I recommended this podcast in which Jmes Manzi argued that the confidence we have in social science predictions depends upon the ability of the “scientist” to make accurate predictions about the future that are non-obvious and can be repeated.
One phenomenon he discusses is the way people react in economics if their predictions go wrong. Manzi said that, before the the $820 stimulus was passed, he said he didn’t know whether it would work — but he did know that its supporters would say it worked regardless of the data:
[At the time I said:] I don’t believe any of the folks making these confident assertions really know what the effect will be. And the only prediction I’ll make is this: I’ll predict that, in early 2011, you know, professor, famous economist X said: unemployment will be about x%, say 10 percentage points without the bill and 8% with the bill. When it gets to be 2011, if unemployment is 10%, here’s what that professor is going to say: You know, conditions were worse than we thought they were; so without the bill unemployment would have been 12%, not 10%. Now unemployment is 10%. See, I was right all along; it lowered it by 2 points. And that’s exactly what happened, of course. That’s exactly what the economist said. And it has nothing to do with Democrats versus Republicans, by the way. If John McCain had been President, it would have been Republican advisors, too. And what I said is you cannot know the counterfactual reliably.
The other thing stimulus supporters say is: it would have worked better if it had been bigger.
In other words: if the data don’t prove your policy successful, you always say the situation was worse than you had realized, and the cure should have been more extreme.
This takes place in politics as well. If your candidate loses, one side will say it was because he wasn’t moderate enough, and he frightened off undecideds. The other side will say it was because he wasn’t principled/hardline enough, and he lost the base.
Each side will always draw the lessons they want to draw, and a plausible case can generally be made. But generalizing from specific instances is well-nigh impossible. Moderate candidate x might do great while moderate candidate y tanks; hardline candidate a might wow the electorate while hardline candidate b loses them. If winning elections were always about providing candidates closer or further from the center, winning elections would be easy.
In the economic context, our inability to predict the future with perfect accuracy leads people like me to believe we should have less government involvement, because it is often hubris to believe your particular intervention will have the desired effect on the economy. Far better to leave decisions to the collective expertise of society, which in the aggregate knows far more than any set of people in a room in Washington D.C., no matter how smart and well-informed they may be.
In the context of politics, our inability to predict the future leads people like me to suggest that candidates simply advocate what they believe. (Shocking suggestion, I know.) If you can’t be sure how to manipulate people, how about not trying to manipulate them at all?
And maybe — just maybe — your sincerity will actually win them over. Even if not, at least you don’t have to remember what your positions are supposed to be. You can just remember what they actually are.