Tag Archives: Future Babbel

The deeper wisdom of Future Babble

Last week I wrote critically of the worldview underlying most of the sociology books I read using Future Babble as the prime example.

Future Babble is all about expert predictions gone horribly wrong. Daniel Gardner’s basic thesis is that a lot of experts are really bad at predicting what will happen in the future, but that people tend to keep buying into these predictions anyway.

It was an interesting book, and even though I find fault with some of the underlying assumptions, the book still has a deeper wisdom that is worth paying attention. I took two big lessons from this book.

Humble people are usually better at analyzing the future

Gardner makes a distinction between experts who he calls hedgehogs and others he calls foxes. Hedgehogs know one thing really well. They are smart and confident. They are usually the ones who appear as talking heads on cable shows. They sell lots of books. But they are often wrong. If fact, they’re no better than non-experts at making predictions about the future. Hedgehogs are also great at “explaining away” their misses. “I just got the timing wrong,” “If only this hadn’t happened,” “you misunderstood what I said to begin with,” etc.

Foxes, on the other hand, don’t focus on only one thing. They are less confident and more cautious. Because they are more nuanced, they’re less likely to be on talk shows and TV. They’re also a lot more likely to be right about the future. When they get it wrong, they’re more likely to admit it and learn from their mistakes.

Hedgehogs are marked by pride; foxes by humility. I think I remember something about pride going before the fall. We should be wary of our own overconfidence.

Be cautious of experts who are confident of what the future holds

Don’t be a hedgehog. But don’t trust a hedgehog either. They’re often wrong.

There have been many doomsayers throughout the years. The world was supposed to be way overcrowded by now, with the end of affluence, and whole sections of the earth wiped out by famine. The age of oil was supposed to be over.

There have also been those who predicted that all would be sunshine and roses, that we would be living in a Utopian age.

Neither of these predictions, confidently given, turned out to be correct. But a string of bad predictions doesn’t dissuade a new generation of confident pundits from boldly predicting the future. We should be cautious of them.

Gardner’s argument for why experts so often get it wrong is two-fold. First, we live in a complex world. Second, we’re biased in our judgments. I would agree with both of these (though for slightly different reasons than he does). I would add a third element. There’s another hand at work: the providence of God. He holds history in his hands and his ways are beyond and above our ways. Though we can expect the future to be filled with both highs and lows it’s less important for us to know exactly what those will be or when they will occur than it is to focus on our relationship with the One who holds that future. Uncertainty is a cause for worry, but God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of wisdom and self-discipline. Leave the future to God, focus on following him now.

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.