More on judging predictions

Another thing about judging conservative claims that society is going to collapse is that they’re hard to evaluate even after you wait and see.  How long is social collapse supposed to take?  Suppose one of us says “Gay marriage will destroy America.”  Then Congress legislates gay marriage, and the next day America is still there.  Is the prediction falsified?  Obviously not–even the most lethal policies take longer than a day to do their full damage.  Suppose then in one hundred years America is conquered by the Brazilian Empire.  Is our prediction confirmed then?  Obviously not–lots of things might have happened in one hundred years that bore more directly on America’s fall, and besides, every nation falls sooner or later.  It seems like there’s only two ways to be pretty sure that the prediction came true.

  1. If the causal series that destroyed America is so clear that we can see that gay marriage was (or wasn’t) an essential part of the chain.
  2. If America, before the legislation, had been extremely stable culturally, economically, politically, so that we could identify a sort of “natural evolution timescale” T on which the American polity changes significantly.  Then, after legalizing gay marriage–and doing nothing else, America is destroyed in a time <<T.

I doubt the case will ever be so clear.

By the way, while I doubt we could ever identify a gradual evolution timescale, I wonder if societies might not have a dynamical timescale:  roughly, the time it takes to collapse when the rug is completely pulled out.  Blow up the base of a building, and the building won’t collapse in a nanosecond.  It takes at least a free-fall time from the top to the bottom [T~sqrt(L/g), L=height, g=gravity].  We post-conciliar Catholics often imagine that because the Church hasn’t yet disappeared entirely after the disasters of Vatican II and its implementation, there must be some live resistance keeping it in place.  We imagine that there’s some hard core of the faithful, so that eventually the Church will bottom out and be left with these.  But what if there is no significant resistance (as there doesn’t appear to be)?  The Church is truly in free fall, but it just takes a little while for an organization that big to totally disappear.  Maybe it’s just taking a while for people to get the message that the show is over.  I certainly hope that’s not the case.

7 Responses

  1. Picking up on your exchange with Reggie Perrin following the previous post, I think we should be careful to avoid a completely materialist conception of cultural collapse. Things like gay marriage, contraception, abortion, and feminism will not take us back to the Stone Age. Some would even argue that they increase sustainability. What they change, and what conservatives wish to preserve, are meanings. I wish to leave to my children a world in which words like manliness and modesty have a particular meaning (and value). If my grandson leads a life of leisure in a pristine environment, but has to check a Dictionary of Archaic Idioms for the meaning of expressions like “be a man,” or “till death thou doth part,” I’d say the culture had collapsed.

    All I can say about the state of the Church is that, if it were to truly collapse, it would not have been the Church we believe it to be. Now if my parish priest would just stop telling is that the greatest sin is loving ourselves too little! (Sin is one of the meanings I miss.)

  2. Thanks for bringing me back to my main point: there’s no getting around the question of which justice and whose morality we want to promote. There’s no value-neutral way of saying that one thing or the other “works better”.

  3. It is much easier to trace effects back to causes than causes to their effects.

    If I have a cold, it is certain I have been in contact with an infected person and I may even be able to identify that contact; however, if I have been in contact with an infected person, it is nearly impossible to predict the likelihood of my catching cold from that contact..

  4. I agree with much of this insofar as it relates to historical judgements. Historians are still debating what caused the collapse of the Roman Empire, and we all know Chou’s “too early to tell” dictum on the French Revolution. At the extreme, some scholars (and not just postmodernists) would be highly sceptical as to the possibility of drawing any causal links between historical events at all.

  5. It is wise to be modest in our estimation of our predictive and explanatory powers when it comes to historical events, but I think both Michael and Reggie may have slipped over the line into an unwarranted Pyrrhonism. If I come into contact with a person infected with a communicable disease, I can state a probability of my having been infected by referring to the epidemiological norm. As for the consequences of the French Revolution, we are looking at the problem of historical periodization. The decision to place the French Revolution at the head of a chain of cause and effect is an interpretive choice, since the Revolution had causes which were themselves caused. Since the beginning of the chain is a choice, so is the end. It’s not an arbitrary choice because where the historian chooses to end the story is a function of that historian’s interpretation of the meaning of the story.

    An interesting exercise made easier by the internet is to go back and look at predictions made by proponents and opponents of some innovation, at the time the innovation was first introduced, and then at intervals as its consequences unfolded. The nay-sayers are not always right, but they tend to see more of the side effects because they are not dazzled and fascinated by the purpose of the change. No fault divorce is an example. At first proponents said it would have no negative consequence. Then they said it had negative consequences, but these were more than balanced by the positive. Then they said it was very hard to trace cause and effect. Then they said “you can’t turn back the clock.” Call that Smith’s Law of the Four Phases of Progressive Social Change.

  6. The Church is truly in free fall, but it just takes a little while for an organization that big to totally disappear. Maybe it’s just taking a while for people to get the message that the show is over. I certainly hope that’s not the case.

    To hear Catholic Progressives tell it, they’re the ones on the run from “reactionaries” like Pope Ratzinger, who, so the narrative goes, betrayed his 60s liberal cred in an effort to consolidate raw power in Rome (doesn’t that all just make perfect sense everytime you listen to this man?). There are quite a few progressives in my parish, who upon scratching me, a recent convert, are happy to name drop their favorite dissident theologian (or even retired priest) in the hopes of wooing me to their Brand. But all such folks have one thing in common: Oldness. Mark it down: if you find a Catholic who both actually understands the Doctrine of Transubstantiation AND militates for an “Inclusive” Church, then you have found a person of moderate to extreme Oldness. Truly, you won’t find many Catholics, especially under the age of 50, who care much about either. But of those under 50 who do care at all, you will find them faithful to the Tradition of the Church… and breeding like rabbits to boot.

    I think we share a not unreasonable hope that Church is not in the midst of an unstoppable collapse.

  7. Inertia – e.g. overlapping of generations and things like that will blur causality.

    But that is the opposite of reassuring because it applies to the process of reversing decline as well as slowing the decline.

    The more ‘ruin’ a nation is capable of absorbing before collapse, the worse the collapse when it comes and the greater the amount of ruin that needs to be mended.

    Given that the decline has taken several generations, the amount of ruin is by now colossal – surely?

    The hard core of the faithful are presumably the most significant casualties of so many decades of ruin – the apparently total lack of spiritually advanced people (such as ascetic Saints) in The West – the apparent absence of holy elders who might explain and counsel…

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