In his latest column, David Brooks examines the limits of data and “objective knowledge” in guiding or directing our imaginations when it comes to solving social problems.
Using teenage pregnancy as an example, he notes that although it may be of some use to get a sense on the general drivers of certain phenomena, such information is, in the end, “insufficient for anyone seeking deep understanding”:
Unlike minnows, human beings don’t exist just as members of groups. We all know people whose lives are breathtakingly unpredictable: a Mormon leader who came out of the closet and became a gay dad; an investment banker who became a nun; a child with a wandering anthropologist mom who became president.
We all slip into the general patterns of psychology and sociology sometimes, but we aren’t captured by them. People live and get pregnant one by one, and each life and each pregnancy has its own unlikely story. To move the next rung up the ladder of understanding you have to dive into the tangle of individual lives. You have to enter the realm of fiction, biography and journalism.
For the solution, he points to Augustine:
[Augustine] came to believe that it take selfless love to truly know another person. Love is a form of knowing and being known. Affection motivates you to want to see everything about another. Empathy opens you up to absorb the good and the bad. Love impels you not just to observe, but to seek union — to think as another thinks and feel as another feels.
There is a tendency now, especially for those of us in the more affluent classes, to want to use education to make life more predictable, to seek control as the essential good, to emphasize data that masks the remorseless unpredictability of individual lives. But people engaged in direct contact with problems like teenage pregnancy are cured of those linear illusions. Those of us who work with data and for newspapers probably should be continually reminding ourselves to bow down before the knowledge of participation, to defer to the highest form of understanding, which is held by those who walk alongside others every day, who know the first names, who know the smells and fears.
There are plenty of areas to which we might apply such wisdom, from something as gritty as teenage pregnancy to something as seemingly dull and detached as tax cuts. As Thomas Sowell routinely points out, educated elites, social engineers, and economic planners have a demonstrated tendency to run over these particularities with the steamroller of policy, inadvertently destroying the very mechanisms and institutions through which we actually encounter, empathize with, and contribute to the stories of others.
People are not pawns, political or otherwise, so although we ought to have our fingers on certain trends and understand any broader systemic forces, in the end, solutions are best discovered and implemented when the personal is prioritized, from the bottom to the top and back again.
From our engagement with our next-door neighbors all the way up to our influence on the levers of political power, Brooks’ words encourage a humility that’s well needed and (whether he knows it or not) make a case for economic liberty that’s not made often enough.