The Truths Of Social Science Are Boring And Depressing—But Still True
September 01, 2007, 06:15 PM
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Science is in the business of making predictions, but the better it gets at predicting anything, the more boring those predictions are for us. For example, I predict that the sun will set at the O`Hare Airport in Chicago today at 7:26 pm CDT. When you think of all the effort that has gone into astronomical observation and prediction over the millennia (for example, Stonehenge), that`s an incredible feat the human race has achieved to be able to accurately predict that.

It`s also phenomenally boring.

Now, here`s a different prediction: Republican nominee Mike Huckabee will outpoll Democratic nominee Bill Richardson 51%-47% in the November 2008 Presidential election. "What an idiot!" you say, "Don`t you know that the Clintons will stop at nothing to get back to the White House? Richardson and Huckabee? You don`t know anything about the election!" And you`re right. I don`t. I`m not even sure where Huckabee is from. I think it`s that state, you know, the one you drive through to get to that other state.

Now, here are some more predictions. USC will not finish #1 in college football this season. Instead, Rutgers will bring the national title home to Delaware. (Or maybe to Connecticut, depending on where, precisely, Rutgers is located. Assuming it`s located somewhere. Maybe it`s like the DeVry Institute and is located everywhere. But I digress.) On the other hand, USC will win the NCAA basketball championship next spring behind frosh sensation OJ Mayo.

"What a jerk!" you exclaim, "Everybody knows that USC`s linebacking corps is the most devastating in college football since Penn State`s back in 1987." Well, I don`t know that. In fact, I know barely anything about college football these days.

But the point is that, unlike the sunset forecast, these predictions are interesting , as brainless as they are. The reason that making up nonsense off the top of my head about elections and sports is interesting is because nobody can predict accurately sports and far-off elections with a lot of candidates. Sports, especially, are designed to be hard to predict just so that they will keep our interest. The same with gambling. Randomness isn`t natural in the world, at least above the subatomic level. It takes a lot of work to develop gambling devices that are close to random, but a roulette wheel is more interesting than betting when the sun will go down because it`s hard to predict.

You often hear that the social sciences aren`t real sciences like astronomy because they can`t predict anything. But that`s not true. Indeed, I`ll make a social science prediction for 25 years into the future. I predict that in the year 2032, the students at the schools in Beverly Hills will enjoy higher average scores on statewide and nationwide standardized tests than the students at schools in Compton. Anybody want to bet against me?

I`ve got a million more predictions like that. For example, in 2032, the children of today`s unskilled immigrants will be more of a burden on society than the children of today`s skilled immigrants. (That seems like an important use of social science — to make predictions extremely important for choosing the optimal immigration legislation, right?)

"Well, sure," you say, "Of course. But those predictions are boring. And depressing. In fact, it`s in bad taste to mention things that we all sort of know are true but that we really don`t want to think about. Who wants to hear predictions like that? Tell us something interesting."

Okay, on December 31, 2032, the Dow Jones Average will stand at 107,391. But just one year later it will have crashed, in the wake of Black Wednesday, all the way to 33,828. But by 2042, during the bubble following a major breakthrough in cold fusion, the Dow will have reached the 201,537 barrier.

"Now that`s better! That`s the kind of prediction we like: specific and exciting. Of course, you`re probably just randomly punching numbers on your keypad, but we forgive you because you`re not boring and depressing us anymore."