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06 June 2016

Sociology and the Crystal Ball

Sociologists generally don't like to make predictions. I just read a piece where Peter Berger, the prominent sociologist of religion, says that "prediction is very dangerous." (He was specifically talking about James Davison Hunter's prediction in Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation [1987] that Evangelicalism would be in decline within a generation.) It seems to me that this is very bad practice.

First, if we are not making predictions, we are merely giving descriptions. This is fine and necessary, but it does not allow for adequate explanation of social reality.

Second, sociologists seem largely leery of prediction-making because they could be wrong; the danger is that in getting things wrong, as will occassionally happen, one--or even the entire field--will be dismissed. Falsification, though, is central to science. By making predictions, we set up a test for our empirically informed theory. If we get it wrong, we reconsider and modify the theory. Without the prediction, we are never wrong, but we also never move forward.

Specifically, I happen to disagree with Berger about Hunter's prediction about Evangelicalism. I think that we are starting to see hints of evidence toward a decline, or denominationalization.

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