Now that a group of Nobel laureates has badgered Ronald Reagan into disavowing faith in astrology and fortune telling, these intellectual triggermen ought to take on other superstitious rituals of our time -- such as public-opinion polling, economic forecasting and cost-benefit analysis.
Though these techniques are about level with the daily horoscope in predictive power, they have been deified to the point where their claimed visions of the future have an immediate impact on the present. Thus, the League of Women Voters has deputized the major opinion polls to certify whether John Anderson's candidacy is sufficiently "viable" to warrant his inclusion in the presidential debates.
Overlooked in this process is that polling remains a coarse device for predicting election results, as evidenced by the pollsters' limited warranty: we're just telling you what the respondents said that day. But more important than that, elections are the constitutional instrument for determining viability; the add-on of the polls only brings confusion and mischief-making opportunities to a simple and proven process.
While polling and other forecasting and analytical techniques have been embraced by politics and government as manifestations of science to the rescue, what's often ignored is that many serious scholars in and around these fields are extremely reserved about the fortune-telling powers of the social sciences.
Not often talked about in public is the door-slamming syndrome, which has spread to so great an extent that opinion surveyors find increasing difficulty in assessing just how representative the willing respondents actually are. The problem, in fact, is so serious for the craft of surveying that the Committee on National Statistics at the National Academy of Sciences two years ago set up a Panel of Incomplete Data to examine the non-response boom. One specialist close to the study, which is nearly completed, says non-response to government surveys has doubled in recent years, though it still remains low; the problem for commercial pollsters was described as "gone wild."
Another of the social sciences' warmly received gifts to government, cost-benefit analysis, was recently examined by Congress' own "think tank," the Office of Technology Assessment, to evaluate the increasing application of this widely used technique to health-care planning and decisions. After looking at various efforts to identify costs versus results in drug regulation, hospital planning, surgery and other fields of medicine, OTA concluded that cost-benefit analysis and similar techniques, though useful in some circumstances, are intellectually weak tools for making health-care decisions. Their potential "to contribute significantly to cost containment and improved resource allocation," OTA stated, "seems to be an article of faith to many officals and health-policy experts, but both the potential significance and nature of any contributions of these techniques remain to be established."
And then there's economics, which, though demonstrably the most failed of scholarly disciplines when it comes to seeing ahead, nevertheless finds its repeatedly erroneous forecasts treated with piety. Within the profession, however, concern about reliability extends not merely to telling what's going to happen, but also to the techniques for cataloging the past and present.
For example, a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, "Technical Change and Economic Policy," repeats the lament that techniques for measuring price increases fail to take account of improvements in goods and services. The report observes that a doctor today "can be vastly more effective than in earlier years." Nonetheless, "this is reflected in the productivity growth statistics only by an increase in the value of the equipment he works with and the pharmaceuticals he prescribes."
The authors of the report -- 15 academics, government officials and industrial executives from the United States and Western Europe -- plaintively state: "We are not denying that inflation is a serious problem in the OECD countries. We ask consideration, however, of the possibility that our instruments for measuring the problem may magnify it."
In view of all this, it is difficult to see why the Nobel savants are concerned about the prospect of a president who puts faith in astrology. Looking at today's horoscope reading for Aquarius Reagan, I find it makes sense, in light of his recent campaign stumbles and his November goal: "Try to please your associates more and they will do likewise toward you. Take positive steps to gain your aims."