People (like, perhaps, sports talking heads or Washington pundits) often believe predictions are "a single scenario," she adds. "Futurists believe in futures with an 'S,' meaning multiple scenarios. And the only scenario that isn't going to happen is business as usual. You can't just take today and multiply it out and call it tomorrow."
Which is one of the issues in interpreting polls. Too often, observers look at what is so often characterized as a "snapshot" of data and jump to conclusions. It doesn't help, says Emory University political scientist and polling expert Alan Abramowitz, that there are more polls than ever.
"If you go back to the 1950s and '60s, there were only a few polling organizations," he says. "It's really in the last two or three presidential election cycles that we've seen a proliferation of polls."
Moreover, as technology has changed, so have polling methods. Polling used to be done face to face. Now it's all done by telephone -- a much cheaper alternative, Abramowitz says, but not necessarily more accurate, what with robocalls, lack of callbacks and sampling challenges based on land line and cell phone users. Then there's "rational ignorance" -- the consciously shallow understanding and apathy of many possible respondents. There have been movements to counter these flaws, such as Stanford University's "Deliberative Polling," but the general process remains imperfect.
Some organizations have adjusted well, others have not -- but all the data are thrown into the mix, a haystack of straws for pundits to grasp.
'Town meeting' or fodder for denialists?
In his book "When the People Speak," James Fishkin, a Stanford political scientist, observed that George Gallup believed polling solved a host of civic ills. Along with mass media, polling "created a town meeting on a national scale," Gallup wrote in 1938.
So much for that. Instead, many people have used the snapshot statistics as a club with which to pound their opponents -- or they deny their usefulness entirely.
Indeed, these days, some people hold onto their views so strongly that they resist actual facts. Both parties have fallen into the trap: In 2004, some Democrats, lulled by early exit polls that indicated a narrow victory for John Kerry, claimed that the election had been stolen. More recently, some Republicans have claimed that the polls themselves are skewed.
In an essay for Slate, law professor Richard L. Hasen, author of "The Voting Wars," asked if Republicans would accept an Obama victory. He pointed to a rise in distrust of election results -- from members of both parties -- since the 2000 Bush v. Gore contest.
"The lesson from these statistics is simple. If my guy won, the election was fair and square. If your guy won, there must have been some kind of chicanery," he writes.
Sometimes, says futurist Frewen Wuellner, you just have to accept that you don't know the future until it occurs. In the meantime, research, prepare -- and expect uncertainty.
"Anybody who says they know for sure -- they're lying," she says. "They don't know. Nobody knows for sure. There's always something that can happen.
"It's what makes the prediction business so big."