and I think he has a better than even chance of winning. — DM
The Democratic nominee will be Joe Biden (60 percent)
At a glance, the Democratic primary is a toss-up. Recent polls out of Iowa and New Hampshire have showed four different candidates in the lead, and prediction markets don’t confidently have anyone out in front. I’ve seen articles arguing that Pete Buttigieg is surging, that Elizabeth Warren is surging, that Bernie Sanders is surging. Some of those takes might prove to be right.
But looking at national polls, the person who has been consistently leading is Joe Biden. He’s not very popular among highly engaged, highly online Democratic voters, but he has the support of more voters than anyone else all the same. So if I have to place my bets on whom the Democratic nominee will be, I’m not going to bet on anyone surging — I’m going to bet that the candidate who has been leading in the polls will keep doing that. — KP
The GOP holds the Senate (80 percent)
There’s a chance, if literally everything breaks in the Democrats’ favor, that they retake the Senate. But it requires a lot going right for them, and even one botched race means Republicans keep control.
This should have been a promising year for Dems, at least on paper. Twenty-three Republican seats are up for reelection, compared with only 12 Democratic seats; these were, except for a couple of special elections, seats that were last open in 2014, when Republicans gained a whopping nine seats. You would think Democrats could regain some of the nine that they lost, but you’d mostly be wrong. Democrats lost seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, South Dakota, and West Virginia, races they’re basically not contesting this time around. Iowa and Montana look only slightly better.
Instead, Democrats’ hopes rest on the two 2014 losses they think they can reverse — in North Carolina and Colorado — as well as on a special election in Arizona, an unlikely Alabama seat they won in 2017, and Susan Collins’s once-safe seat in Maine, which Dems hope her vote for Kavanaugh will make competitive.
Though sweeps of this magnitude do happen (2006 and 2008 both saw huge Democratic sweeps), they’re rare, especially as the parties have polarized geographically and because Democrats are underdogs, in Alabama and North Carolina in particular. There’s a chance the Dems pull it out, but I think it’s quite unlikely. — DM
Trump will not get a new Supreme Court appointment (70 percent)
This might get a little morbid, but we’ve all thought about it.
The most likely event precipitating a new Supreme Court appointment by Trump is the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the oldest of the nine justices. Per the most recent actuarial tables from the Social Security Administration, 86-year-old women have a 8.2 percent annual risk of death; 87-year-olds, as Ginsburg will be in March, have a 9.2 percent risk. Meanwhile, 81-year-old men like Stephen Breyer have a 6.4 percent risk of death.
If you go through and multiply out the combined odds that each member of the court doesn’t die in the coming year, using their age (rounding to the nearest year) and gender in the SSA tables, you get 77 percent odds that no one dies. I think Ginsburg’s odds are somewhat grimmer than the tables imply, given her multiple brushes with cancer; there’s an outside chance that Thomas or Alito retires, so I shaved the overall odds of a vacancy down to 70 percent. — DM
The Supreme Court will allow more abortion restrictions (90 percent)
This term, the Supreme Court will hear and rule in the case of June Medical Services LLC v. Gee, a challenge to a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
As my colleagues Anna North and Ian Millhiser explain, abortion-rights advocates consider this restriction both medically unnecessary (the rate of complications for first-trimester abortions is very low, and you don’t need admitting privileges to send people with complications to a nearby hospital) and designed to shut down abortion clinics.
But more importantly, the Supreme Court already struck down a nearly identical Texas law in 2016’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The fact that it’s hearing this case so soon after setting a precedent that admitting privileges laws are unconstitutional suggests strongly that the court — which has since added the conservative Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and lost abortion-rights supporter Anthony Kennedy — is ready to overrule Whole Woman’s Health and allow more state restrictions on abortion.
I think there’s a real, maybe 20-30 percent chance that the anti-abortion-rights majority on the court overrules Roe v. Wade outright, pulling off the Band-Aid and eliminating the constitutional right to abortion in one fell swoop, as many GOP politicians have urged them to do with this case. Regardless of whether Roe falls, I think it’s a near-certainty that Whole Woman’s Health will fall. — DM
The Democratic primary will be settled on Super Tuesday (one candidate hits 90% in prediction markets by March 5) (60 percent)
I previously observed that the primaries are quite a toss-up — there are still four candidates with a very reasonable shot at winning. But I still have this feeling they’ll be over quickly. There’s the four early caucuses and primaries: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Then on March 3, a large, demographically balanced (representing the overall Democratic electorate pretty well) set of states will vote.
Two-person races often drag out well past Super Tuesday. But I think this four-person race might be primed to end pretty fast. Once a candidate has gotten a series of wins, voters might be pretty quick to rally behind them — and a Super Tuesday lead might quickly become insurmountable. — KP
The number of people in global poverty will fall (60 percent)
This is a tricky one to check; the World Bank doesn’t update its estimates of the number and share of people living on $1.90 a day or less every year, and it’s not clear it will provide new numbers in 2020 that reach past the 2015 poverty estimates first released in 2018 (and updated last year).
But provided there are new numbers released in 2020, I expect them to find that the number of people — not just the share — living in extreme poverty fell in recent years. Nigeria and India, the two countries with the largest numbers of poor people, are growing, as is sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. There’s a chance that Nigeria’s 2016 recession, combined with its population growth, mean the number of people in poverty rose somewhat even as the rate fell; I give about a 30 percent chance of that kind of split, and a 10 percent chance that not even the poverty rate fell. Overall, though, I think a drop in the number of people in extreme poverty is likelier than the opposite. — DM
Brexit (finally) happens (95 percent)
Last year, Dylan predicted pretty confidently that Brexit would happen — and he was wrong, as repeated delays and parliamentary upheaval pushed the Brexit deadline into 2020. But now, the departure of Britain from the EU is almost certain. Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won a resounding electoral victory and have reaffirmed their commitment to the January 31 deadline.
The repeated rescheduling of Brexit has been an enormous embarrassment for the Conservatives, and Johnson in particular was opposed to the delay. I think it’s very unlikely he’ll delay again, and even if he did, it’s unlikely the delays will stack up enough that Britain is still in the EU come December.
It’s not clear whether Britain is prepared for its departure from the EU, and it’s even less clear what will come after it. But I think at this point we ought to be pretty confident: Brexit, however accidental and absurd it was in the first place, is a reality. — KP
No US troops land in Iran (80 percent)
This is a less optimistic prediction than it may initially appear.
Last week, Trump made a public statement appearing to mildly deescalate the military standoff with Iran, one that he started by ordering the killing of one of the country’s top military and political leaders in an airstrike. Iran responded with a strike on US bases in Iraq that was both non-lethal and appeared to signal deescalation on their part. Knock wood, the current confrontation isn’t heating up any further.
But even if it had heated up, or heats up again in the future, I strongly doubt Trump’s escalation will take the form of troops on the ground in Iran. To be clear, Trump’s dovishness has always been overstated. He’s shown a willingness to engage in dangerous and deadly drone operations (like the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani). But his aggression is paired with a stated aversion to nation-building and a strong reliance on methods like drones that don’t risk the lives of American service members (while frequently risking the lives of civilians).
Taken together, I think that means an escalation with Iran, of which I think there’s a greater than 20 percent chance, would most likely mean drone strikes (or other airstrikes) on targets in Iran (or against Iranian proxies like Hezbollah), not a land invasion like the 2003 attack on Iraq. — DM
China’s internment camps for Muslims will remain open (85 percent)
I really hope I’m wrong about this, but sadly, I see very little reason to think that in 2020, China will shut down the internment camps where it’s been detaining 1 million Uighur Muslims in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
China has every incentive to stay the course and almost no incentive to change. Its top brass, including President Xi Jinping, genuinely seem to believe that indoctrination in camps is a good way to deal with Uighurs, whom they view as an extremist and separatist threat.
Over the past two years, some Western governments (including the US) have criticized China over the camps, but the criticism has been toothless. I see a tiny shred of hope in recent reports that Congress is trying to force Trump’s hand on China by drafting veto-proof legislation that would sanction top officials involved in the camps. If the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act goes through, it could make a difference, but even then I’m inclined to think the difference will be slight: Punishing a handful of officials is probably not enough to get China to close its camps. — SS
Netanyahu will not be unseated as Israeli prime minister (55 percent)
In March, Israel heads to the polls for the third time in a year, and some observers think this election might finally be the end of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After all, he’s recently been indicted in three corruption cases and faces tough opposition from a centrist party that has a slight lead on him in the polls.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my years living in and reporting on Israel, it’s that you should never underestimate Bibi’s ability to rise from the political ashes. And indeed, Bibi just blew his opponent out of the water in the Likud party primary, winning 72.5 percent of the vote. He’s already using that to fire up his base.
Add to that his canny campaigning skills, and I give it a 55 percent chance that no one will take the premiership from him this year. One possibility is that no outright winner emerges from this election, so Likud and the centrist party agree to a PM-rotation deal. If Bibi goes first in the rotation, he could hold onto the premiership till the end of 2020. — SS
Science, health, and technology
No gene drives to fight malaria-carrying mosquitoes will be launched in any part of the world (90 percent)
This is a somewhat cowardly prediction, but I think it’s accurate.
The first group to release a gene drive — a genetically modified organism (in this case, mosquitoes) that has an embedded CRISPR gene editor to ensure that all of its offspring get the desired modification as well — will almost certainly be Target Malaria. The group is interested in using the technology, once properly tested, to spread infertility genes among malaria-carrying mosquitos, crashing the mosquito population and, hopefully, enabling malaria eradication in the affected area. This is called a “suppression drive,” and I explained it in some depth in this article.
But Target Malaria is at least a few years out from actual deployment; back in 2018, it estimated 2023 as the earliest year an actual drive could make it into the wild. First it needed to do a “sterile male” release, where it would release male mosquitos modified to be infertile, and then release mosquitos with an “X-shredder,” a genetic modification that rips up the X chromosome of male mosquitoes so that they pass on only Y chromosomes and have almost exclusively male offspring, potentially reducing the overall population.
So far, only the sterile male release has occurred (in Burkina Faso), and given the careful, deliberate pace at which Target Malaria operates, I would be surprised if there’s an X-shredder release this year, not to mention a gene drive. — DM
No new CRISPR-edited babies will be born (80 percent)
At the end of 2018, Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced he’d genetically edited two human children using CRISPR gene-editing techniques.
After Jiankui’s announcement, Vox asked “Is the CRISPR baby controversy the start of a terrifying new chapter in gene editing?” — and a lot of other people also had the same question. But the answer (so far) seems to be no.
Jiankui was arrested and sentenced to prison. No new babies edited with CRISPR were announced in 2019. And by betting that none will be born in 2020, I’m betting no other researchers implanted genetically edited embryos at any time in 2019, and that they won’t do it early this year, either.
The fierce global backlash against Jiankui made it clear that the world is uncomfortable with such uses of technology — rightfully so, as there’s immense potential for misuse, and Jiankui’s experiments were enormously irresponsible. I bet it won’t happen again this year, though I’m sure it’ll happen again someday. — KP
The number of drug-resistant infections will increase (70 percent)
Antibiotics are great when they work, but because we’ve overused them, more and more infections are becoming resistant to them. 2020 will continue that trend.
I’m basing this prediction on two high-level reports released last year: one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the other from the United Nations. The reports presented some pretty terrifying findings: Resistance to second- and third-line antibiotics (often the last lines of defense) is projected to almost double between 2005 and 2030. If we don’t make a radical change now, drug-resistant diseases could kill 10 million people a year by 2050 — up from 700,000 a year now.
Note that I’m not predicting the number of deaths from drug-resistant infections will increase relative to 2019. It’s totally possible to make progress on that front. In fact, such deaths have decreased by 18 percent since 2013, in part because more hospital professionals started to heed experts’ warnings. But even if we manage to stabilize or decrease the death toll, the number of drug-resistant infections could still rise — and the trend suggests that’s likely to happen, because we aren’t addressing our overuse of antibiotics with anything like the necessary speed. — SS
Facial recognition will be banned in at least three more cities (70 percent)
In 2019, we saw a growing backlash against facial recognition technology. San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley banned it in California, as did three communities in Massachusetts: Somerville, Brookline, and Northampton. In 2020, I predict we’ll see at least three more cities institute a ban on the controversial tech.
To be clear, I’m talking about a ban that applies to city departments like police; I think outright bans that would also cover businesses, individuals, and federal agencies are way less likely.
I’m partly going off local news about particular cities — Portland is currently deliberating a ban, and the western Massachusetts city of Springfield might be next. Last year saw mounting pushback against facial recognition from AI researchers, groups like the ACLU, low-income tenants in Brooklyn, and many more. Their protests seem to be growing bolder, not quieter.
I should note that according to Pew Research Center survey data, most Americans are now in favor of police using facial recognition. I don’t think a nationwide ban is in the cards for 2020 (sorry, Bernie). But a lot can still happen on the city level, and I think it will. — SS
Animal welfare and the environment
Beyond Meat will outperform the general stock market (70 percent)
This prediction is really a proxy for, “Plant-based meats will continue to grow, consumer demand for them will remain strong, and the leading companies in the business will end the year in a good position,” and that seems likely to me. The trends that drove plant-based meat’s success in 2019 — consumer interest, concern with sustainability, and new, tastier plant-based options — are still in effect, and Beyond Meat is still enjoying name recognition and the benefits of being the most established purely plant-based company. I expect a good year for them. — KP
Global carbon emissions will increase (80 percent)
In most recent years (though not all of them), global carbon emissions have increased from the previous year. Saying there’s an 80 percent chance they’ll increase again, then, is a much more conservative prediction than it sounds. (This is called reference class forecasting, where you predict a statistic by looking at what prediction would have been correct in recent years or in other events like this one.)
Why are CO2 levels still increasing? Well, global population is still increasing (though more slowly than ever) and our efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions have been … lackluster, to say the least. Major polluters have made only token steps to reduce their emissions, and no country has cut their emissions as fast as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we need to. That’s a scary trend, and it makes me deeply unhappy. But I don’t see a lot of reason to expect it to change in 2020, not with the same people in power across most of the world’s biggest emitters and the same incentives for shortsighted climate policy around the world. — KP
Average world temperatures will increase relative to 2019 (60 percent)
Thanks to new data from the Copernicus Climate Change Service, we now know that 2019 was the second-hottest year ever recorded. Only 2016 was hotter, and by a really infinitesimal amount, due to El Niño.
Weather events such as El Niño always have the potential to produce small fluctuations in global temperature trends, so I’m not going to go above a 60 percent estimated probability here. But I will say this: Overall, temperature has clearly been trending upward. And there is a solid likelihood that 2020 will be a hotter year for the world than 2019. — SS
California has a wildfire among the 10 most destructive in state history (60 percent)
I live in California, and the last few wildfire seasons have been nightmarish.
And there is no reason to expect it to get any better. The electrical grid isn’t safe and isn’t being made safe fast enough, and the extreme weather conditions that caused the fires are still happening. Next year is likely to be bad again. That said, will it cause one of the most destructive fires in state history? I’m less sure.
On a list of the 10 most destructive wildfires since records started being kept in 1932, (from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection), five happened in the last decade. That suggests that the “new normal” is a record fire about every other year — though 2020 is likely to be worse than the early parts of the decade, as the effects of climate change worsen. — KP
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