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Ross Douthat wrote a powerful piece last week that used the upcoming SSM ruling as a jumping-off point for a larger discussion about the history of social predictions and SoCons’ strong (if imperfect) record on the matter. I commend the whole piece to everyone, but this passage on the left’s increasing prejudice towards quantitative analysis — to the exclusion of all other modes of thought — stood out:
[T]he modern liberal mind is trained to ask for spreadsheet-ready projections and clearly defined harms, and the links that social conservatives think exist aren’t amenable to that kind of precise measurement or definition. How do you run a regression analysis on a culture’s marital iconography? How do you trace the downstream influence of a change in that iconography on future generations’ values and ideas and choices? How do you measure highly-diffuse potential harms from some cultural shift, let alone compare them to the concrete benefits being delivered by the proposed alteration? How do you quantify, assess and predict the influence of a public philosophy of marriage — whatever that even means — on manners and morals and behavior?
Of course, there is nothing in traditionalist thinking that precludes serious data dives; indeed, a traditionalist should hold that his positions will very much be validated by statistics, provided the right questions are posed and investigated dispassionately. Nor, for that matter, should a data-focused researcher be allergic to tradition, which — through the forces of trial, error, and selection — should be expected to form a great many gems that need only a little sunlight to shine. Indeed, Hayek went so far as to say in The Fatal Conceit that “all the benefits of civilization, and indeed our very existence, rest… on our continuing willingness to shoulder the burden of tradition.”
The fact is that thinking through a problem and working (or muddling) through one involve different faculties. Both are applicable to almost any imaginable circumstance, though the particulars of how — and in what proportion to each other — vary immensely with circumstance. Everyone knows that traditionalism can save us from some follies while leading us to others, but the same applies to empiricist modes of thinking as well.
Tradition and research work best when each is used to check and reexamine the others’ findings. If quantitative social research yields predictions that contradict well-established and successful traditions, that’s more than sufficient cause to go back and make sure the researchers made the correct assumptions and didn’t miss anything (Douthat makes a strong case for doing so with regard to many questions regarding sexual mores and marriage). On the other hand, the simple fact of something being tradition doesn’t automatically put it beyond empirical questioning (Douthat similarly points out that a great many of Robert Bork’s more dire predictions about these same subjects did not materialize).
Balance and judgement — as always — are very much in need.Published in