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David Brooks, Epiphanies, and Social Science

- June 29, 2010

David Brooks has a rather curious op-ed in today’s New York Times that draws public policy lessons from the success of Alcoholics Anonymous. The op-ed starts off with a description of the AA’s founder who managed to shrug off his alcohol addiction after an epiphany in which a “white light suffused his room and the presence of God appeared.” Brooks argues that the A.A.’ success has two important public policy implications. The first is that most attempts to design programs to change behavior fail most of the time. The second is that:

[..] we should get over the notion that we will someday crack the behavior code — that we will someday find a scientific method that will allow us to predict behavior and design reliable social programs. [..]There is simply no way for social scientists to reduce this kind of complexity into equations and formula that can be replicated one place after another.

Yet, Brooks says this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t design program that attempt to change behavior:

Nonetheless, we don’t have to be fatalistic about things. It is possible to design programs that will help some people some of the time. A.A. embodies some shrewd insights into human psychology.

So, it seems like Brooks thinks that A.A. has cracked some of the behavior code and that the problem is science. As he concludes:

A.A. illustrates that even in an age of scientific advance, it is still ancient insights into human nature that work best. Wilson built a remarkable organization on a nighttime spiritual epiphany.

I don’t really know where to begin on this one. I have to admit that I am not a regular op-ed reader so I am not sure if this is part of a general dislike or distrust Brooks has towards (social) sciences. “Scientists and their equations” are always an easy target for ridicule (but so are epiphanies). Some of it seems to be based on a misplaced idea that scientists design “precision-guided missiles” that they believe work all the time on all people. This is almost never the starting point of social-science based interventions into public policy. I guess the implication is that we should do less research and pray more (although it is not entirely clear what details God communicated that helped Wilson build his organization). Or maybe we should rely more on “ancient insights?” I can pick a few ancient insights into humanity that Brooks wouldn’t be too pleased about. Anyway, I thought that the Enlightenment had taken care of all this but I guess I am wrong.