A Child-like Faith in a Freakonomics World
I want you to imagine a beautiful building. Inside, chubby young data analysts lecture sixty year old baseball executives on drafting strategy. Homeless people are invited to come in for a meal, but before receiving food they are given a twenty-question survey by a grave old economist. Nooks and crannies in the aesthetically pleasing walls have displays (shrines?) about things like the iPad and Excel 2010. The bulletin advertises the upcoming TED talks, the sermon is delivered by a skinny Canadian with a giant afro, and tucked under every seat is a copy of The Wealth of Nations.
My question for you is this; are you in a club or a church?
For me, it began with Moneyball and this simple idea: If you isolate, measure, and value the key characteristics of a baseball player, you can determine relative value and in so doing build a better baseball team. And this applies to other stuff in life as well. As a guy who grew up memorizing backs of baseball cards, it was a revolutionary concept.
For you, maybe it was The Tipping Point, or perhaps Freakonomics. Whichever it was, you and I are being swept up by the collective cultural love affair with measuring, understanding, proving, predicting, and otherwise manipulating the unseen forces that drive our world.
Thirty years ago, it was more difficult to find meaningful, popular books on provable underlying trends. Now they are commonplace. Moneyball forever changed baseball, leading to massive changes in statistics, player evaluation, and team building. The Tipping Point changed our understanding of large-scale cultural phenomena, altering perspectives on advertising, education, psychology, and a variety of other social structures. Freakonomics forced us to see beauty in the underlying logic and principles of systems we had not seen in the past. Together, these books and the movements they spawned have created a popular love affair with knowing the numbers.
I confess to being a near-junkie at this point. I consume Baseball Prospectus and Football Outsiders, Gladwell’s columns and Freakonomics radio. I watch every TED talk I possibly can. I buy and read books like The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Why We Make Mistakes, Stumbling on Happiness, The Black Swan, and Outliers. I search out essays on obscure topics like choice architecture, organizational theory, and data-driven business decisions. I’m a hopeless geek.
To see these changes in our world at a popular culture level is heady stuff, because you cannot help but envision a world like that of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series: A world in which our understanding of math, data, underlying trends, and actuarial concepts is so advanced that we can actually predict (and thereby influence) the basic course and trend of history. Isn’t it exciting to think simple changes to basic structures can lead to better athletes, top-notch education, increased health, and more money for all? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a bunch of data geeks could prevent wars, predict catastrophes, prevent the downfall of nations, or eliminate poverty?
See, the Invisible Hand movement (or whatever you want to call it) is based around a single notion: Nearly everything can be understood, and nearly anything that is understood can be controlled.
This means, then, the pursuit of knowledge also becomes inherently meaningful, because knowledge is power. Further, once obtained, the power of knowledge can be wielded. The more success we have using our knowledge to create a better world, the more confidence we have in greater and greater heights of knowledge, power, and societal health in the world. Why, we could eliminate AIDS and poverty, have zero impact on the environment, get rid of governmental corruption, and prevent major disasters! We could influence all the generations of Earth to come! Let’s make a name for ourselves!
Here’s the problem. We’ve tried this before.
In Genesis 11, the people of the Earth come together in defiance of God’s revealed will. Bucking his authority, they try to build a tower into the heavens that will centralize and stabilize them as a people, preventing dispersion and acting as a stepping stone to godhood. They, too, sought to make a name for themselves. Their venture ended poorly.
Today, many go beyond mere joy and appreciation of how science and data and research can help us make a better world. They come to believe that those things are or can one day become unapproachable, inerrant tools, and that those who wield them best are nigh unto gods themselves.
Rather than looking to a physical building, they believe scientific principles will eliminate our differences, release our innocent souls from the bondage of flawed societal institutions, and help us rise to great new heights of power and control over the world. They are placing themselves on the throne of creation.
They wouldn’t say it that way, of course. They will say (and truly believe) they are fighting suffering and poverty, strengthening education or financial markets, and yes, improving your local baseball team. And they are doing those things.
However, when God set mankind over his creation, the role had two components. Rule over creation, but submit to God. In our world, there is much excitement over our recent capacity for control through measurement and understanding. But when it comes to the concept of submission to a higher authority, we are once again failures.
Remember our building from the beginning of this article? It is a place of change in our culture; a place where power is in the hands of those who research and understand the math and data behind everyday trends, such as building a baseball team or dealing with homelessness. Their capacity to understand and even change the world is amazing.
Some of us go there to enjoy, to expand our minds, to find new solutions to problems, and to just generally be amazed at trends we never experienced before. That’s a great thing, and I want to commend it to you. After all, the more we know about God’s world, the more we can participate in making it better for the sake of His Name. And it really is fun to learn, say, how a superimposed picture of a fly can drastically improve cleaning costs in public restrooms!
But some of us go there to worship. We are initially hooked by the fascination at a new way of seeing the world, but pretty soon we think the tools supersede all the other tools God has given us; tools such as compassion, leadership, art or wisdom. And once we’ve given the tools such a high standing in our minds, our ability (or someone else’s) to manipulate the tools becomes godlike in its strength and standing, and we begin to believe that the problems in our world are not because of sin and corruption, but because of bad data and misunderstood trends. We think the solution is a stack of surveys and an excel spreadsheet. And when someone says, “You need to ask God to help you with your depression and job situation,” we say, “actually the statistics say I need to switch to a different industry, exercise more, and avoid heavy foods.” God is easily forgotten.
That’s why I ask you; is the Invisible Hand movement a club you join and enjoy, or a church at which you worship? Is your appreciation for understanding a way to carry out God’s commands, or has your love of the possibilities subtly influenced you to think we can take the place of God? Is human knowledge a gift from the source of all knowledge, or is it a towering monument to our own strength?
In my life, this problematic tension means I need to remind myself of my sin and weakness. It means I need to balance books about the forces underlying everything with books about the God who designed and created and organized those forces. It means attributing the wonders of possibility to the glory of the Master of the Universe. And it means constantly being sensitive to anything that reminds me of this science-defeating fact; I am one small pilgrim in this world, and my hope is in Christ alone.
Wow, Ben, that’s interesting. I never thought that it was a personal attempt at trying to control the unknown. It makes me rethink how my faith and the literature combine.
In general, though, are you warning against reading too much of this kind of a book, or are you saying that in general, this material is unhelpful? I think that obviously, when a thing is taken to the extremes, it becomes harmful. But is it the same here? Do you think there is a point of balance?
Hey Chris, thanks for the helpful questions.
The quick answer is: neither. I think my real goal was a more general awareness of the sinfulness of our own hearts, and how this particularly exciting and interesting aspect of our culture has a special ability to access certain areas of sin.
The point of the Tower of Babel (or, if you like, Nebuchadnezzar) parallel is that our exploding ability to measure and analyze (and write well about) our world and thereby achieve great things can also exploit our tendency to see ourselves as the masters of our own fates and the gods of our own little worlds.
A key point of the Christian life is to live in submission to a higher authority. When we allow arrogance in humanity’s achievements to dictate how we relate to God, we destroy a correct understanding of his place in our lives.
So don’t get me wrong… I continue to be a huge geek in this area. I love learning about it, reading about it, and even trying to put the things I learn into practice. But it is important that I keep reminding myself that I am learning about God’s world and that he is and always will be Master over all of it. I think that keeps me in the right balance of enjoyment of God’s world in all its complexity, while still giving him his rightful place on the throne of the world and of my life.
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