Monday, August 24, 2009

A little less conversation, a little more science please

Last time I visited my parents, I was browsing through their magazines and happened to read a particularly upsetting commentary in "Stern," one of the three large weekly German magazines. Since I was sitting in front of my laptop anyway, I wrote a letter to the editor which indeed got published.

Since my letter picked up a theme we've been discussing on this blog many times, the status of modern democracies and the future of politics, I thought I'll post a translation. The article I was replying to is here, (English via Google translate). It is one of the weekly appearing commentaries titled "Zwischenruf," which means roughly an interjection by the audience, written by Hans-Ulrich Jörges. He was addressing the ailing status of our democracies and the increasing frustration of citizens. The cure, he wrote, would be more grassroots democracy.

If you have read some of my posts you know why I couldn't let this uncommented. I've said a great many times that grassroots democracy works well only for a very limited amount of problems. Those in which there are clear and simple questions of large interest for the electorate, and the average person is able to make a qualified decision. Few questions in politics are of that sort, and few people have the time and the interest to deal with the cumbersome details of day to day politics. There are good reasons why we have representative democracies, none of which seems to have occurred to the author of that piece. But what annoyed me much more was that he didn't bother to back up his opinion with any sort of argument or evidence. All together, it was a completely useless ramble that wouldn't even have made a good blog post. If that's the hight of intellectual commentaries German magazines can provide, then poor Germany.

In any case, here's the letter. For whatever reason they dropped the first sentence in the print version.

"Hans-Ulrich Jörges addresses an important issue but draws the wrong conclusions. The decay of democracy and the incapacitation of the people is not a typically German phenomenon, but can be observed in an increasing number of modern democracies. It is a consequence of the inappropriateness of our political systems for increasingly complex tasks. Calling for more grassroots democracy is simple, but not a solution. What we need instead is a scientific, non-ideological, debate about how we can update our political systems to the status of the 21st century. We need less interjected opinions and more scientific studies examining how our political systems can be made more efficient and less frustrating."


What we need, in short, is thus something like the Lightcone Institute :-)

36 comments:

Uncle Al said...

Compare post-WWII trajectories of East and West Germanies. The only initial difference was governance. The 21st century is a trumph of centrally-administered socialism displacing personal responsibility, process (statutary law) replacing product (common law). The Church is winning not by impressing its dogma but by inculcating its methods.

When buying and selling are regulated, the first things to be bought and sold are the regulators.

Geri said...

Do not confuse grassroot democracy with direct democracy. I am pretty sure the former would improve the lack of interest in politics, wich he bases on turnouts -- as scientific as politics can be done. My evidence would be the presidential elections in the USA. Oh, I am not telling this is the way to go. But the way they interviewed the new judge Sonia Sotomayor in public is a lot better than those huge campaigns ...

Besides when a single election changes the tone in world politics this is not really a sign for an optimal, stable solution (I am still hoping there is one). This time we might have been lucky, but trouble is waiting behind every bush ...

But basically I am with you -- direct democracy or change will not be enough, all tried systems failed. I just wonder what it takes humanity to notice this :-)

Bee said...

Geri: The German word is "Basisdemokratie," I took the translation from a dictionary. It is possible I confused terms. The point I was trying to make however is exactly that the problem isn't solved simply increasing the interest in politics in a superficial media-oriented way, eg if that happens in such a ridiculous form like the presidential campaigns in the USA. That's curing the symptoms, not the disease.

Zephir said...

/*..what we need instead is a scientific, non-ideological, debate..*/
It's not very surprising, when theoretical physicist proposes a "scientific" solution of problems, while regional politic calls for more politic at comunal level. Every profession is advocating its approach - I'd even call it conventional from this perspective...;-)

But frankly, I'm not quite sure, scientists itself are prepared for such discussion. Especially when theoretical physicists proposing in debate about completelly practical problem their poorly conditioned, vague solutions on backgroud on half-baked theories.

It becomed quite clear in recent disussion about photon from GRB090510. Now it's clear, neither DSR/DSR2 theory, neither LQG in their present state can explain the behavior of remote gamma rays in reproducible way. Such situation indeed makes theoretical physics incompetent in further discussion about it immediatelly. Whereas simple, clear and logical explanations based on physical analogies are called "babbling" repeatedly.

Well, this is problem. Theorists should realize, they simply cannot compete phenomenological explanation of reality based on analogies and their ideas about what is still science and what it's not are simply wrong. They're navigating in fuzzy landscape of possible solutions with mathematical exactness - which is carefull and undoubtebly respectable approach. But this strictly local approach disables them to follow more vague, but large scale gradients following from proposal of solutions, which are based on simple, but very robust phenomenological logics.

Scientists cannot compete democracy and vox populi, until they remain so high minded about their formal theories. I strongly believe, physics is mathematical science. But in formal math every theorem must be grounded in robust predicate logics of formal proof. So even in physics robust phenomenological logics always comes first - just at the moment, when such boolean logics is working well at all situations, which such logics can handle, we can derive more complex and predictive models by using it.

Giotis said...

Taking the efficiency issue aside for a while, I think you forget that it is absolutely essential for a person to participate in the decision making processes which influence his life. A human being must in principle be able to determine the world he wants to live in because he is born free. This is a core ethical issue above all. In practice though and due to the complexity of our world this is often impossible and the person is forced to live in a world where the decisions are taken by abstract entities and bureaucratic mechanisms that he does not control. Our current democracy -although incomplete and a compromise- is our last refuge. It gives us at least in principle the right to decide for our own lives.

Now you say that science should take all the important decisions and determine how our societies should be organized. Even if this is more efficient, it is not right. Such a prospect would only dehumanise more our societies.

To put it schematically, I prefer to suffer by my own mistakes than to live in a world optimised by some computer program. This is what it means to be a free man.

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

You have completely misunderstood me, which saddens me considerably because I know you are a frequent reader. I am a strong believer in democracy and what I want is that the decisive power is in the hands of the people. Unfortunately, this is not presently the case. Our democracies are mostly (not entirely) just a farce to keep people quiet. I do not want decisions to be taken over by science. I want there to be scientific studies to figure out which is a good way to set up a political system people's decisions are found and followed up upon in the best way. That does not mean it should be mandatory to follow such studies, but at least they would give us a basis for argumentation. I do not want some Hans-Ulrich to babble around what he thinks might be a good thing to do, and neither do I want an uninformed (and easily influencable) electorate to say jay or ney without having any basis, there are limits to what trial and error can achieve. I have made this distinction between replacing decisions with scientific reasoning (which I do not think is either useful or doable) and having a scientific basis to design a system in which decisions can be made very clearly here. Best,

B.

Arun said...

In other words, Bee, you're seeking better decision-guiding frameworks within democracy; and with "better" being decided and measured by as rigorous a methodology as is humanly possible?

Giotis said...

Sorry Bee. To tell you the truth although I read you frequently I'm sometimes confused about your beliefs in certain issues. But this is completely my problem and it has nothing to do with you.

As for the set-up of the political system that you talked about, don't you think that such a system is the outcome of a dynamical process driven by a variety of historical, social and other complex factors and thus it cannot be easily shaped?

Zephir said...

/*..I want there to be scientific studies to figure out which is a good way to set up a political system...*/
In Philip E. Tetlock's opinion experts are always wrong, just because they're trained in biased formal thinking. And he's even right, being expert in it....;-)

http://money.cnn.com/2009/02/17/pf/experts_Tetlock.moneymag/index.htm

Try to imagine, how people, who are trained to develop single theory for their whole life and they're brilliant in formal biased thinking (like Lubos Motl) are advising the others in questions of practical politics, which requires compromises in each step of decision. This is simply ridiculous idea.

In my opinion scientists are even less competent to decide general questions (where no formal models are developed so far), then the average people due their specific way of thinking.

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

I'm not really sure what you mean with 'decision-guiding framework,' what I mean is a political system (structure, institutions, voting procedures, etc). Some ways to organize it are more, others less useful, and yes there are scientific means to find out. In fact, people have studied these questions since more than 100 years (some of it is part of economics, and this part has received considerable more attention). It's about time this knowledge gets integrated. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Zephir,

Would you be so nice to tell me exactly what you think is ridiculous? Yes indeed, politics requires compromise, don't you think some of the ridiculously incompetent people you are talking about have had that thought before? Had you ever opened a book on institutional design, social emergence, political theory, social intelligence, or public choice you might maybe understand how I would like to see the knowledge that has been accumulated in these fields to be taken more seriously. Because we could all profit from it dramatically. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

don't you think that such a system is the outcome of a dynamical process driven by a variety of historical, social and other complex factors and thus it cannot be easily shaped?

Sure, and science is part of our history and part of the process. You can compare what I am saying to building houses. People have build houses since thousands of years. I suppose a lot of constructions have crashed down, and many people got injured. They have probably learned a lot through trial and error and developed some procedures, etc. Four hundred years ago, we've had a scientific revolution in the natural sciences. The knowledge in these fields is now actively integrated into architecture and construction technics, as well as into the elements of construction and design. All this has made housing dramatically more efficient, better suited to our needs, and considerably safer. If you took some people who lived 500 years ago and showed them what modern architechture looks like, they probably would tell you it looks impossible (I sometimes think it looks impossible!). I want the construction of the systems that govern our lives to benefit from the knowledge in the social sciences in the same way that housing has benefited from progress in the natural science. I am taking about applications, I am talking about procedures, I am not talking about dictating people what to build or what to like, but telling them what works and what wont, what will crash and what will prevail. Best,

B.

Zephir said...

/*..tell me exactly what you think is ridiculous..*/
I've read many such books, in fact. Try to open some book of Phill Tetlock's (Expert Political Judgment) or Jim Surowiecki (The Wisdom of Crowds) instead - you'll see, every approach (including technocracy) has two sides.

Zephir said...

/*..we could all profit from it dramatically..*/
Do you have some practical proposal in mind?

Giotis said...

Hi Bee,

What you are describing sounds like political engineering (a field of political sciences) but it seems that you want to interconnect it with a number of other scientific disciplines.

If it was an autonomous academic discipline how you would call it?

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

Yes, that's correct. It's a good question, I haven't thought about what a good name would be. I would want it to express clearly that it's about practical applications rather than theory. Do you have any suggestions? Best,

B.

Arun said...

Lightconology :)

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

The advances in the social sciences are nowhere near our improved knowledge of mechanics and materials. Not even in the same galaxy. That is why engineering practice has improved so much, but not political practice.

If we incorporate all we know from the social sciences, the political system will still be recognizable by an 18th century person.

-Arun

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

That is true. But one of the main reasons why this knowledge hasn't improved much is that understanding social systems requires obtaining and dealing with huge amounts of data. This has simply been unfeasible until recently. It might very well be it will take more time to put this knowledge on a more solid base and into useful forms, but I am certain this is what the future will bring. You can already see it beginning. It happens increasingly more often that governments, organizations and companies ask for models estimating what effect a possible action would have. In fact, it is quite commonly used if you think about how advertisement and PR delibertately exploits knowledge about human weaknesses. That's the downside of possible applications. The upside is that we can make our political systems smarter. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Zephir: I read Surowiecki's book. I don't know what you think it says, but this is indeed exactly the kind of knowledge we should be incorporating into our political systems. Take for example one point that he makes very clearly: how people rate and judge information depends crucially on how it was presented to them. He states explicitly that information should be communicated as neutral as possible, and without hinting at authorities behind it. Do you see any evidence that this is the case today? How can we possibly expect under these circumstances that people do make good decisions? The practical proposal, big picture, is this. The concrete one at hand is the academic system, I've written about that many times.

Zephir said...

/*...practical proposal, big picture, is this....*/
Thanks - but small picture would be enough for me in this moment. Can you provide at least one simple proposal, which "we could all profit" of? If not, why to establish dedicate institute for it?

Zephir said...

To be more constructive: before some time, I gave such a proposal - a symmetrical (de)voting right to keep politicians a bit more responsible.

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

As you know I agree that the scientific method should actually become more of the foundations of our modern world, beyond simply seen for its technical advantage. However, It is also true that it has been only 4oo years, almost to the day, that Galileo first turned his telescope to the heavens to render evidence we need to change our perspective as to what be our place and significance in our relation to nature as a whole.

A few hundred years later, others such as Darwin would reinforce this perspective and yet I have to ask if the everyday person has really taken much of it in, to fully appreciate what it all has to tell us. It says to me, that we are not a special case or creatures of destiny, yet rather only one of perhaps many, who may, through increasing the understanding of our world have the potential to actually become such a being. So I would say, that until more in general understand science for what it is, as to what it tells us and how it can become part of our everyday lives, in terms of reasoning and decision making, your message will continue to go unheard.

However, despite my pessimism, one thing I see as being positive is that when you write a letter to the editor it has a chance of getting published. One last remark, I always do a double take when I see Canada beginning with a ‘K’. :-)

Best,

Phil

Giotis said...

Gee, I don't know Bee. I'm thinking of a futuristic term like "tecto-politics".

Tecto is a Greek word meaning, building. Tecton is the builder. You can find it in the root of the English word architecture.

Bee said...

Zephir: You know, I know, and pretty much everybody else knows that I have a PhD in physics, not in politics or sociology. I personally am not the right person to develop high quality models and application of the sort I am talking about. I am proposing the institute to bring qualified people together to do so. As to concrete proposals, you find some here, I have some news on this and more details that I might write about next month, but presently don't have the time. Best,

B.

Zephir said...

There are many political science and sociological institutes on the market already. They're organizing public research, statistics, election campaigns...

I just don't see breakthrough in market model here..

Bee said...

Zephir: First you say it's ridiculous and won't work, then you say it's already done. Why don't you first try to understand what I'm saying and then comment. It is of course true that there are many institutes that reflect one or the other aspect of what I have in mind, but for all I know none brings them all together. Few bring together the social with the natural and computer science, and those who do don't work on practical applications, and if applied it's for corporate business.

Zephir said...

/*First you say it's ridiculous and won't work, then you say it's already done...*/
What I said was, it's impossible to have civilization driven completely by formally thinking technocrats. It's indeed possible, these technocrats will promote formation of institutes, based on such approach - including these unspecialized ones.

Bee said...

I can't recall ever having said something of the sort that 'civilization should be driven completely by formally thinking technocrats.' What I've been saying instead is that there are limits to trial and error and we risk running into a loop of repeated mistakes. What we need is some analysis and application of the scientific method to enter the discussion. I didn't say it's supposed to replace the discussion.

Zephir said...

/*...we risk running into a loop of repeated mistakes..*/
I see, another loopy theory...;-)

Well, one of most common mistakes is schematic approach, based on theory, postulates of which are background-invariant. Nevertheless, all right then - everything it's just a matter of compromise between formal and nonformal approach, after all.

Plato said...

Oligarchy- A Historical Look from Plato's Dialogues

One cannot but help to view the 21st Century with "21st Century thinking?":)

Best,

Plato said...

So, maybe PI can start this initiative as well, in the same vein that they approached the "Economic Manhattan project??"

A "Lightcone" initiative as well?:)

Best,

Tumbledried said...

Dear Bee,

A recent BBC interview with Edward de Bono, "lateral thinking guru", may be of interest to you with respect to the Lightcone Institute.

de Bono prosthelytises about the importance of lateral and constructive thinking, vs purely logical or reductionist thinking, and how this could be applied to many important contemporary problems. In particular this includes possible approaches to rethinking problems in social science, such as the structure of our political and educative systems.

The fellow held positions at several prestigious British universities before leaving academia and concentrating on his other interests.

Anyway, here is the link.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0040vrg

Plato said...

His contention is that just as language has allowed one generation to pass useful knowledge onto the next, it has also allowed dangerous myths and out-of-date ideas to become enshrined. See:Edward de Bono

I understood then the reference to Myths and out of date ideas in reference to previous commenter point on "purely logical or reductionist thinking" related too, the article placed for inspection and relates, Edward_de_Bono-"has set out to challenge the logical, truth-seeking process established by the Greek philosophers 2,400 years ago and cemented in Western culture in the Middle Ages by the church."

It would be interesting then to see what Edward DeBono has to say about "justice as an ideal" and it's relation to current laws of countries in place?

This to me would suggest that a future forming perspective according to a timeline from the "past to the future" is an evolutionary one and that such a trend in politics would have to coincide with the development of the laws associated with the governance of that country.

The concept of "governance" is not new. It is as old as human civilization. Simply put "governance" means: the process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented (or not implemented). Governance can be used in several contexts such as corporate governance, international governance, national governance and local governance.

What is the the trademark then of Good Governance?

Logic forming and reductionistic thinking has taken us to this point in time. Then such a request to lateral thinking would have to include all that came before Good Governance in order for Good Governance to evolve to what it is today and what Good Governance shall become in terms of it's laws in the 21st Century??

Best,

Plato said...

Hi Bee,

Under this initiative it has contained my thoughts as to the "view in the 21st Century?"

See:Justice, Open to Interpretation While Reducible to Logic?

Best,