Oct 24, 2008

Predicting the timing of cultural changes?

Study Groups for Objectivists (SGO) recently completed its five-week "Cultural Movements: Creating Change" study group. The "text" was the series of three lectures, by the same title, which Drs. Onkar Ghate and Yaron Brook presented at Objectivist Conferences 2008, now available for viewing on The Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights website under PARTICIPATE/Activism (or Search).

Lecture 3 drew conclusions from the historical reviews in Lectures 1 and 2. Around 0700-0900 of Part 1 of Lecture 3, Brook said (in my paraphrase): No one knows with confidence how much time we have left before present trends become irreversible. Some observers of today's culture say that, if present destructive cultural trends continue unopposed, the period of decline in the USA (before economic and cultural collapse) will be about 40 years. However, I, Onkar, and others estimate we may have only about 20 years to turn the culture around before the trends become irreversible.

Brook's and Ghate's comments here, and throughout their lectures, are stimulating. One question that emerges for me is a question of methods: How can one predict the timing of changes in society and culture? That question, in turn, leads me to another question: Why can specialists who study aspects of society or culture--as economists do--predict that certain results will follow from certain other events, but cannot predict when the results will appear and how much effect the cause will have?

I remember that in 1971 Republican President Richard Nixon, imposed price controls on the United States. Free-market economists predicted that shortages would result. They disagreed about when the shortages would appear and how severe the effects would be.

The only lead to an answer to my question that I can offer is that scientists, like philosophers, make assumptions about conditions. One example might be in physics, a field in which laboratory experiments control background conditions (such as humidity and air pressure) that might affect the outcome of an experiment, while looking at the effects of one changing variable, such as temperature. In the sciences where physical experiments are not possible, the scientist (for example, an economist) assumes "all other factors being equal." He conducts a sort of "thought experiment," separating out irrelevant variables for the particular prediction he is making.

By contrast, predicting the future course of a society or culture as a whole requires the inclusion of those "other factors." There are so many "other factors," most of which depend on many individuals choosing or not choosing to take certain intermediate actions, that predicting the quantifiable results becomes a matter of "guesstimating" or making a "professional judgment" by someone who has long experience in the field and has immersed himself in the details of a particular problem.

In the absence of a clearly defined method developed by a philosophical genius, making "professional judgments" is probably the best anyone can do. Are there better solutions?

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith


Kendall J said...

Hi Burgess,

I have two thoughts for you. One is the difficulty in quantification and the second is the difficulty of complex dynamics.

First the prediction of timing in an inherently more complex task conceptually. That is, one must have more information about a system to be able to predict timing. One must be able to quantify the magnitude effects. Consider a car heading for a tree. I can assess its direction, I can assess that it has velocity (without knowing it's magnitude), and I can project its trajectory out in time. However, to tell you when it hits, I will have to konw it's exact velocity, and be able to measure any changes to that velocity from things such as the driver applying the brakes. So it woudl follow that many people can conceptually amass enough proper information to tell you what will happen, but still not have enough information to tell you when.

The second idea is that one has a much tougher time predicting systems that specifically have changing dynamics, i.e. accelerations, and decelerations. In physics those are "higher order" systems. For instance, imagine a baseball thrown linearly to you, or an outfielder catching a pop fly. These systems are relatively easy to assess and estimate. They involve no changes in velocity (as in the throw) or only a single acceleration (as in the pop fly). These are relatively simple things even for the average human to "catch" (i.e. predict the time for). Now imagine catching a ball thrown to you that is tethered to two springs of differing magnitude, and also tethered to another ball that has been thrown in a different direction and time. Even if one could describe all the forces involved, the dynamics of the ball are not at all intuitive without detailed quantification, and reliance on models.

Coupled together with the fact that as you say, qunatitative models are hardly possible for societal events, it makes it pretty tough to understand even forces involved much less timing.

GreenSkink said...

Also, experts are notorious for getting it wrong. Here's a link to a New Yorker article describing how political experts are no better at predicting political outcomes than most folks: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/05/051205crbo_books1

Similarly, I've learned to take weather forecasts with a grain of salt. More than once, I've stayed in to avoid rain that never happened, and at other times gotten rained on when I wasn't expecting it.

My conclusion is that some dynamic processes are inherently unpredictable and surprising.

Tom Barron

Richard said...

Hi Burgess,

By some coincidence Keith Windschuttle as published an article on the abolition of the slave trade in England. It too several decades, and its progress was considerably slowed &/or accelerated by a number of historical events involving France and America.

It is perhaps a ten minute read.