Why Social Scientists Fail to Predict Dramatic Social Changes

19 Nov

Soviet specialists are often derided for their inability to see the coming collapse of the Soviet Union. But they were not unique. If you look around, social scientists have very little handle on many of the big social changes that have happened over the past 70 or so years.

  1. Dramatic decline in smoking. “The percentage of adults who smoke tobacco has declined from 42% in 1965 (the first year the CDC measured this), to 12.5% in 2020.” (see here.)
  2. Large infrastructure successes in a corrupt, divided developing nation. Over the last 20 or so years, India has pulled off Aadhar, UPI, FastPass, etc., dramatically increased the number of electrified villages, the number of people with access to toilets, the length of highways, etc. 
  3. Dramatic reductions in prejudice against Italians, the Irish, Asians, Women, African Americans, LGBT, etc. (see here, here, etc.)
  4. Dramatic decline in religion, e.g., church-going, etc., in the West.
  5. Dramatic decline in marriage. “According to the study, the marriage rate in 1970 was at 76.5%, and today, it stands at just over 31%.” (see here.)
  6. Obama or Trump. Not many would have given the odds of America electing a black president in 2006. Or electing Trump in 2016.

The list probably spans all the big social changes. How many would have bet on the success of China? Or for what matter Bangladesh, whose HDI are at par or ahead of its more established South Asian neighbors? Or the dramatic liberalization that is underway in Saudi Arabia? After all, the conventional argument before MBS was that the Saudi monarchy had made a deal with the mullahs and that any change would be met with a strong backlash.

All of that begs the question: why? One reason social scientists fail to predict dramatic social change may be because they think the present reflects the equilibrium. For instance, take racial attitudes. The theories about racial prejudice have mostly been defined by the idea that prejudice is irreducible. The second reason may be that most data that social scientists have is cross-sectional or collected over short periods and there isn’t much you can see (especially about change) from small portholes. The primary evidence they have is about lack of change when world looked over longer time spans is defined by astounding change on many dimensions. The third reason may be that social scientists suffer from negativity bias. They are focused on explaining what’s wrong with the world and interpreting data in ways that highlight conventional anxieties. This means that they end up interrogating progress (which is a fine endeavor) but spend too little time acknowledging and explaining real progress. Ideology also likely plays a role. For instance, few notice the long standing progressive racial bias in television; see here for a fun example of the interpretation gymnastics.

p.s. Often, social scientists not just fail to predict but struggle to explain what underlies the dramatic changes years later. Worse, social scientists do not seem to change their mental models based on the changes.

p.p.s. So what changes do I predict? I predict a dramatic decline in caste prejudice in India because of the following reasons: 1. dramatic generational turnover, 2. urbanization, 3. uninformative last names (outside of local context and excluding a maximum of 20% of the last names, e.g., last name ‘kumar’, which means ‘boy’, is exceedingly common, 4. high intra-group variance in physical features, 5. the preferred strategy for a prominent political party is to minimize intra-Hindu religious differences, 6. the current media + religious elites are mostly against caste prejudice. I also expect fairly rapid declines in prejudice against women (though far less steeper than caste) given some of the same reasons.