Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Future is Slippery

This week I had another variation on a conversation I have at least once a month.  It goes like this:

Me: What if we try x?

Interlocutor: So you’re saying we’ll do x forever?

Me: No, but what if we try it for a while?

Int: How long?

Me: Long enough to know if it works.  And if it does, then we could do 2x.

Int: So we’re doing 2x in two years?  Three years?

Me: We’ll have to see.  Waddaya think?

Int: What about ripple effects one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven?  Could you write up a comprehensive proposal that we could share with five different committees?  And we’ll have to get some statistics.  And of course (Person Y) will hate the idea; I’d hate to deal with that.  It could be a real hairball.  Maybe you shouldn’t.


Some of that is simple prudence; any question that starts with “what if” invites a certain amount of “what about.”  But it’s easy for defeatism or paralytic fear to pass as conscientiousness.  The form I’ve run into the most frequently -- or that bothers me the most, I’m not sure -- is the demand for false precision projecting years into the future.  That kind of request is supposed to reflect rigor, but it really rewards confident guessing; if I were to postulate the exact number of students in a given program five years from now, I’d be bluffing.  There are just too many variables for that.  In October I honestly thought Hillary Clinton would win the election.  Predictions are hard.

At the base of that kind of need for immediate and unshakable certainty, I think, is fear.  It’s an attempt to nail down every variable right away, to convey a sense of control.  But any honest account has to admit that the future is slippery.  It defeats control.  That’s especially true for projects that are about people, rather than things.  

In grad school, I was trained to spot flaws in very detailed and sophisticated arguments.  In my teaching days, I graded papers in a similar spirit, at least at first.  (It took some time to adjust.)  My colleagues and I got to be pretty good at spotting leaps in arguments, shaky evidence, or unexamined premises.  That last one is still one of my favorite moves.

In administration, though, if you want to get anything done, you have to make peace with the idea of making decisions with partial and ambiguous information.  If you wait for publication-quality evidence, you will wait until the point is moot.  Part of that is because future data is inaccessible, by definition; anyone who remembers their David Hume can tell you that basing future decisions on past data is inductive reasoning and therefore uncertain.  Sometimes trendlines change direction.  If I knew for certain which way the stock market would go, I’d invest accordingly.  Some changes are obvious, but their effects are unknowable.  Next week at this time the country will have a new President, and next year at this time my state will have a new governor.  I don’t know what the combined effects will be, though I assume there will be some.

I can’t project out every ripple effect of a proposal for five years.  Nobody can.  The hard part is acknowledging that and acting anyway.