Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Theories that make no predictions

It’s interesting to look at three subjects (ie sets of facts and theories) that don’t seem to make predictions – and certainly give little thought to either predictions or testing. They are Theology, critical theory and business studies.

Analysis shows surprising parallels between them.


Theology does not seem to make predictions. Most theology is aligned with a single major religion, or even a denomination or sect, though some ideas are shared. Theology has existed as a discipline for at least 1,500 years and has shown some evolution. However it doesn’t seem to show much progress.

Theology has three fundamental problems:

· There’s doubt as to whether its subject matter – God – actually exists. Even saints and eminent churchmen have expressed doubts on this matter (though not usually in public).

· There’s no agreement as to how theological ideas are to be tested. Ideas may be tested against holy books (but which?), or tradition (which?) or personal revelation (whose?). Without this agreement progress is probably impossible.

· The views of scholars can be overruled by the official utterances of religious leaders.

Theology is thus the projection of religious feelings into the realm of reason and morals. There seems no reason to expect that such feelings will be good guides to the nature of reality and thus it should not be judged by its ability to produce predictions.

How it should be judged is another matter – and not one to which I have an answer. However, unless theologians can produce an answer it seems difficult to see why anyone should pay it any attention.

Critical theory

Critical theory is a collection of theories used by scholars in the humanities. These theories include Marxism, psycho-analysis and post-structuralism. An introduction to critical theory will mention several dozen theories. It’s immediately clear to an interested outsider that this isn’t at root a quest for truth in the sense that the sciences are. For while science has many controversies – and occasional feuds – these eventually get resolved with the successful theories being consolidated into the larger body of science. This hardly happens in critical theory – though some theories have become unfashionable.

If critical theory is not a quest for truth what is it? Critical theory is, I believe, a form of politics. Its theories reflect, often explicitly, political movements in society. They are the projection of those movements and issues into the analysis of cultural products such as books, films and clothes. Now to the degree that this analysis is right it should not be judged by its ability to produce predictions but by its ability to produce social change. That’s not a judgement that I shall attempt here.

Business studies

I use the term business studies to cover research and analysis published by business schools and management consultancies. There is a great deal of such material and the quality varies greatly.

· Some is rigorously empirical. It treats businesses as phenomena whose behaviour can be studied. This can lead to predictions. The results of testing such predictions are reported VERY occasionally.

· Some of this material is usefully analytical. That is, it dissects a significant business problem in order to identify threats, opportunities and constraints. It can be useful to managers without making predictions.

· Much, however, is weak. It takes a small number of examples – often selected on no clear basis – and draws conclusions that seem largely subjective.

As with theology and critical theory there’s plenty of change but little clear progress. There’s little evidence of an accumulation of agreed facts and theories and little referencing of the work of others. Often the same ideas appear at different times under different names.

Furthermore, names are often used by consultancies and research houses as sub-brands and there are real material rewards for consultants and analysts who create names that are adopted by the market. Thus the published material often reflects the competition between business schools, for students, and between consultancies, for clients. (Such competition is not absent in theology and critical theory but it is more marked here.)

If business studies is judged by the volume of valid predictions it performs poorly but many analysts and consultants would say that that is not its main purpose. Its purpose, they would say, is to recommend actions. How, then, should such recommendations be judged?

It is possible – medicine has the same purpose. Recommendations should be judged by their outcomes. This, however, is typically very difficult. The number of companies adopting any given recommendation may be small – and they may be taking other initiatives in parallel. And they may well treat all their initiatives as confidential.

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