Science as Legislation
Years ago, when I was on a reading frenzy, I decided to tackle Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. While it definitely provoked a profound excitement in me, I think it was exactly the opposite excitement that the advocates of Atlas Shrugged would have wanted.
What follows is the most profound thought I’ve had from the book, and one that I’ve keep with me for a long time since. Some day, perhaps I can help see it through. (I may eventually edit this to provide better readability)
I’ve been reading Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand and as I’m nearly two thirds through with the book I am repeatedly struck by some thoughts, which upon more reflection has lead me to propose some possibilities for our future.
Atlas shrugged’s vision is predicated upon the notion that industrialist are inherently responsible for what they do and are in fact the only one’s that do understand their responsibility. As she repeats many a time in this book, “check your premises.” Take a look at that premise as I’ve stated it and you will see that as a vision it’s beautiful, as a prediction, it lacks an understanding of the current reality. This world is no longer run by industrialists that make and run technological innovation, rather we are now run by executives in a corporate shield structure designed to limit personal liability and by association personal responsibility.
What’s more ironic is that many of Atlas Shrugged’s premises are spouted in the open world today as a workable method of capitalism and democracy. Far too many of the items that she idealized in Atlas Shrugged are the tenets of so many people in power today. Why you ask is it ironic, because of the near reverse of the power politic that has happened verse what she wrote. In the book, she blames the politicians for wanting to help the poor, defenseless, and desolate, where as now what we see is a power politic that’s out to help the rich, the powerful, and the elite.
We are presented with two cases, one of her description of a corrupt body politic that steals from the rich to give to the poor (as many would describe democrats), and two is real current body politic which steals from the poor to give to the rich (as many would describe the republicans). Her assumption that seems to coincide with that of many republicans is that the trickle down effect which has to date improved our overall standard of living in many industrialized countries is a universally valid point of capitalism, which may or may not be true, but is not my point. The problem is rather that in both cases neither method is useful. Neither takes a sense of balance nor a sense of reality. Indeed, what’s most interesting about both the book and the current trend of politicians is that they both start with ideals rather then facts and data. What is so useful about the democratic government we live in today is that it’s malleable to fit the shape of tomorrow, and yet we use that plasticity to shape what the power politic sees for that day and hopes for tomorrow. Would it not seem more sensible to build a government that test’s its own premise instead of assuming that idealism will work on its own merit.
To be overt about what I’m talking about, it would be a change in the way our democracy works to incorporate the principles of the scientific method into our core democracy values. Let me give you a brief lesson in what science involves.
Start with the basic concept of Hypothesis, test, check, synthesis, and start over. This is an overly simple method of explaining the stark reality of what science does, but useful to keep in mind. Follow this with the understanding that a surviving theory is rock solid not because of its immutability, but because of it’s been build from the ashes of theories that don’t stand up to tests. In science, to disprove something is not to state that a theory is totally wrong, but rather to state that the theory needs refining or rethinking. Never will a theory be perfect, but that lack of perfection could border on the difference between seeing something at 99.99999% and 99.99998% of clarity. Add also the concept that the items we test and the theories we build are not based on some idealized vision of a single person that is not verifiable, rather we are building theories based on the hard existence of nature itself, a nature we all exist in. This is useful and interesting because of the fact that nature cannot be fooled and only temporarily will a theory be wholly inaccurate. We can’t change the rules of nature, we can only understand them and use them to temporarily change the environment we exist in. (Temporarily being on the order of millions or billions of years, depending on when entropy catches up.) Start with these basic concepts and you should see that in essence science is testing predictions of how humans view nature’s rules are against nature itself to verify or improve our predictions of what those rules are.
Well you say, Natures’ rules aren’t static and immutable, but rather a dynamic mix of what god decides. Well while that might be an interesting thought experiment, it actually doesn’t work with the reality we live in. If the rules of nature are not static and immutable then when we put up a bridge it would either float away or be crushed when god decided to change the balance of nature. For you see nature itself seem to be predicated on a balance that sustains our existence. Throw any immutable rule of nature off by even the slightest (take for instance the value of gravity) and a chain reaction would start which would not have created our current reality. Of course this is a theory open to refinement, but enough so that we have been able to build that bridge and not to see it randomly float into space.
In a side note, refining our understanding of nature’s rules provides us with a finer and finer point to do things such as improve our ability to change or adapt the environment and refine our tools for learning about Nature’s past, present, and future. These results are technological and not scientific and this illustrates the fine difference between technology and science.
With all this said, my vision is that of a democracy where the people are living in a society that is not the best it could ever be, but rather the best that it could be based on our understanding, which is continuously improving. As of right now, it’s based on the current politician in vogue or the current concept in vogue, which is an attempt at continuous improvement, but there is no verifiability beyond that of a public’s general like or dislike. We have doomed ourselves to multiple repetitions of the same idea without any understanding whether that idea ever actually works. This is as much because we track and review our own changes so poorly and thereby mitigate our own understanding of the effects of law and policy as it is that our society doesn’t value our own history which limits one’s capacity to expand on it. Science innately will build a history that survives in the consciousness of those who work with it.
In order to disprove something one must realize the history of that proof, or one must start from scratch and build a history to be disproved.
So for example let’s start with an understanding of a problem. We realize that in the US currently there are more then 50,000 deaths a year due to traffic accidents. The current method of dealing with this is to allow a policy maker to state an idea (influence by the public and perhaps by a theory or two of some experts) and implement policy around that idea in hopes that it will reduce the overall number of deaths. What if instead of this we stated that we don’t know what the best route to fix this would be, and we start by finding and testing various methods that would reduce the overall totals by devise a method that is testable, test it, verify it, implement it as the current best method, then encourage people to prove that method wrong and provide a better method.
So immediately the objection comes forth that we can’t play with people’s lives. We aren’t talking about testing a scale model of a boat to see if it’ll sink, we are talking about real people, real lives, and the reality of death. True enough, but the irony of this statement is that we do so anyway when the politicians implements their random and varied ideas about what the best way is. We trust them not to play god and do the right thing, and yet we have very limited methods of verifying their ideas worked. In many cases it takes a revolution or a radical change in power or concepts to change something that gained foot hold as the best practice, whether or not that revolution is actually better.
Take for example the concept of car seats. I’m unsure of exactly how it started, but some how it was brought to the attention of politicians who changed the law (again influenced by those who brought it to the attention of the public and the politicians) and the result is that children are in required to be car seats. The problem here is that those who brought it to the attention of the public and the politicians didn’t know and indeed had no way of knowing (given they are not the type to do these tests or devise a method to find out) that car seats are not effective toward their intended goal. One can find out that it’s actually the seat belt that saves lives and not the car seat. Obviously this is a short anecdote about a more complex situation, but the significance of this should be clear. Not all laws intended to improve public safety have any redeeming values, except in this case to those who manufacturer car seats.
How could we have changed this? Well let’s start with the same concept. It’s tragic that so many children die in a car wreck. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that a car seat is the way to improve this based someone’s brand new theory or just little or no data, let’s enact a law that on its face realize there are many ways to improve this situation and we don’t know what’s going on. In the short term the legislation puts money towards fast tracking research on this situation, implementing new and temporary changes in how we can improve the situation. In the long term it creates funding or perhaps a research center that studies this and which is responsible for improving the recommendations as time and data allow. The net result is a problem which has been identified and addressed with a short term and long term solution that will be continually refined and continuously verified. In addition this allows policy to transcend the destructive fads of our social consciousness.
These are but few examples in a very narrow field that deal mostly with statistics, but there are other methods that are not statistical and rather are similar to our current methods of crash testing that are much more visceral and physical. (This paragraph is supposed to address people’s fear of the abstract science, but is it useful?)
The research has drastic implications in other areas as well, given that one of the results of scientific testing is that we accumulate data (remember that history of ours). The initial purpose of that data might be to decrease the overall mortality rate of children, but by having that data available we might find out that children ages x to y have an increase chance of heart failure and that we don’t know why. With that knowledge policy makers could encourage new lines of study and improve existing laws and policies. This obtuse use of the initial data is one example of the chain reaction that has happened in the past when public data is re-used by other scientist. As we develop an understanding of one area of our existence, it necessarily leads to other conclusions or possibilities in other areas of our existence, which then can be tested and verified. The results of any such start is an exponential return in our knowledge and understanding of who, what, how, where, and maybe why we exist.
It has always struck me as odd that we as a society and as a humanity are willing to go through life based merely on what we believe rather then what we can test. Indubitably there are things that cannot be tested and which are outside of the realm of what science can predict or which we can verify, but for everything else why would we not want to find out? Why stake our lives and those of our children on claims of belief without verification when to do so generally means a worse standard of living, or an early death, or perhaps even the end of a prosperous genetic line?
I believe there is a god, but that belief ends at the doorstep of nature and therefore at the doorstep of science. We live in a natural world, made up of nature, run by the rules of nature. Does it not seem like a sound thought to find out how that natural world works and implement that knowledge into how we govern ourselves?
Wednesday, September 21, 2005