April 24, 2008

One of the most distracting phenomena of modern times is a kind of “hyper skepticism.” For example, well known truths—that minorities commit more crime, that men are stronger than women, that many criminals can’t be rehabilitated—are met with demands for statistics, studies, and the like. If a study can’t be found, this often grinds a debate to a halt. Recall the interminable discussions during the 1980s about whether the death penalty had any deterrent effect. The lack of such a “study” supposedly disproved what common sense tells us: people being hanged from lamp-posts encourager les autres.

I’m skeptical of the claim that scientific studies or other secondary tools are the most efficient means of coming up with the right answers. Consider the recent mania for online predictive markets. Somehow the behavior of these bettors is supposed to be superior to that of seasoned observers, common sense, and the like.

Of course, real markets are efficient at pricing things that people pay for. And good studies do measure what can be put into numbers. But information does not always come in such a format. People have other ways of receiving and sharing information in non-market arenas, such as war, courtship, and personal safety. Indeed, the most complex fields defy logic, formulae, and various rationalist short-cuts. Men make due most especially with the gifts of tradition and intuition.

I realize a worthy goal of social science is to move beyond mere intuition to actual knowledge, but decisions must be made all the time without the benefit of double blind studies—studies complete with regressions, peer review, and all the rest. We can neither be paralyzed by their absence, nor foolish enough to think we “know nothing at all” about matters long considered simply because of the format of our knowledge in traditions and folk-ways.

Moreover, traditional understanding benefit from being less certain and less infused with the patina of science than the pronouncements of avant-garde social scientists. Consider all the ways we know a neighborhood is “bad”: quality of real estate, the clothing of its denizens, the number of aimless young men, the presence of dirty cars, the loudness of music, the number of police, the number of young children with tired-looking single mothers, the presence of Newport t-shirts, boarded up businesses, its reputation, etc. In other words, most people can navigate their way through the world without social science. Worse, because social science is burdened by politically correct blinders, the natural implications of the data these observers amass are ignored, suppressed, or otherwise explained away by overly complex (and false) analysis. Imagine we wanted to know, for example, whether a neighborhood was dangerous. Instead of a survey or statistical data from criminologists, we would be better served by seeing whether the “Club” anti-theft device was in common use.

In spite of the shortcomings and numerous hair-brained failures of social science, important decisions on crime, sexual behavior, education, the institution of marriage, the production of CO2 and the like are increasingly put into the hands of social scientists, whose teachings are often far inferior to the crystallized common sense expressed in the “way things were always done.”

As Burke famously noted, “We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity.” In other words, any properly understood social science has a limited role, fine-tuning what is already known.

Why is this exactly?  Social traditions that are around today (or in a very recent yesterday) exist in a kind of Darwininan competition. They would not persist into the present if they did not well serve society, because a tradition disappears if it is wrongly attuned to nature and circumstances. Over time, it may change, but its very existence coupled with its origin in “time immemorial” suggests its value.  Far from proving that traditions are useless or infinitely malleable, their rapid envelopment by short-term fads in behavior—feminism, mass promiscuity, pacifism, economic redistributionism, multiculturalism—only shows that traditions and societies are fragile things. It would be shocking if these even more fragile and unstable alternatives survived two or three generations. Witness how post-Christian Europe, for example, is essentially contracepting itself out of existence.

Studies, derivative markets, and other predictions are only as good as the tools used by their participants. Studies and statistical tools that contradict hard-won knowledge, common sense, or the behavior of people with “skin in the game” are almost always dangerous and ultimately wrong. Notice the lemming-like behavior in mortgage markets that have preceded our current over-building disaster. Much of this was rooted in “econometric” models that ignored any theoretical understanding of how economies worked and blindly plugged in data to predict what would happen in the future. These mathematical models were based solely on mathematical trend lines from what is happening now. This rather obvious stupidity did not work, and failures became manifest in a short period of three yaras. Among others, the “sophisticated” banks whose staffs are full of econometricians are bleeding money.
Worse, this stupidity has filtered down into the society. Far from advising folks to diversify, save, and live moderately, the speculators and their studies are giving justification to the worst instincts of common people. “Man Money” is creating an entire nation of leveraged (i.e., massively in debt) people trying to get rich quick.  Instead, they are ending up shipwrecked in a declining market in front of their overpriced homes and overused e-trade terminals. Any kind of deferred gratification, economic horse sense, or other traditional restraints on bad behavior are going by the wayside. And our short term memories—the tech boom was only ten years ago—suggest some other manic overinvestment scheme is on the horizon. When such a trend emerges, various studies, statistics, and the false confidence they bring will enable participants and policymakers to again lose their minds.

The Charles Murrays and John Lotts of the world have done something useful in supporting conservative intuitions on IQ, welfare, crime, and gun control through rigorous social science. At the same time, we should never put too much stock in the untried, the novel, and the counter-intuitive. Common sense, tradition, and skepticism should be hallmarks of any real conservatism.


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