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Science and politics in a democracy

Science and politics in a democracy

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Human beings adapt to changes in their environment by evolving along three intersecting planes, our biology, our culture, and our technology. Our biology changes very slowly, requiring many generations to incorporate beneficial genetic traits. Technology and culture are both faster than biology, but not by much – at least until very recently.

Cultural adaptations like democracy, rule of law and capitalism have sparked an explosion of technical adaptation. It took us roughly 8,000 years to get from the invention of agriculture to the invention of the iron plow. It took another 600 years to develop the tractor. A century later we have farm equipment guided by satellite navigation. A decade later we are seeing the first fully automated farms.

The Metcalfe Network Effect

Two hundred years ago, the mere capacity to read and write was a still limited to elites. Barely one in ten human beings were literate in 1820. Today that proportion has almost entirely reversed. Over centuries, gradual expansions of literacy, education and the spread of printed books created a positive feedback loop. More people exchanging ideas led to a steady refinement of knowledge. Until very recently the pace of that growth was incremental. Social and technological adaptations in the late 20th century, especially the fall of Communism and the invention of the Internet, created an expansion in communications. Growth in data, science and the ideas has accelerated from incremental to exponential.

Robert Metcalfe, one of the early pioneers of computer networking, explained the growth of data and knowledge with a model we now call Metcalfe’s Law. His law states that the value of a network is based on the number of available connections. That number of connections increases at a spectacular rate with the addition of each new node. A single node is useless. Two nodes can make one connection. Five can make ten, and twelve can make 66, and so on. As a metaphor, Metcalfe’s Law helps illustrate how the collapse of physical and geographical barriers to trade, communication, and the flow of ideas over the past few decades fed an explosion of innovation.

Computers that controlled the Apollo 11 spacecraft had less computational power than my coffee maker. Today, a phone included for free with a cellular plan is equipped with millions of times more processing power than every computer NASA owned in 1969 combined. That’s just processing power, the growth in the volume of data has been even more staggering. IBM estimates that 90% of all the data human beings have ever created, across hundreds of thousands of years of thought and development, was generated in the past two years. As the growth of non-human processing power and data generation continues to accelerate, that “data midpoint” is edging ever forward, inching toward a singularity.

By contrast, how much capacity for data has the average human brain added since Apollo 11? Basically, none. Our pace of biological evolution is dictated mostly (though maybe not entirely), by reproduction and mutation. It can take many generations for the simplest genetic adaptations to emerge, and sometimes dozens to hundreds or more for those mutations to take hold. We may adapt our habits, culture, and even our technology to cushion the impact of external conditions, but unaided biology remains slow. Burdened by the pace of biology, and without appropriate social adaptations, our technology can turn us into the equivalent of monkeys with machine guns, wielding far more technological power than we can safely exercise. The pace of disruptive technological change that my grandmother experienced across her lifetime was far faster than human beings had ever before seen. Yet, that pace is still accelerating. Technological replacement has reached a speed that strains our ability to keep pace through cultural adaptions like politics and social change. Our old social institutions are fraying faster than new ones can form. And the pressure this is placing on our biology is relentless, driving rampant drug abuse and mental strain.

We are not merely facing more information and more change than in the past, we are being asked to wrestle with a type of data that was rarely seen by ordinary people when my Grandma was a girl. Information derived from scientific processes presents a unique challenge, particularly when we are asked to use that data to form social or political decisions. When my son tells me that his bicycle is in the garage, that is a bundle of information I can easily comprehend and test. I don’t need a specialized explanation to know what a bicycle looks like or how a garage works. If I question his statement, I can use my eyes to deliver proof. Proving that the bicycle is in the garage does not necessarily require me to place my trust in another person or lean on someone’s expertise.

Galileo, with his experiment at the Tower of Pisa, was charting a course toward a new kind of information – scientific data. Scientific data does not come from the simple sensory observation of the world around us. Scientific data is generated through a process. Some scientific data can be easily verified by a layman, like Galileo’s challenge to Aristotle from the Tower of Pisa. Anyone can climb onto their own roof (carefully) with a bowling ball and a penny and experience for themselves what Galileo’s experiment revealed. Likewise, a scientific process produces the current outdoor temperature. I may or may not understand how that number is derived, but by stepping out onto my porch I can test and understand its relative accuracy.

As science has advanced, it has become far less accessible to laymen. Our most critically valuable discoveries are mostly incomprehensible without specialized knowledge. Scientists test and retest data. What they share with us is metadata, information that describes their underlying data. Are physicists correct to assume that deviations detected in the decays of B mesons indicate a new particle might exist on the high-energy spectrum? It would take a lifetime of dedicated study and a uniquely capable mind to offer the first insight on that question. In a culture that depends on democratic processes for its survival, this sudden, powerful pivot toward the power of elite information poses problems.

Sometimes scientific processes which cannot be easily explained to laymen have serious public policy implications. Our earliest examples were felt in medicine, where we introduced regulations in the early 20th century to curb fraud and improve professional discipline. By the middle of the 20th century we began to wrestle with the impact of environmental pollution and nuclear weapons. Over the past few decades we seem to be overwhelmed with new public policy issues informed by complex science, from genetically modified organisms to drug policy and climate change.

Born in 1902 and 1904, respectively, my Grandma and Grandpa were already elderly when I was born in 1970. A world that was just slipping into hyperdrive was accelerating beyond their reach. I was about ten when my parents bought them a television that featured a remote control. For a long time, Grandpa still insisted on getting out of his chair to change the channel. One day I walked into the living room to find him pointing the business end of the remote to his forehead. I watched silently while he tested the device. He was trying to understand how it worked, pointing it up, backward, against objects in the room and yes, against his forehead. He was using familiar tools to understand an elusive reality. It wasn’t working out.

When he spotted me, he set the remote down and left the room. Later he would accidentally destroy the remote control by opening it up to see what was inside. A reality built on common sense and folklore was, by that time, beginning to fail my grandparents in ways that had material consequences. Tools that worked in one environment were less helpful as that environment changed.

Our political process is premised on the notion that everyone is equal and therefore everyone’s perception of reality deserves a roughly equal weight. Apply this logic to questions of scientific expertise and the results are either comedy and tragedy, sometimes both. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, humans possessed no knowledge that our founders could not hope to grasp and even personally test given a bit of effort and study. When my grandmother was young public policy still had no need to depend on knowledge and engineering inaccessible to a well-read layman. Now, our survival as a species increasingly depends on our capacity to translate elite scientific expertise into public policy. We have not developed mechanisms capable of incorporating expertise into policy without surrendering a disturbing degree of our democratic oversight. Our inefficiency in translating science into policy is becoming an existential threat.


  1. I’ve written and deleted two long comments so far.

    About the TV remote. Firstly, the first remotes I saw only moved the dial in one direction. So if you were watching channel 6 and wanted to watch channel 3, you clicked on the remote button up through 13. It was faster to get up and spin the dial manually. This assuming you could receive multiple channels. And then later when UHF band was added and you wanted to watch a higher channel you had to get off the couch anyway. Tuning a UHF channel took the deft hand of a safe cracker. There was a lot of habit involved also. I also remember returning to the couch, saying to myself, “I could have used the remote”.

    The above isn’t just a walk down memory lane, although it did bring a flood of memories. No, the point is we were all Main Stream and we all watched MSM. In a lot of cases we had 1 or 2 channels and even years later no more than 4 or 5 with Public Television and usually one UHF channel. And, a really big AND, we had the fairness doctrine.

    Cable and the internet of course, changed all that and allows at multiple political systems with their totally separate news outlets and totally different view of everything.

    So we are surprised. By the election results. Republicans surprised that republicans voted for trump. Democrats surprised that some democrats did not vote for Hillary. Surprised by the size of the Women’s march. Surprised by scientists marching. Surprised by the huge crowds at a climate march. Surprised that that many care so much that they would march. Everyone on every side is surprised that there are that many people that do not believe what they believe.

      1. It may have been the Space Command 300. the model that only turned the dial in one direction. Which usually required getting up and fiddling with the fine tuning after channel selection. Thoughts of using old tech now gives me the willies. I don’t remember brand names. We usually had used stuff. Except for our first TV. It was a 13″ portable that we won in a drawing at the Piggly Wiggly.

      2. Ours was an Admiral “portable” on one of those bent aluminum carts, anodized gold, with those little clear plastic wheels. It had a brilliant black and white picture, (so long as my dad and I headed down to the Rexall Drug with a brown paper bag full of tubes monthly to test them and replace those that were defective.)

        Our neighbor was the first to get a color set in about 1964. We went over to see The Wizard of Oz on Easter. There’s no place like home. 😉

      3. Tutt – In the FWIW department, the Zenith Space Command remote control was a pretty cool piece of tech for the time. It used no batteries. When you pressed a button, a hammer banged a rod that vibrated at an ultrasonic frequency that was recognized by a microphone in the TV. Drop your keys, and it might change the channel, but so what?

    1. I LOVE vintage technology, and I enjoy hooking up old to new. About 15 years ago, I would connect an AOL TV box (a form of web TV) to a Sylvania console TV from 1953 and surf the web on the vintage TV set, in black and white. It was cool.

      Also, I hook up vintage turntables to modern Bose speakers. Perfect combination.

  2. In Election ’18 news, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has announced that she won’t run for reelection.

    First and foremost, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen is a fine representative of a clear conscience who epitomized the idea that people can disagree without being disagreeable. She was one of the first Republicans to come out against the AHCA and spoke her mind on a number of issues. She should be proud of the job she did and her constituents should be proud for having had such an honorable voice to represent them in Washington.

    Secondly, barring an absolutely monumental flop by Democrats, her district will flip next year, securing a critical pick-up in the race for the House. It went for Clinton by twenty points and, frankly, the only one who had a chance of carrying it was Ros-Lehtinen herself. Without her in the race, the rating has immediately flipped from Likely R to Lean D.

      1. Don’t rely on the DNC. Their actions should no longer matter to us anymore.

        Donate to ActBlue ( or look up the campaigns of the Democrats running for that office and donate directly. If you have free time (I know I don’t but hey), register with one of the campaigns to make GOTV calls yourself.

        Even if the DNC fucks up,

        1) this lessons the impact of the fuck up,

        2) the funding / attention will draw the DNC’s attention,

        3) you took action yourself instead of relying on an institution.

      2. I don’t have much of an opinion on this whole idea of “taking over the Democratic Party” (at least for right now), but it feels like this mindset of the grassroots in selectively choosing which candidates to embrace is, intentionally or not, moving in that direction. Citizens recognizing their own power and showcasing the results in races that had much closer results than expected could, over time, beat back the tide of money that’s so dominated our political culture.

        This, of course, is entirely dependent on those efforts being focused, sustained, and even amplified, particularly as we head into the ’18 midterms. Hypothetically, if Democrats retake the House (still a very big if at this point), I have to wonder the kind of grassroots effort that will be made to see what actions they act on.

        For my part at least, given the chance, I’ll be calling my congressman every damn day to make sure that a relentless and thorough investigation into Trump and his Russia ties is conducted. Period, full stop.

  3. This post has troubled me this it first went up. I waited for the comments to populate (you guys are so smart!) to help me wrestle with my thoughts. Here is what troubled me:
    “Technological replacement has reached a speed that strains our ability to keep pace through cultural adaptions like politics and social change. Our old social institutions are fraying faster than new ones can form. And the pressure this is placing on our biology is relentless, driving rampant drug abuse and mental strain.”

    Please allow me some quick observations:
    1. Humans are not rational. We are emotional creatures that rationalize.
    2. Science and Technology cannot be separated from culture. Both are cultural artefacts shaped by the culture in which they occur.
    3. Culture is at its core is nothing but story. It is basically just the stories we tell to explain what is and what is “right”, establish and reinforce roles and norms etc. Individualism, meritocracy, democracy, free enterprise, the self-made man, modes of masculine/feminine, all alike are stories.
    4. Cultures fail when the stories are no longer believed or the stories no longer faithfully provide sufficient guidance to succeed. In other words the stories fail to adapt and no longer allow successful adaptation.
    5. “rampant drug abuse and mental strain” (think suicide), violence and authoritarianism accompany #4; a point made pretty well by Doug Mudder this week in the Weekly Sift blog which Chris and I follow.

    What strikes me is not the scientific/technological changes of the last 40 years but the economic and political systemic changes that occurred. In the 1970’s the baby boomers launched some nasty nested concepts which are quite literally killing us: financialization of the economy and Neo-Liberalism as a ruling theory of government. I suspect that this was due in part to the lack of any real shared hardship which could serve as a bonding agent for shared experience and empathy. Baby boomers missed the great depression and WWII which united the past generation in shared hardship and existential crises. Add to this the threat of communism which forced the elites to play nice and you have an excellent recipe for cultural success.

    IMHO the twin policy goals of austerity and privatization, the favored policy prescriptions of the new order, has metastasized into the creation of a Kleptocractic elite and these combined effects have broken us. Our myths (culture) are no longer believable because they no longer work in any real world way. If this all sounds crazy, then at least allow me the defense of sharing the reading that got me here, while not invalidating the fact that I am certifiable:

    Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism – Sheldon Wolin

    The Authoritarians – Bob Altemeyer (available here

    Angry White Men – Michael Kimmel

    This Thing of Darkness – James Aho

    The Collapse of Complex Societies – Joseph Tainter

    Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market – Janine Wedel

    What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets – Michael Sandel

    1. Politics hasn’t kept up not because it can’t, but because people, broadly speaking, have been almost uniformly disengaged for decades now. We’ve had peace for far too long and it’s made us lazy, and you’re right in that the lack of a sizable internal and/or external threat (i.e The Great Depression, WWII, Soviet Union, etc.) has frayed our ability to unite around a single shared purpose.

      That said though, I don’t view that as necessarily a bad thing. Hold those fingers for a moment and let me explain.

      As far as I see it, Americans have never had much of a shared purpose to begin with. Our Founding Fathers gave us a Constitution that laid out some very high-minded ideals, surely enough, but they were both hypocritical (see Thomas Jefferson declaring that all men are created equal while he himself was a slave owner) and broad enough that they’d subject to incredibly varying interpretations that could and would give way to conflict. This is why people like Franklin Roosevelt could give a Four Freedoms speech and how Eleanor Roosevelt could advocate a Universal Declaration for Human Rights.

      Long story short, our Constitution was a compromise that laid out our foundation, but it gave us no sense of unified purpose (intentionally so, I might add) as to what, specifically, we as humans and Americans should shoot for. They left that up to us.

      Why is it that only now, when virtually everyone else has done so, that Americans are finally unifying around the idea of the government guaranteeing healthcare to all people? Curiously, as we’re coming to overcome that hurdle, you’re starting to see more and more people openly asking for more. That momentum has stalled any backwards-looking legislation in Congress and would likely spark a terrible backlash against Republcians in ’18 if, by some miracle, it actually did pass and become law.

      I believe that once this generation of Americans, as it looks like they are, become increasingly engaged with the process and recognize their own power, that sense of shared purpose in what we should really be shooting for will become clearer and clearer.

      And in one of the truly great pieces of irony in American history, Trump looks to have provided the catalyst for so many in speeding this process along.

      1. While I agree that we have lacked a unifying threat until Trump happened, I would not call the time that proceeded it peace. As a nation we have an annoying habit of visiting new places, meeting new people, and killing them! I was born as the Korean War ended. In my opinion,that was the last military action we had any business getting involved in. If we could have avoided all the silly military adventures since then, we could have paid for universal healthcare several times over.

    2. Powerful list of reading, Brent! The only bone I have to pick is with the theory of twin policy goals of austerity and privatization of the new order. From my perspective, there is little austerity expected of those who hold the reins of power, but great austerity demanded of those who lack it. Possibly a better, more honest twin goal would be power and privatization.
      Austerity was shared along with common purpose during WW2 as noted. Today, there are too few of an age to remember the lessons of common purpose of our great war and far too much eagerness to focus on individualism as the magic elixir for opportunity….Lack of experience with deprivation and common purpose has bred a disconnect between classes which has created a generation of people who lack understanding of shared sacrifice and who reject it themselves. The “I, me, my” philosophy is dominating our politics and our culture. I support the value and reward of hard work but I am old enough to understand that many people, through no fault of their own, lack opportunity for equal access.
      When we talk about universal opportunity – whether in health care or in life – we are really not talking about actual opportunity. It’s very much like the touted American Health Care Act that offers “universal access”. The only “catch” is that you still have to qualify for it (if community pricing is removed) and pay for it (when your health, age, and gender are factored in). We’re making the end goal justify the means, and that’s wrong.

    1. Cute, Just Human! I purchased a copy of “Rise Up!” a conde naste publication devoted to the Jan. 21st Womens’ March around the world. It is an amazing piece of journalism and photography that I want to keep forever. The signs depicted were clever and fun but the back-stories were equally interesting.

  4. 2009, 100 days in, full Democrat control of federal government:

    “Whew, steered through that economic maelstrom without sinking. Got a party darling bill passed. What do you mean the Republicans are gearing down for 2010? I think our accomplishments will prove to be quite popular. By the way why aren’t any of them talking to me?”

    2017, 100 days in, full Republican control of government:

    Trump: “Governing is ha-aaarrrddd.”
    Ryan: “What the hell, anytime I get one group to stop rocking the boat, another starts rocking, what am I supposed to do? Like, really, what am I supposed to do?”
    Chaffetz: “I quit. Bullying Democrats isn’t fun anymore when people actually expect leadership from you.”
    McConnell: “Look we earned unprecedented success at being absolute dicks by stealing a Supreme Court seat. I say we just wait for the House to pass anything or other Court Justices to die and call it a day. I don’t even want to talk about leadership. Let Schumer do it.”

  5. One thing that I think is related to this is the concept of social proof. Anyone has the ability, to find vast amounts of information to refute any theory if you look for it. You don’t have to look very hard, wing nut news outlets will tell you where to find it.

    Once you buy into the notion that mainstream news is a huge left wing conspiracy and fall down the rabbit hole into wing but land, they will provide all the proof you require that you are one of the elite few that “gets it”. With any luck you will die before the ocean takes your beach front home. If not, that might be a wake up call!

  6. Chris, with regards to your grandfather and the remote control, at least he was curious about how it worked, pointing it in different directions and even going so far as to open it to see what was inside and destroying it in the process.

    Your story tells me that he was not afraid of change. He was like a curious kid, wanting to learn how things worked.

    My own mother was awed by the remote control, afraid to mishandle it for fear she might break it, and she even hid her higher-priced electronics (and they really were high-priced back then) and rarely used them, lest they tempt a visitor who might turn burglar.

    1. I agree. I think Chris’s grandfather wasn’t having a meltdown, he was just curious how it worked. And since he couldn’t just google it, and probably couldn’t drive to the library, and couldn’t download a free physics lecture from MIT, he did the best he could to figure it out himself.

      Evolution is a great way of thinking about this: species adapt only when they come under selection pressure. Absent pressure, species can stay stable for millions, even billions of years (like some bacteria in the deep ocean). The same can be applied to humans and technology: absent pressure, we won’t adapt. This pressure can be negative: adapt or die, like it is in some countries. It can also be positive. Plenty of grandparents never figured out a computer until their grandkid was born a thousand miles away and the only way they could see them daily was to figure out Skype.

      Chris’s grandfather could approach the remote control more like a curiosity, or a new toy to breakdown and understand, because he could easily change channels without it. Put him in front of a modern TV that has no channel button, and he’ll become expert at the remote control or be at the mercy of his wife’s channel choices. The horror! 🙂

      1. Hit reply by mistake.
        Agreed, I have been taking things apart all my life to see how they work. Google and the personal computer are a godsend for the curious, but a curse for the week minded that are easily fooled.

  7. I’m going to take a contrarian position on this one. What you’re really talking about, Chris, is the relationship between democracy and authority. Authority is always justified based on expertise, but it doesn’t matter whether that expertise is science, religion, etc. The common person 600 years ago didn’t know what heaven nor Earth was like either; he required the Pope and his local priest to explain it to him. Martin Luther came along and rebelled against that authority, and said people could go straight to the sources (i.e. the Bible) and figure it out for themselves. But either way, what is the testable hypothesis about the Biblical view of the Sun’s rotation around the Earth that the average peasant could carry out himself?

    Athens is held up as the great Western ideal of democracy. Most people then didn’t know how the world worked either, and depended on priests and/or philosophers to explain it to them. Notably, they condemned one of them to death by Hemlock when they didn’t like what he said.

    So whether expertise is based on science, philosophy, or religion, there’s always a tension about the proper role of expertise / authority in a democracy. There’s nothing different about that today than 2500 years ago when democratic Athens ordered the execution of Socrates. Any system of governance that holds the common person as the ultimate source of power runs up against the tautologic truth that 50% of the people are by definition below average intelligence (any which way you choose to define that intelligence).

    So what about the rate of change? While the rate of information production has increased exponentially, so has our rate of information assimilation. 50 years ago, there was such a thing as college algebra. Now, it’s taught in 8th grade and earlier. So far, we don’t seem to have run up against limits on our brains’ ability to comprehend complex information. Although in fairness to your grandparents, much of your later brain capacity may be determined by what you were exposed to when you were a baby or young child, which means our children will run rings around our own information absorption capacity.

    So why do we Americans feel viscerally like our society is getting dumber? I’ll posit two reasons: relatively speaking, the rest of the world is getting smarter faster. 50 years ago, aside from the oddball genius, no one from India ever competed with Americans and Europeans in science. Now, it seems like they’re exceeding us.

    That reason is okay (although it should spur us to action). The second reason is far uglier, and what disturbs me the most. We’re stupid because in our country, we *can* be, and not starve or be eaten. We don’t care to listen to scientific experts because thankfully, our country is safe, rich, and has enough buffer that one can lead a fairly comfortable life without having to do so. Take, for example, the anti-vaccine movement. Anti-vaxxers are not poor, illiterate people who don’t comprehend the science of vaccination. They are rich, upper class people who choose not to listen to science, safe in the knowledge that their baby will still most likely live.

    This is not a question of knowledge. Neither one really understands how the whooping cough vaccine works. The only difference is that a poor person knows if their kid gets whooping cough, he will likely die while their family goes bankrupt from medical bills. OTOH, if an upper class kid gets whooping cough, you can be sure he’ll get the million dollars worth of ICU care — plus the expertise of teams of physicians who *do* know how whooping cough works — needed to save him, paid by his generous insurance plan. Similarly, your grandparents might not know how to work the TV remote, and they also probably don’t know how the polio vaccine works, but by God, they got your parents vaccinated when Jonas Salk told them to, because they knew if they didn’t they could end up paralyzed like the neighbor’s kids.

    Why don’t people believe in climate change? Because they don’t yet have to walk around with breathing masks, unable to see the sky, like residents of Beijing. They don’t have half their family members die of asthma and pulmonary disease due to pollution.

    At the end of the day, plenty of people in other countries believe in science, accept expert advice, and root for more progress. One of India’s most popular Presidents in recent years (who’s appointed, not to be confused with their Prime Minister, who’s elected) was APJ Abdul Kalam, a physicist and aerospace engineer. This despite him being a Muslim. Of course, being the father of India’s nuclear bomb, in a region where national security consists of a thin buffer of a million men staring each other down on the glaciers of the Himalayas rather than 2 oceans, might have something to do with it.

    The pace of change has been even more rapid in places like China and India, where lots of people have gone from a rural subsistence existence with no phone / TV / electricity / running water to a house with all of those plus the internet and a car. That’s far more technological and cultural change than anything any American has gone through in the past 30 years. But they’ve managed to adapt and embrace it because not doing so means living in a mud hut doing backbreaking manual work and having half your children die before the age of 5.

    What are the actual life consequences for the average American anti-vaxxer / climate change denier / creationist? Being wrong / stupid / anti-expertise is a luxury Americans can uniquely afford, and many of us, it seems are taking full advantage. But that has nothing to do with humans’ innate capacity to adapt or science per se.

    1. WX – The issue is access to information – and often very bad and inaccurate information as your antivaxxer example illustrates. In the 60s there was no antivaxxer movement. But the nature and scope of knowledge has changed greatly since then. And so has the reach of the nutballs. My cautionary statement here is to not substitute simple credulity for reason. But that is becoming increasingly difficult to do. We are still human, and not a whit smarter innately than we were 10,000 years ago.

      1. People in the 60s had access to far less information than people today. To learn about the Polio vaccine, aside from whatever the mainstream media said about it, was nearly impossible if you weren’t a medical professional. Not only would you have to go to a medical school library to access the print journals, those medical schools wouldn’t let you in their library unless you were affiliated.

        Nowadays, you can access much of the primary research on the internet, available for free. On balance, our access to excellent information is far, far better now than ever before.

        And believe it or not, the bad information is called out as bad much quicker as well. In the past, a charlatan who was debunked in one town could quietly move to another town and resume spreading lies. Nowadays that’s increasingly hard to do. The anti-vaccine movement is a great example. The primary “medical expert” was thoroughly debunked and had his licensed revoked (Andrew Wakefield). Despite all his work occurring in the UK, an American can easily check his wikipedia page and get the full story of his debunking. And for every one questionable, *possibly* supportive study, that one can find on the internet, there are 1,000 well designed, much stronger studies definitively proving the utility and safety of vaccines, also available online.

        People who are anti-vaccine aren’t poor ignorant souls, without access to definitive information. And it’s not because they’re in culture shock from science moving too fast. Vaccination hasn’t been controversial (or changed much) since Jenner made the first smallpox vaccine >200 years ago. They’ve simply chosen to reject truth. They have that luxury, since, lucky for them, in our society, their child will likely survive regardless.

      2. Of course easily accessible information was far scarcer in the 60s, good and bad, and this includes nonsense from the likes of Wakefield. So let’s explore antivaxxers for a moment.

        I rather doubt that these parents decide not to vaccinate because of their ability to pay when their child becomes infected with an unnecessary disease. Given the same crappy information regarding autism or whatever, and without an authority to mandate vaccination, any parent on the planet would make the same stupid decision. I don’t think this has anything to do with some sort of economic ability to “be wrong and get away with it”.

        A problem with the new information age is the inability to discern wheat from chaff. If you harbor even an inkling of distrust for physicians say, (and I’d add here that everyone should under some circumstances), and you read somewhere on the Internet, which is always true, that your kid will become autistic if you vaccinate, it is to be expected that some will make the wrong choice. So way do we see a cluster of morons in Marin County? Well, these matrons, (sorry, but it’s true), simply *have the time*. They chat and read all the self confirming blogs, and work themselves into a tizzy. To this extent, income status provides only a secondary enablement. The conclusion that it somehow provides license to play fast and loose with their children’s health is not supportable.

      3. Fifty-
        I hope Chris won’t get mad about our anti-vaccine tangent 🙂 But here goes. I disagree that anti-vaccine people are just passive victims of information floating out there. They had to seek out that info. The stuff you passively receive, from elementary school through college, from every mainstream media outlet, from every medical authority, from the first 1000 Google entries on vaccines, is that vaccines are safe, uncontroversial, and recommended. If you’ve read anything to the contrary, you actively sought that out.

        Now, there’s nothing wrong with seeking out contrary information. As long as you’ve acquired the cognitive skills to figure out what’s true and what’s false. In healthcare, that means having a ton of medical knowledge (thought not necessarily an MD or PhD). If you don’t have those skills, then you swallow hard and trust the people who do. And there’s the conceit: when Jenny McCarthy says she went to “Google U.” what she’s saying is that she has just as much right to decide what’s “true” as someone who spent decades in the field learning how to make those decisions. That the pursuit of truth is simply about having the power to declare that something is “true”. Sounds like some Congressmen I know 🙂

        To bring this back to Chris’s points, this is the same tension he talks about: an expert says what’s best for the country is what he’s figured out after spending decades studying the problem. A democracy says what’s best for the country is whatever 51% of the population says it is. Do deviations detected in the decays of B mesons indicate a new particle? Wouldn’t it be awesome to have enough power to make reality conform to whatever you decide?

        At the end of the day, unfortunately, reality has a way of re-asserting itself. Unless you live in a country like ours where reality can be kept at bay for a very long time. About those anti-vaxxers who you deny are playing fast and loose with their children’s health: my point is precisely that they *are not*. This country has good enough sanitation, and enough *other* parents vaccinating their kids, that the chance of getting whooping cough even if unvaccinated is pretty low. And even if you do catch it, this country is rich enough, and has good enough healthcare, that you will likely survive. Therefore, anti-vaxxers have the luxury of being wrong about vaccines, and *not* putting their children at risk of death (although a month hooked up to a breathing machine in an ICU is no piece of cake…). They can indulge their narcissistic ego-gratification of exercising the power to define “truth” for their children without having their children face the consequences if they’re wrong.

        Let me ask you this question (I don’t have an answer, so this is more than rhetorical): those Marin Co parents who don’t vaccinate their children; do you think they vaccinate them for yellow fever before going on Safari in Africa? Or give them malaria prophylaxis tablets? I suspect they do, despite both recommendations coming from the same medical establishment that they otherwise view as hopelessly corrupt and much less knowledgeable than themselves. What’s the difference? That’s easy: getting yellow fever in Africa often means an excruciating death in some bush hospital. Africa doesn’t rescue people who wish to exercise their right to be wrong about vaccines. Consequently, Marin Co parents wisely choose the advice of their travel doctor over Google U.

        If being wrong doesn’t have consequences, belief becomes an aesthetic choice. And that’s why science is being increasingly rejected in this country.

      4. I like your sentence so much I want to extend the thought to an actual area of politics that we both know well.

        You state: “If being wrong doesn’t have consequences, belief becomes an aesthetic choice. And that’s why science is being increasingly rejected in this country.”

        In the ongoing saga about health care in America, the discussion on the right always boils down to “free market principles”. On the left, it’s “access and affordability for all”. Somewhere in the middle, you would think that there would be a generous gig to the collective grey matter in Congress that there is a world of historical data in the health care systems operating in the rest of the industrialized world – that offers good care for much less cost with far better outcomes. The information is there. The experience is there, but those in power are selectively ignoring any serious consideration of whether these other systems might work well in America.

        The problem, as I see it, is exactly what you suggest: for the wealthy, there are no horrible consequences. Thus, they reject the science supporting the efficacy of these other systems (which I do not suggest are perfect, just damn good value for generally good services) – out of hand. Those who enjoy privilege of being in positions of authority simply don’t pay the same price for our elitist health care therefore they ignore any other system that may demonstrate an alternate truth.

      5. Let me ask you this question (I don’t have an answer, so this is more than rhetorical): those Marin Co parents who don’t vaccinate their children; do you think they vaccinate them for yellow fever before going on Safari in Africa? Or give them malaria prophylaxis tablets? I suspect they do, despite both recommendations coming from the same medical establishment that they otherwise view as hopelessly corrupt and much less knowledgeable than themselves. What’s the difference? That’s easy: getting yellow fever in Africa often means an excruciating death in some bush hospital. Africa doesn’t rescue people who wish to exercise their right to be wrong about vaccines. Consequently, Marin Co parents wisely choose the advice of their travel doctor over Google U.

        If being wrong doesn’t have consequences, belief becomes an aesthetic choice. And that’s why science is being increasingly rejected in this country.

        Broadly speaking, your perspective raises the interesting question as to just how much ‘freedom’ a society can tolerate before it begins actively undermining it. Without the necessary filters of our institutions to isolate and mitigate the crazy that’s perversely spreading like a cancer, people are suffering needlessly and we find ourselves fighting battles that, in retrospect, seem utterly asinine and pointless.

        Sounds like an interesting topic for a sequel to The Politics of Crazy.

        As far as solutions go, majority rule through the body politic seems to be the only answer. We have to require parents to vaccinate their children. Individual influence and power cannot be allowed to stifle the momentum of our society and cause unreasonable and unnecessary harm to those most unable to defend themselves, our children.

        Fundamentally, it’s no different from when Teddy Roosevelt reigned in the excesses of capitalism. We must now reign in the excesses of freedom.

      6. OK. First to Ryan – One does not, nor has one ever had the freedom to abuse one’s children. “Reigning in freedom” is a chilling concept. Simply defining the failure to protect children from serious disease as abuse is not.

        WX – The central theme of your premise seems to be that some sort of intentional risk taking for the purpose of self-aggrandizement is taking place here. Firstly, these parents believe vaccines pose a greater danger to their children than any disease they might prevent. Of course this is stupid, wrongheaded, and ignorant of the facts, but that’s not the point. There is no “narcissistic ego-gratification” going on here – just plenty of simple ignorance.

        There is a required a level of mental discipline to not only realize and appreciate what one doesn’t know, but to fairly and honestly avail one’s self to the facts on both sides of an issue regardless where one’s tendencies may lie. The inability to do these is not associated with income or social status. Case in point: my tendency is to vilify these people. I find their actions disgusting and reprehensible. And they are. But – synthesizing internal motivations for them, beyond what I know, to fit my internal narrative is something I try to avoid.

        And I think your original idea of the antivaxxer movement as an example of the problem between science and democracy was spot on. The way forward to my mind is to attack stupid ideas, and not “evil people”. Sure, there are evil people. But there are a helluva lot more that just hold plain old stupid ideas.

      7. > “OK. First to Ryan – One does not, nor has one ever had the freedom to abuse one’s children. “Reigning in freedom” is a chilling concept. Simply defining the failure to protect children from serious disease as abuse is not.

        With all respect, please pay attention when you quote me. I said, quite specifically, that we should rein in freedom’s “excesses”, not freedom itself.

        Secondly, we already do this in society, it’s just that most people don’t give it any thought because it’s been a part of our lives for so long. You don’t have the freedom to decide whether or not to send your children to primary education, you have to do that. Granted, there’s some flexibility and choice, but the broad requirement stands.

        All I say is that, with respect to issues that are important and necessary, such as vaccinating your children from deadly disease, we should limit people’s ability to be idiots and say that yes, that’s something you have to do. Just like we did when we passed a minimum wage that said businesses have to pay their employees at or above a certain threshold, we should also declare that if you’re going to be a citizen, you have to meet this minimum standard. I don’t think that extreme in the slightest.

      8. Ryan – Your freedom to swing your arms ends at the other guy’s nose. Punching him is not an ‘excess’ of freedom. This is not a semantic argument. The failure to educate your children or provide for their well being is not an exercise in freedom. The extension of the basic idea to other areas of society should be done very carefully. I don’t think the extension of the notion of the minimum wage for consenting adults from the treatment of minor children is careful, and definitely not the same thing.

      9. Mary-
        I agree. The wealthy have access to care under the current system, so there’s no need for them to accept data that shows it could be much cheaper / better under a different structure.

        “some sort of intentional risk taking for the purpose of self-aggrandizement is taking place here.”
        Yes. As always, it’s a cost-benefit scenario. If the risk is small, why not engage in some ego gratification or self-aggrandizement? The vast majority of kids in this country not vaccinated will go on to lead normal, healthy lives — not as many as if they were vaccinated, but still a pretty good percentage. This leads to two things: 1) for some people, that increased risk is small enough that they place ego gratification as a larger benefit; or 2) people who review the evidence and sincerely become anti-vaccine never have need to correct their folly (the “there have been no bear attacks; ergo this rock protects against bears” argument made by the esteemed Lisa Simpson 🙂

        IMHO, anti-vaxxers are borne of a need to prove to themselves or their peers that they are smarter than either the “rubes” who blindly accept science, or the doctors / medical professionals who are recommending vaccines. It’s a solipsistic belief that their personal experience trumps everything, which can only be held as long as the external world can be held at bay. It’s the same ego gratification of people who think they know “the truth” about the Moon landings, or that Sandy Hook was a fake false flag event. It makes them feel smarter, without having to do the hard work of actually, you know, being smart.

        Lest you think I’m advocating blind fealty to your doctor, I’m not, but I distinguish between the values- and the expertise- components of a medical decision. Whether to continue treatments for an advanced stage cancer has both a tremendous expertise component, but also a large values component, i.e. what type of life do you wish to lead? How much do you value extra life vs. the pain the treatment may cause? Etc. IMHO, you trust your doctor to inform you of the expertise part, and he trusts you to inform him of the values part, so that together, you can make the best decision.

        For a decision on vaccination, IMHO, there is basically *no* values component. No religion opposes vaccination. No psychological or social issues arise from getting a vaccine. Their child’s momentary pain of a needlestick is usually cured with a lollipop and maybe a tylenol the next day. IOW, it is purely an expertise-based decision. And this is what irks an anti-vaxxer: their individual life experience has no role in the decision. So they decide to forcibly insert it. While it’s outwardly justified as a concern for their kids, the psychological truth is that it’s done entirely for the narcissism of the parents.

        You can see the same conflict play out in the public realm (I’ll keep trying to make at least one point relevant to Chris’s original article 🙂 ): the problematic decisions that Chris says our democratic society is having a harder and harder time dealing with are all decisions that have increasingly large expertise components, and this component is being dominated now by science to the detriment of other systems of expertise like religion.

        For example, I disagree that Galileo’s experiment was easy to reproduce by a layman in his day. A peasant’s house was a single story, with a thatch or metal roof that wouldn’t support him standing on it. He would be shot if he tried to enter the Tower of Pisa. And a smooth, perfect ball of metal was expensive to produce in those times, and largely restricted to the military (cannon balls; did they even have them back then?). Easy or not, regardless, no peasant actually tried to reproduce the experiment. He had to take Galileo’s word for it.

        But here’s the kicker: there was a competing system of expertise, called Religion, that also gave him an answer. Yes, he didn’t understand that one either (books are expensive, and written in Latin). But since neither was dominant yet, he could choose which to believe.

        Fast-forward to today. There is no competing system of expertise. There is only science. Which means that on complicated stuff that you don’t understand, you no longer have a choice of which poorly understood system to believe in. What’s the point of a democracy if there’s only one option? IMHO, that dominance is what’s placing strain on democracy today, not the pace of science’s progress.

      10. To your point that the value of a democracy is that it offers more than one option….What of the responsibility of the individual to access and attempt to understand sufficient information to make informed choices between the options? You could forgive the Italian peasant with the tile or thatched roof for lacking the tools but what of curiosity? In those eras when religion was not to be questioned – the absoluteness of the one versus the abstract other understandably was weighted in favor of religion and those who championed it.

        We don’t or IMHO have the luxury in this era to ignore findings that have withstood a rigorous, proof-driven, consistent outcome scientific process. We may not like the theory (global warming and man’s contributions to it as that assails our free market preferences and necessities) but we can hardly disregard it. Yet, many do. Why do some seem to filter what they believe is credible when looking at the same phenomenon (erratic weather, melting polar caps, rising oceans) so differently from others who are at least trying to absorb peer-driven research? I guess this gets right back to the point of what is fact to some is a tease to others for egotistical manipulation, all in some subliminal way to exert control over forces that they don’t understand.

      11. EJ

        “Your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins” is a good sentiment, but a very difficult sentiment to apply in complex real-world scenarios in which everything we do affects others in small, incremental ways. For example, every person who drives to work in a car slightly increases my risk of being run over, as well as contributing to global climate change, driving up oil prices and shortening the lives of asthmatics. Do I have the right to demand that they all work from home? I don’t think I do, and I doubt anyone would say that I do, even though my nose is clearly being hit by someone’s fist.

        I would argue that it’s about tradeoffs; and in order to make effective tradeoffs it’s necessary that we properly understand the qualities involved. Appealing to absolutes or to ill-defined concepts like “freedom” is probably the wrong way to go about this.

      12. Exactly. “Freedom” is shared. It is not absolute. It’s why we as citizens pay taxes for services we may never benefit from. It’s for betterment of society as a whole. I think most reasonable people are supportive of shared responsibility even when their freedom may be encroached because it’s for the greater good. Of course the lines are often debated but that’s also an indicator that democracy exists.

      13. Mary-
        Here’s my best guess. People love power, but are terrified of the responsibility that comes with that power. Based on the amount of responsibility it entails, people will even willingly give up power to absolve themselves of responsibility. Exercising power is fun. It’s facing the consequences of your decisions that causes the hangover 🙂

        The best-case scenario is to have ultimate power but with no consequences. That’s what we’re living now, in this country (and we should thank our lucky stars we live here). But even if you face no responsibility, you can *choose* to willingly take it on. IMHO, that’s the difference.

        Moving off the anti-vaxxer thing for a minute, look at what we’re doing in N. Korea. And compare that to let’s say India / China / Pakistan.

        We are recklessly escalating in N. Korea, because we can. And because the potential consequences (nuclear war) will be faced by S. Koreans and Japanese, not us, since we’re protected by an entire ocean. That’s always been the case. What’s different with Trump? Because the Presidents before him like GHWB, Clinton, GWB, and Obama, *chose* to act as if a nuclear confrontation with NK would be devastating. They chose to accept responsibility for the S. Koreans and Japanese that would die if they made a mistake. But as we’re seeing now, that wasn’t a requirement of the job.

        In contrast, in India / Pakistan / China, nuclear war is not some distant possibility. Pakistan can easily hit Mumbai & Delhi with their bombs, India can hit Beijing, and China can hit anywhere on the continent and beyond. Their politicians do not have the luxury of exercising their power free from responsibility. And so, even the most aggressive, belligerent politicians in those areas are far more careful with their actions than Trump.

        In a similar way, even if global warming won’t hurt me personally (I used to live in a coastal area, which may submerge, but I’m probably rich enough to displace whoever currently lives at wherever the future ocean line may end up), I can choose to accept responsibility and behave accordingly. But plenty of people won’t make that choice, especially if that choice is hard (you must learn a enough science to make your head hurt), entails a sacrifice you don’t want to make (using less energy), or requires you accept someone else’s dominion over your actions (letting pointy-headed EPA dweebs dictate what car or pickup truck you can buy). OTOH, the inhabitants of those small Pacific Islands, who have less education than us, have faced much more social upheaval than us, still believe in global warming, because they have to. They can’t simply brush away the consequences of being wrong on it.

        I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we accepted science more during the Cold War era. Because the Soviets were always the threat-of-last-resort to make people accept a restriction of their actions / power by the experts. But with that threat gone, what do the experts have to make us listen?

      14. A couple of quick comments in response. First, in my view, power always has responsibilities. They may not be accepted or acceptable proportional to the power, but one implies another.

        Second, war and global warming – what a duo. Prudent, rational people generally accept responsibility – they usually prevail over the hawks unless the government is a dictatorship with aggressive plans (Russia/Ukraine). Proximity lends consequences to India and Pakistan’s choices. The problem occurs when the decision maker is oblivious to history, uncaring of consequences, and sees decisions of power as theater – as we have now.

        Global warming. I have a deep appreciation for science but only basic exposure to anything more advanced. But, even I, with my limited exposure can connect the dots between polar cap melt, rising ocean temps and levels, aberrant weather. I don’t think one has to be a scholar to grasp these visible changes in our environment…..They “choose” to ignore. It’s not a matter of intelligence; it really is a matter of willful ignorance.

        IMHO (-;

      15. EJ – The arm swinging metaphor is indeed difficult to apply strictly in all cases. I guess that’s why we call it a metaphor. (I’ll leave it to you to recall the absolutely memorable line from The Book of Mormon.) Obviously our principles dictating behaviors and policies within our highly integrated and complex societies aren’t so simple. But at their essence, they should be based on this principle lest we cease to be and a call ourselves ‘free’.

      16. WX – Why should this need to prove themselves smarter, or otherwise ‘show off’ be more prevalent in wealthier societies then poorer or less educated ones? Ever hear of a potlatch? I remain entirely unconvinced that this rejection of the wisdom of vaccination is at all related to socioeconomic status, except for the secondary factor I mentioned. What was the average socioeconomic status of the typical Trump Voter? Think about it, please.

      17. >] Ryan – Your freedom to swing your arms ends at the other guy’s nose. Punching him is not an ‘excess’ of freedom. This is not a semantic argument. The failure to educate your children or provide for their well being is not an exercise in freedom. The extension of the basic idea to other areas of society should be done very carefully. I don’t think the extension of the notion of the minimum wage for consenting adults from the treatment of minor children is careful, and definitely not the same thing.

        fiftyohm, you’ve missed the point entirely. It’s not that the minimum wage and vaccinations for children can be treated as the same thing; what’s important is the broader idea that we limit people’s choices (carefully and with thoughtful consideration, of course) in the best interest of society. We enacted a minimum wage and limited the business community’s ability to screw their employees over because it was in the better interests of the citizens.

        By that same token, we should do the same thing for vaccinations. Why refrain and give running room to fools whose actions could only serve to do us harm? We only encourage the scourge of disinformation when we don’t take a defiant stand and, as a people, stand up and say that this will not happen.

      18. Did I? “All I say is that, with respect to issues that are important and necessary, such as vaccinating your children from deadly disease, we should limit people’s ability to be idiots and say that yes, that’s something you have to do. Just like we did when we passed a minimum wage that said businesses have to pay their employees at or above a certain threshold…”

        If I happened to miss your point here it was only because you meant something other than what you actually said.

      19. The point I made in your cherry picked excerpt is quite clear, although I couldn’t help but notice that you seemed, once again, to go out of your way in avoiding an actual answer as to whether or not you agree with the position. Why is that, I wonder?

        Understandably, saying that one disagrees with the idea of mandating vaccinations for children is like the equivalent of saying you like to kick a puppy, but with all respect, I’ll have to force the issue again and again until I get an answer out of you.

        Hypothetically, if you do agree, then that affirms the broader point I was making in that there are reasonable actions we can take, ones taken with very careful thought and consideration, that can and should limit people’s freedom of choice in our society. If not, then I’m very interested to hear that your alternative is and what, exactly, you would say to parents whose children were harmed as a result of another’s neglect.

      20. Fifty-
        It’s not that the desire to show off or appear smarter is more prevalent in wealthy societies, it’s that in wealthy societies it’s easier to do so without consequence if you’re wrong. So they indulge in it more.

        If you can show off your [false] intelligence, to convince yourself and/or others of your superiority, without harming anyone, then why not? Poor people living in areas with endemic disease and bad health facilities, don’t have that luxury.

        WRT Trump voters, certainly there are some who voted for him because they agreed with some of his policy positions e.g. trade, immigration, foreign policy, etc. that all have large value components (how much extra are we willing to pay for goods / services to keep the jobs here in America? Who do we let in to our country? What should we do in the Middle East?). Fair enough, that’s the point of democracy, to express those values. But some of his positions that are purely based on expertise are bonkers (e.g. climate change, promising coal jobs that won’t return, building a wall which won’t stop border crossings, etc.) and anyone voting for him due to those positions is playing a dangerous game of chicken with reality.

      21. Ryan – I equated refusing to vaccinate with child abuse. Apparently, you can’t determine my position from that. Then, I quoted exactly a poorly formed idea or yours, and you call it cherry-picking. I find this tiresome. Adios.

      22. Hey WX – In reverse order, if that’s OK: I mentioned Trump voters because they are often categorized as anti-science, and it’s more often than not true. Demographically, they are also predominantly rural, less well educated, and less well-off. This group is the polar opposite the anti-vaxxers, whom are also clearly anti-science. Of course it’s possible there are two completely different mechanisms at work here, but somehow I doubt it.

        The areas of legitimate concern Trump voters might have had was very good. But looking back, most of Trump’so utterances on these matters, let alone any specifics, (save for his wall), had been so vaguely or evasively formed, knowing what he really meant was a crap shoot at best. In other words, coming to a voting decision based on reason and rationality should not have been that difficult. But, as with the anti-vaxxer crowd, reason lost to one of several popular memes. Of course that neologism, as Dawkins conceived it, is only possible with the Internet and information culture.

        Finally, if we accept that non-vaxxers do not believe there is any way their children will get sick, I don’t see how they can see their own behavior as a risk or public statement of any kind. No, I think that they have simply taken a position athwart science and reason. Just like those others I mentioned above.

    2. You said:

      “Athens is held up as the great Western ideal of democracy. Most people then didn’t know how the world worked either, and depended on priests and/or philosophers to explain it to them. Notably, they condemned one of them to death by Hemlock when they didn’t like what he said.”

      A) Socrates was executed during Athen’s fall from power; most notably their ignomious defeat in the Peloponnesian War. The Thirty Tyrants, a Spartan-Mandated oligarchy that was installed as a punitive measure after Sparta’s victory, initially ordered his execution but was overthrown before they could carry it out.

      Athens was in turmoil and the tolerance for “social criticism” was quite low and Socrates was openly baiting the new government to act against him. (See his flippant defense in his trial)

      b) Socrates was a critic of democracy, which he considered to be the second worst form of government. Only abject Tyranny was worse. To believe Plato about Socrates (as well as Plato’s own beliefs) the most ideal “regime” is Aristocracy.

      It is only when Aristocracy degenerates due to corruption that Timocracy (government based on honor) takes hold by the military guardians. Socrates thought Timocracies were superior to most of the city states in Greece and held up Crete and SPARTA as two admirable examples. …admiring Sparta in Athens after Lysander’s triumph at Aegospotami was NOT a wise move.

      If/When Timocracy is then further debased (by allowing the Timocrats to use their possession to generate wealth) a city is ripe for the rise of Oligarchy (which was defined more as government by the wealthy and property holders in ancient Greece). However this is very unstable as class resentment will quickly rise plus the rich are never willing to invest sufficiently in the military and the state will therefore be inherently weak.

      When the Oligarchy falls the rank and and near anarchic chaos of Democracy takes hold. At this point the State is all but doomed to fall to the lowest order of government: Tyranny

      1. Chris-

        You’re right that the execution of Socrates is a more complicated issue than just a moment of temporary insanity by Athenians. If you’re interested, there’s a great book called ‘The Trial of Socrates’ by I.F. Stone that goes into it in much more detail.

        Bottomline, you’re correct that there was tremendous social upheaval at the time of the trial, and that Socrates had been the teacher for several of the men who had tried to overthrow Athens’s government. So there was more at play than just free speech. And yes, Plato’s Republic is appalling in its advocacy of a despotic, totalitarian state, so much so that if anyone outside of Stalin speaks admiringly about its tenets, I assume they never actually read the book. And his execution was due to a very poor, mocking defense (more jurors voted to execute him than voted to find him guilty).

        And yet… at the end of the day, it did boil down to free speech. No one accused Socrates of being a traitor, even if some of his students were. He was tried for his statements. And the Athenian judicial process led to not only a guilty conviction but an execution order.

        It’s a fascinating episode to study, but my point for bringing it up is that the conflict between democracy and expertise (assuming Socrates was viewed as an “expert” in political theory and philosophy with actual impact on society via his students) has existed for thousands of years, from the very beginnings of western democracy, and therefore, have little do with the pace of scientific progress today.

  8. Maybe the first signs of the singularity are visible. As has been shown in this and the last bit from Wait But Why, tribal knowledge now far eclipses the capacity of any single human. The difference between the accumulated knowledge accessible to us and our ability to store and understand it is growing at an exponential rate. (Basically by this I mean our mental capacity is essentially static, and the numerator is growing exponentially.)

    This situation is relatively new. Just a few centuries ago, it was largely possible for a pretty smart human to have at least a mental grasp of pretty much everything that was known. A few centuries.

    We find ourselves in a world where others must be *trusted* to provide us with the necessary information with which to make decisions in a democratic society. That information must necessarily be without bias, and perhaps most importantly, is beyond our individual ability to verify in any important way.

    But remember – each of those who provide us with information are still just human. They have limbic systems. They have all the stuff that drives all of us to do what’s best for us, and not necessarily for the collective. We are possibly looking at an entirely unpredictable future as a result.

    1. Actually, it’s even newer in other societies. It’s taken America 200 hundred years to go from an agrarian, rural society with high rates of illiteracy, poverty, etc. to an advanced civilization. It’s taken China 30. So why do the Chinese seem better adapted and prepared for this scientific revolution?

      1. Wx – Well, cross- cultural comparisons are certainly interesting, if difficult. Without doubt China has made great strides in the last 30 years. But to compare Chinese poverty, for example, to western poverty is problematic at best. Central planning can produce near-term results. Over longer terms it can produce disaster. Chinese demographics are a perfect example, but well beyond the range of this discussion.

        You suggest that the Chinese “seem better adapted and prepared for this scientific revolution.” How many Elon Musk style startups does this country of 1.4 billion have? Where are the investment dollars flowing? How many Nobel Prizes can China claim? (9). I guess as one who has spent more than a bit of time there in the tech arena, I’m somewhat skeptical of the suggestion.

      2. Fifty-
        I’m not comparing Chinese and American scientists. Our scientists are still the envy of the world. My point (apologies for not making it clear), was that the *average* Chinese has had to undergo much more cultural upheaval, technological change, etc. than the average American over the past 30 years, and yet, seems better adapted to that change. Of course, without studying Chinese culture closely, it’s possible they’re doing much worse than they seem to be from a distance.

        As an example, Chris’s grandparents had to go from a TV that you had to push buttons on directly to switch channels, to a TV that had a magic wand to do the task. And they couldn’t cope. Chinese grandparents had to go from never having or even seeing a TV, to watching a TV with a remote. Why could the Chinese grandparent cope with that far greater leap, than Chris’s grandparents?

      3. Nowadays, all TVs have a remote. If you’ve never seen a TV, and you get one, it comes with a remote. The magic of the TV and the remote are rolled up into the same trick. Were you to give my 28 year old engineer daughter a TV without a remote, she’d be as vexed as Chris’ grandparents.

      4. As an example, Chris’s grandparents had to go from a TV that you had to push buttons on directly to switch channels, to a TV that had a magic wand to do the task. And they couldn’t cope. Chinese grandparents had to go from never having or even seeing a TV, to watching a TV with a remote. Why could the Chinese grandparent cope with that far greater leap, than Chris’s grandparents?

        Let’s consider that situation in reverse. Let’s say that a modestly young Millennial suddenly had to be thrust into a situation where he had to get up from his comfy chair to go to the TV to physically change the channel to whatever. As someone who’d only ever used a remote control for the overwhelming majority of his natural life, would he suddenly be at a loss as to what to do?

        Of course not, why would he? Fundamentally, nothing’s changed. You’re still pressing buttons to get your desired outcome, and all that’s different is where the buttons are.

        Professions aside, people don’t get by by learning all the nitty gritty details of whatever it is they’re doing. By and large, they form a basic template for the task at hand (like pushing buttons on a remote control), keeping the essentials broken down to the most essential building blocks, memorizing it, and working from there; each consecutive step building on the last, like pages in a book coming together to form a whole story.

        This, in turn, goes hand-in-hand with what we call fluid intelligence, which is a person’s individual ability to meet new situations and solve problems that they’ve never encountered before. It’s like your physical ability in that the right training can improve it, but your innate ability will naturally differ with others; some will be much worse than yours, while others will be the equivalent of Babe Ruth, knocking you out of the proverbial ballpark.

        There is no good reason for a person to be able to operate a remote control and not be able to operate a TV. You have the basic template down already and if you’re having trouble regardless, then it’s reasonable to assume that you’re just not thinking things through. You’re pushing buttons.

        Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stunned Watson when he said that he didn’t know that the earth revolved around the sun. How could that possibly be, Watson asked. Holmes responded with a question of his own, asking why, as a specialist in crime, knowing that the earth revolved around the sun was of any importance to him. What good would it do him to know that?

        We do not have a crisis in humans’ ability to keep up with information anymore than the earth itself has a problem with the ever expanding universe. With respect to their personal lives, the information humans need has remained remarkably consistent. The only radically different change that’s occurred in recent memory is the advent of the computer and, by and large, we’ve adapted to it splendidly. For its plethora of different forms and interpretations, tell me how, exactly, the basic idea of a computer is so much different than it was ten or twenty years ago.

        What we do have is a crisis of indecisiveness in asserting ourselves with respect to the truth and those facts which are vital to our personal and economic well-being.

      5. Going back to the anti-vaccination discussion for a bit…I agree that very few people understand “why” vaccination works, and it is clear that the plethora of information – pro and con – exists for the world to plumb. However, in earlier years, generally speaking people were grateful that researchers had found a way to keep people from experiencing these dreaded diseases – polio, diphtheria, smallpox, etc. Fundamentally, I really believe that what is driving the anti-vaxers is grounded in a distrust of institutions. Institutions have become removed from being respected to being criticized and challenged. I’m not advocating for no challenges but I do think that it’s become absurdly common to question everything – and make decisions without a lick of any scientific basis of one’s own. Point is: I don’t need to know “how” a vaccination helps keep me and my family healthier and safer, I just need to trust that the scientific vetting process is trustworthy….

      6. >] Fundamentally, I really believe that what is driving the anti-vaxers is grounded in a distrust of institutions. Institutions have become removed from being respected to being criticized and challenged.

        Granting that that’s the case, that would seem to be all the more reason for a renewed assertiveness in those facts which are beyond scientific dispute. Don’t give the idiots room to marshal opposition that only could only serve to further undermine our institutions and weaken public confidence. A stand has to be taken.

  9. This goes to the old “longing for the good old days” BS. I still want to know when that was. Growing up in the 60’s, I remember how disturbing the evening news was, yet people pine away for those times.

    I recall hearing Trump say something about liking less educated people early in the campaign. When you make some of the completely unfounded claims he does, its easy to see why he does like that group.

  10. I’m thinking that maybe science and technology should have the same status in schools as “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic,” that basic scientific literacy should be an educational requirement, accorded the same importance and respect as reading and writing, that not understanding basic science would be on the same level as being illiterate.

    I’m not saying that knowing basic science will qualify us to understand the complex issues you mention that are currently out of our grasp due to their exponential growth, but at the very least, it would be a start towards thinking critically about science, and understanding basic science is better than not understanding it at all.

      1. However, it may take a generation or two for this cultural shift to take effect.

        As you rightly note, culture needs time to catch up with scientific change.

        Perhaps our culture will always be behind, but the closer we can get, the better.

      2. I know that on previous threads I have said that we should not allow ourselves to be carried away by technology, that I’m rather anti-technology. However, I do think that we should understand it. And taking a pause and stepping back from technology and asking if it’s truly good or beneficial is part of the critical thinking process.

    1. I’d agree that basic scientific and technical literacy is a goal, but don’t we already have classes (elementary and middle school science) that are supposed to give that? If they’re failing, let’s improve them.

      What I think needs to be added is explicit reference to critical/logical thinking. Stuff like “In an average year, volcanoes emit x amount of CO2 and human industry emits y amount of CO2. y>>x. Measurements of the atmosphere show an increase of about y/2 per year and measurements of the upper ocean show the other y/2 goes there. What do you conclude about a politician who immediately talks about volcanoes when asked a question about greenhouse gasses and global warming?”

      1. In my experience, science classes were treated almost as electives and were geared more toward people who were “good” at science.

        My view is that scientific literacy should be on the same level as basic reading and writing.

      2. I’m with you Greg. All the information in the world if one fails to use it wisely, doesn’t really do that person any good. Think of the garage technology geeks who have applied creativity and scientific reasoning to make our lives so much easier and efficient.

        But, here’s a question. For all the scientific knowledge and technological capability that exists, are we happier? Undeniably, we are more productive, but now one person can do the work of two or three with the aide of technology….The stress from performing at that high level of productivity benefits the company, but other than remuneration commensurate with one’s skills, are people happier?

        I look at the world around us filled with wondrous scientific advances and I see a world filled with turmoil. Why havent’ we been able to use the technology and its many benefits to enrich our personal lives more (more than tvs with remotes, dishwashers, fancy computers, etc) and help the people who populate this planet live more peacefully together among these wondrous inventions?
        Have we become smarter by remote (brain the same but access to information greatly expanded) but failed to learn how to use this knowledge to the betterment of our cultures? You know, the ones we inhabit?

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