I have a hard time debating and arguing with friends about how to think about society. A large reason why is because, at best, I often find myself making the argument of, “well, maybe?” Politics is a never ending attempt to answer the question of who gets what and when. We have scarce resources like money, roads and infrastructure, and influence and fame. These things are distributed across individuals with deliberate decisions and sometimes seemingly by random chance. Occasionally we step in to try to change these allocations, to provide greater rewards and incentives for those who pursue certain resources and goals over others, and punish those who deviate from courses we find appropriate. But figuring out how people will react to any given decision and figuring out which levers will lead to which outcomes is nearly impossible. I almost always find myself unsure exactly that the changes people advocate for will really have the desired impact or that the problem they identify is really caused by the root cause they suggest. I often find myself saying, “well, maybe” but having a hard time convincing others that their thoughts should be less certain.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker discusses the complexities of society when writing about how hard it is to identify a single factor that has lead people to become less violent over time. Especially in WEIRD societies, there is a lot of evidence to demonstrate that people are less violent today than they used to be, but it is hard to point to a single (or even a few) key factor and explain how it (they) reduced human violence. As Pinker writes, “a society is an organic system that develops spontaneously, governed by myriad interactions and adjustments that no human mind can pretend to understand.”
The best social science experiments that we can develop and the best models from social science only manager to explain about 40% of the variance that we observe across societies. We cannot singularly point to racism, inequality, or the percent of high school graduates and understand a given social outcome. We can see correlations, but rarely do we see a correlation that explains anywhere close to 50% of the differences we observe between desired and undesired social outcomes. We are unable to point to a given factor (or even a handful of given factors) and confidently say that we have identified the most important or the clear driving factor(s) that determine(s) whether someone is a success or a failure, whether a society is peacefully democratic or violently autocratic, or whether a society’s economy will boom or bust.
This is why I am so frequently stuck with, “well, maybe,” as a response to so man of my friend’s arguments. When a friend or family member is convinced that people need to change one thing in order to make the world a better place I remember that the best social science models explain less than half the variance. So pointing to a single factor and claiming that the world would be dramatically better if we changed that factor doesn’t feel convincing to me. Maybe it would have an impact, but maybe it wouldn’t. The complexities of society prevent us from ever being certain that a single change or a single decision will ever have the intended outcome we expect or hope for.