On the Self-Defeating Nature of Modern Social Science

I really like Social Science books. I find them fascinating and, usually, helpful. But more and more I am realizing that they can be self-defeating.

I just finished the book Future Babble. The thesis of the book is that “expert predictions” are generally terrible. The more confident the person making the prediction, the less likely they are to be right.

There’s a certain guilty satisfaction that comes from this book. You read story after story of how pompous and self-confident experts failed miserably in predicting the future. But after a little while Gardner begins to sound pompous himself and it loses its charm.

But there’s a deeper problem. Why is future prediction so often wrong? There are two pillars to Gardner’s argument. The first is that the world is too complex. The second is that our brains were not wired for this kind of thinking.

Gardner, like the vast majority of social scientists who I read, is functionally atheist in his writing (I don’t know his actual belief system but heaps as much scorn on “prophets” as he does on pundits.) He believes that our brains are merely the function of an evolutionary process. We evolved to survive and reproduce, not solve complex problems or look deep into the future. Our minds simply aren’t suited toward the work of making predictions. We are hopelessly biased.

But if our brains are not evolved to do this kind of abstract thinking, why should we trust the author of this book? Is my brain biased to find his argument compelling? Then again, maybe I’m biased against his argument? Can I trust my brain to correlate to reality? According to Gardner, probably not.

And so, as compelling as some of the points Gardner makes are, those very arguments undercut my belief that he’s even capable of making those arguments. It’s self-defeating.

There’s a similar sort of self-defeating argument in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (a must read, by the way). Haidt’s argument is both descriptive and moral. He is describing how we make moral judgments, but he also makes implicit moral judgments about our proper response to this reality. But for Haidt, moral judgments don’t correspond to moral reality. They’re not pointers to objective right and wrong. They’re merely the result of evolution. So, while seeing moral judgments in Haidt we also see through them. His argument might be interesting, but it carries no moral weight.

C.S. Lewis described this in The Abolition of Man as “seeing through” everything until there is simply nothing at all to see.

Alvin Planitinga in Where the Conflict Really Lies shows how this self-defeating argument plays itself on the naturalist worldview. If our brains have not evolved to making abstract rationale judgments – only survive and reproduce in a limited environment – why should we believe our own minds in making judgments about science and God.

Plantinga’s argument, then, is that there’s a fundamental conflict between science and naturalism (the belief that nothing exists outside of the natural world.) I tend to agree, and see the same truth play out in social science.

There need not be such a conflict in a Christian worldview. In the Christian worldview, we should expect to see, and in fact do see, a correspondence between the observable world and our ability to understand it. The world is fundamentally complex, yes, and we struggle to wrap our minds around it, but we can understand it, and we can have confidence that we can understand it because the same God who made it, made us.

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