Oracles: Then and Now

Enjoying Dan Carlin’s recent “King of Kings” series and just reached a discussion of the Oracles at Delphi.

Carlin was remarking on the Greeks consulting with the Oracle of Delphi in the face of the Persian invasion, and notes, “…how weird it was to have [mysticism, Magic 8 Balls, ouija boards and the like] be so connected to things like policy decisions… You know it’s crazy to the modern mind.”

“Crazy?” I wondered, “Really?”

Do we not actually understand this? Is it “crazy” or incomprehensible? How often do we in modern times consult the “oracles” of the academy or economics or policy think tanks. Seers and prognosticators of public “science” whose methods and motivations are unknown to us, but on who we lean to justify our beliefs and actions. “Science says”, we proclaim. Or “This economist I like supports this policy, so I will too.”

Is the policymaker or academic who buries their ideological bent in the arcane language of specialty research fields really that different from the oracle who buried her or her handler’s desired positions in the language and trappings of mysticism and ritual?

My answer, is certainly “Yes.” I’m not claiming there is nothing different between the oracles of old and the seers of today. But the main difference is not in our behavior or knowledge or understanding as Carlin claims. The difference is not that we treat them differently than the oracles in Carlin’s story. The difference is that their methods are theoretically knowable.

However, while knowable, they are most often actually unknown. We do not test their models, we do not hold them accountable for the failure of their models, we do not ask for replication, we do not insist on re-evaluation and re-consideration, we do not insist on open books in their research record, we often do not even insist on a clear logical train from evidence to conclusions.

Is it possible that we can just trust them? Probably more often than not, but over the past several years as I’ve delved more into the details of the methods and evidence of public science and analysis (academic and government), quite often I have found the emperor has no clothes. Shockingly often in fact. While we have these powerful tools for evaluating our circumstances and the weight of ever more detailed historic evidence on which to bring them to bear, it is unfortunately common for the pronouncements of “authorities” to be little better than the oracles and seers which Carlin dismisses as relics of an older unenlightened age.

I would challenge people to spend more of their time with solid academic results, however I would remind you to engage with caution, and humility, and a healthy skepticism. We know much less than we claim to know.

FA Hayek once wrote, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little the really know about what the imagine they can design.” What an amazing world we would live in if economics, and the physical and social sciences in general, were used to temper our impositions on each other and slow the hand of force, versus used to produce contorted justifications for ever greater manipulations of our lives and relationships.

So please, before you post on Facebook that next government agency or university study that supports your priors, ask yourself, “Did I spend any time to understand this research and why it’s reliable, including credible criticism and possible problems… or am I simply returning from the mountain with divinations after consulting a 21st Century oracle?”

We will all get far more from your posts and sharing if you add in a healthy dose of perspective and inquiry.