There's Prediction in Life that Works, Prediction in Science that Works, and then there's Prediction in the Social Sciences

Warren Kinston 29. May 2012 12:00

Prediction in science Courtesy Molito66  405489435

Prediction in science is easy, if it's a physical science.  But not too much should be expected from findings in the social sciences—so says a Professor of Philosophy. How right he is.  He was asking if social science is useful for guiding public policy.  But is that the correct question?

The question here is not whether social science is useful or not for prediction.  (Most of it is pointless or even harmful in my view.)  The issue is whether prediction is possible in relation to social life generally and public policy specifically.  Having clarified that, we can consider what assistance from academia might be required.

The $64k Question: Is prediction possible in social life including public policy?

Answer:  Yes.  Without a shadow of a doubt.

Let's look at some recent public policies and see if we can predict or could have predicted anything.

  • Banks are encouraged by lawmakers to loan money for home purchase to people with no income, no job, and no assets.  Are these loans likely to be repaid? or end up in default?
  • Banks are allowed to sell on any mortgages that they originate to organizations (like Fannie Mae) backed by the government so that banks keep the profits and any losses are borne by the taxpayer.  Are these banks likely to maintain high lending standards?
  • A foreign army is sent into a primitive country like Afghanistan that has been at war with invaders for centuries and never been effectively defeated.  Is that army likely to achieve success?
  • Vast sums of money and arms are given by the government to support totalitarian and authoritarian dictatorships.  Are the recipients likely to steal this money for themselves?  Are they likely to use the arms against their own people?
  • Corporations and wealthy individuals give large sums of money to political campaigns.  Are they likely to be given special privileges in return regardless of fairness or harm to the general public?
  • Large sums of money are allocated by government to set up giant bureaucracies to protect people.  Are people going to end up being protected or intimidated by such protection?  Are these bureaucracies going to allow themselves to be dismantled without a fight?
  • Governments are currently assigned powers to spend money they do not possess by borrowing.  Are politicians likely to experience any intelligent restraint in borrowing?
  • Politicians of all parties keep borrowing money to bribe the population to elect or re-elect them long after the sensible borrowing limit has been exceeded, and they organize liabilities for the future that are kept invisible to the public («off the balance sheet» like Enron).  Is this going to have a happy ending?

Did you need to Google any social science research to work out the likely answers to these questions?  Or could you predict the likely outcomes?

If social science is not a science of prediction, what is it doing?  What any other group that sucks at the government teat does: doing what it always does and insisting on its right to do what it decides to do.  Studying the output of your own discipline, rather than reality, is the only route to career success.  And what else counts?

The point is that we already have most of the knowledge that we require for decent public policy. 

But let's move away from government and public policy for a moment, and look at prediction in personal and social life.  Does the science of prediction work in psychological or anthropological fields?

We find something very similar.  Social sciences talk about people in the 3rd person, when we all live in the 1st person.  We can and do make predictions all the time.  If we do this poorly, our life disintegrates.  The defining characteristic of personal capability is the ability to predict the future and then make that future happen.  If this is very structured, then it is called planning.  If it is innovative, it is called enterprise.  If it is pragmatic, it is being streetwise.

The idea of a human future that is like a billiard table or can be managed via statistical analyses is ridiculous or terrifying.  Using such a rational process in politics or management leads to utter failure or rigid bureaucratic systems.  Others then take advantage of it.  That is why government programs so often produce the opposite of what is intended.  Targeting welfare at a community is the most direct route to destroy it via crime and dereliction.  The war on drugs has caused an explosion in drug production and drug use with harm to individuals, communities and whole nations, far exceeding anything that regulated usage would cause.  The Long Term Capital Management fiasco, the first of the great bailouts aimed to protect the global financial system, was enabled by Nobel Prize winners in Economics.  Only a spoilsport would suggest they give their prizes back, but it looks like we are now getting a repeat via JP Morgan.

The good Professor, true to his allegiances and exhibiting a self-interest that is surely only human, will not be at the forefront of any emerging enlightenment.  He concludes that more experimental data is required with more attention to the limitation of such data.  That's a recipe for wasting taxpayers' money if ever I heard one.  He then ends with the hope that political leaders will show "good sense" and "critical intelligence".  My advice to him: Get out more!


PS. Does THEE permit predictions?  Yes it does … it specifically fosters common-sense predictions (such as those in the above list).  Not only that, it does so while enabling personal autonomy and demanding personal responsibility.  Read more about the principles underlying the development of THEE in the Hub.


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Warren Kinston is the creator of the THEE-Online website as an open forum for the further discovery and development of THEE. He writes this blog as an escape valve for the excitement and frustrations of the work. More info here.

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