Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Science, Politics, and Administration

It is important to grasp the key difference between the province of science and the province of politics that is the difference between consensus and dissensus.

It is true that the process through which we arrive at candidate descriptions for warranted scientific belief is one that celebrates its outliers and dissenters and anomalous results. The process of scientific discovery, elaboration, testing and publication is a public process, involving the collaboration and contestation of a diversity of stakeholders. That is to say, the process of arriving at warranted scientific belief offers us one of science's most political faces or aspects. But while science cherishes surprises and paradigm shattering theories and stubborn champions of discredited or insufficiently substantiated hypotheses as indispensable motors of scientific progress, it aspires to confirmation and consensus, and much more to the point, it actually provisionally achieves these.

Scientific truth is whatever the rough consensus of practicing scientists and sufficiently scientifically literate people says it is. That means I think that "scientific truth" really is a shorthand we use to describe whatever is published in respectable middlebrow high school and undergraduate college science textbooks each generation. This constellation of warranted descriptions changes from generation to generation under the pressure of discovery as well as the pressure of humanity's changing sense of the possible and the important (the latter changing itself in part in turn under pressure of changing scientific beliefs).

Over the centuries, we have hacked out a host of good but imperfect criteria on the basis of which we judge candidate descriptions scientifically warranted, good in the way of pragmatic belief: coherence, testability, repeatability, elegance, and the rest. None of these criteria has never failed to direct us to candidate descriptions that were subsequently set aside for better ones, and so none of them has ever rightly bestowed us either certainty or finality. Reasonable warranted consensus scientific beliefs confer degrees of confidence which are quite indispensable enough to assign this mode the dignity of its own province, separate from mores, aesthetics, ethics, politics. These criteria do generally manage to shepherd our scientific consensus of beliefs toward more predictive and instrumental power, but still subject to other-than-scientific vicissitudes in our mores, tastes, aspirations, and associations that shift our sense of the possible and the important in ways that impact what it is we seek to predict and control in the first place.

Those who prefer to emphasize scientific outliers as definitive rather than simply indispensable to science over the stolid solid science of consensus tend to be crackpots or dupes who foolishly mistake themselves for champions of science or who are indulging in rank fraud. This is something of a pickle in mass-mediated (and possibly no less so in p2p network-mediated) democratic societies the administration of which depends, among other things, on allocations of public monies invested in the service of public goods the legitimacy of which is based in confident recourse to consensus science, often in cases where only small minorities are sufficiently informed to render judgments as to the state of that consensus and so one must depend on the reliability of professional or peer credentializing formations. Sometimes reasonably warranted scientific belief requires that one knows the science, and sometimes it requires instead that one knows who to trust who knows the science.

In this accountable administration of public goods politics offers us its most scientific face or aspect. The very legitimacy on which democratically accountable social administration depends is possible only because (and only when) a scientific consensus of belief can be achieved in respect of some public good. But those who prefer to emphasize such administration as definitive rather than simply indispensable to politics over the ineradicable interminable unpredictable collaboration and contestation of a diversity of peers who share the world tend to be tyrants (often mild-mannered, well-meaning technocratic ones, mind you, but misguided, dangerous tyrants all the same) or zealots who have mistaken moralizing for politics. Moral policing, too, is a kind of administration after all.

Politics is whatever arises out of the ineradicable diversity of peers who share the world. When you form an argument in the expectation that you might meet with disagreement, or testify to an aspiration or an experience in the expectation that you might meet with incomprehension, or seek to co-ordinate effort or act in concert to achieve some end attentive to the differences in the abilities, interests, situations, opinions of your collaborators that might frustrate or facilitate that achievement you have entered the province of the political. While it isn't true that all politics properly so-called is democratic, even non-democratic and anti-democratic politics arise out of our awareness of and assumption of a strategic vantage on our immersion in and impingement upon the ineradicable interminable diversity of our peers -- and so, the blackmailer and the tyrant and the slaveholder still act within the province of the political when they work to maintain their appalling advantages and control over their victims all the while in keen awareness of the unpredictable dynamisms, opportunisms, and resistances that inhere even in a brutalized and immiserated diversity of humanity.

But in an era that genuflects to democracy in spirit even where it betrays democracy in fact, it is not just the ineradicable fact of human diversity but very particularly a diversity that bespeaks the widest possible self-determination of our peers that defines the political properly so-called. Democracy is the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them, and the politics of democratization are the struggle to ensure that ever more people have ever more of a say in the public decisions that affect them.

The complementary paradoxes of late modernity are, first, that it is only in the moment in which our technical abilities first arrived at the unprecedented capacity of destroying all humanity that we achieved the technical capacity to overcome poverty, inequity, and compulsion, and so accomplish the emancipation of all humanity and, second, that these newfound instrumental powers that placed the experience of freedom equally within reach of the full diversity of humanity were confused with the substance of that freedom thereby rendering its accomplishment as remote as ever (and, not incidentally, cutting us off in that remoteness from the deliberative intelligence without which we are at the greatest possible risk of unleashing our unprecedented technical powers in the service of our destruction).

Contrary to Amartya Sen who identifies development with freedom, it seems to me that the collaborative and agonistic process through which development occurs is in fact incidental to freedom once (and only to the extent that) development has accomplished the provision of reliable knowledge and general welfare that ensure the scene of consent is truly informed and nonduressed. Development is the facilitation but not the substance of freedom, and while development is indispensable to the achievement of a world in which freedom is available to all (and therefore, for democrats like us, available at all, since, for us, as per King, injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere), to confuse the administrative facilitation of freedom with freedom itself is to lose it. In reducing freedom to instrumentality we are reduced to instruments, we relinquish our subjecthood in subjecting ourselves to an objecthood, however "powerful."

And so, while it is true that one finds dissensus at the margins and even as the motor of scientific process, it is consensus, such as it is, that constitutes the substance of science as a province of reasonable warranted belief. And so, too, while it is true that one finds a convergence onto the administration of public good on the scene and even as the precondition for political freedom, it is dissensus that constitutes the substance of political freedom as a province of reasonable warranted belief, just as it is only ubiquity of tolerated dissent that provides a reliable indicator of a democratic society, that is to say a (multi)culture of consent.

5 comments:

AnneC said...

...to confuse the administrative facilitation of freedom with freedom itself is to lose it. In reducing freedom to instrumentality we are reduced to instruments, we relinquish our subjecthood in subjecting ourselves to an objecthood, however "powerful."

Yes. This. Saying, truthfully, "X will theoretically permit Y, for the benefit of mankind!" does not mean (and should not be taken to mean) that Y is somehow inevitable, or even that Y will necessarily be accomplished via X in the first place. When I look at publications from the past (and present) it's a consistent pattern to see long lists of Ys that particular Xs are said to possibly allow, and it's kind of eerie how this can invoke an feeling that Y somehow actually already exists. When in fact, it doesn't, and may never, and the way toward it is fraught with barriers that while not necessarily insurmountable are not the sorts of things that can be glossed over as mere fluff.

jimf said...

Dale wrote:

> Those who prefer to emphasize scientific outliers as definitive
> rather than simply indispensable to science over the stolid solid
> science of consensus tend to be crackpots or dupes who foolishly
> mistake themselves for champions of science or who are indulging
> in rank fraud. This is something of a pickle in mass-mediated
> (and possibly no less so in p2p network-mediated) democratic societies
> the administration of which depends, among other things, on allocations
> of public monies invested in the service of public goods the
> legitimacy of which is based in confident recourse to consensus science,
> often in cases where only small minorities are sufficiently informed
> to render judgments as to the state of that consensus and so one must
> depend on the reliability of professional or peer credentializing
> formations. Sometimes reasonably warranted scientific belief requires
> that one knows the science, and sometimes it requires instead that one
> knows who to trust who knows the science.

Cracks in the pot:

http://lists.extropy.org/pipermail/extropy-chat/2004-April/005888.html
-------------------
Chris Phoenix writes:

> I've gone through a crisis of faith with regard to scientists recently.
> In many areas, I've come to realize, scientists are far too
> self-assured. They think they're practicing science, when in fact they
> are merely contributing to science. A lone scientist can run
> experiments, observe, make hypotheses, form opinions... but cannot fully
> practice science, because science can only emerge from interactive
> criticism. We are all too fallible to trust ourselves to generate good
> science without lots of help.
> ...
> So how can science be reported to the real world? If one scientist's
> opinion isn't trustworthy, what about lots of opinions together?
> Michael Crichton has called this "consensus science," and correctly
> attacked it. It's no more than a popularity contest for ideas, and the
> popularity of an idea has little to do with its truth.

This is a dangerous road to take. I'd be concerned that if I started
off doubting the practice of science as a guide to truth, I might as
well send in for my membership card in the Flat Earth Society, because
that's where I'd end up.

You complain above that individually, scientists can't practice science
because that requires interactive criticism. But in fact, most individual
scientists do work in a framework of interaction. Most scientists
that I've known are actually very cautious about criticism, and do
their utmost to make their presentations and publications bulletproof.
They'll go out of their way to mention any weaknesses or ambiguities
in their theories specifically in order to pre-empt their critics from
raising those points. Science is a sport where defense counts more than
offense, from my observations.

And then you go on and criticize consensus science as being no more
than a popularity contest. But this again overlooks the tremendous
importance of criticism in the scientific process. A scientifically
unsound theory, even if popular, cannot withstand criticism for long.
There is too much temptation to jump onto the critical side once people
see that it is going to win. Science rewards successful critics,
and this self correcting mechanism is part of what has made science so
successful as an institution.

The real problem with abandoning science is that you will have no guide
to truth in our complex world. No one can become familiar with all of
the technical details relevant to the issues we face. By abandoning
science you are explicitly turning away from the people who have spent
their entire lives acquiring expertise in these areas.

Do you really think you are better able to weigh the many complexities
around, say, global warming than those who have devoted their careers to
studying the atmosphere and climate? Or similarly with other questions
like the safety of genetically engineered plants? Or even, yes, the
feasibility of nanotech?

I have an extreme belief in the importance of being open minded.
I've written at length about the dangers I see in ideologies, the way
they blind us and control our thoughts. I've been strongly influenced by
the results that Robin Hanson has reported and extended about the ways
we fool ourselves, how we don't really seek the truth even though we
think we do. I believe in seeking the truth. To the extent that I have
an ideology, that's it. I try to look for those mechanisms in my mind
that are operating to push me off the path to truth, and to compensate
for them as well as I can.

One of the principles I follow is that if I believe something that
mainstream science disagrees with, I am probably wrong. It's for the
reasons given above. I'm not smarter than those guys, at least not
the smartest ones of them. And their expertise in these areas is far
deeper than my own. Plus they have this incredibly complex and elaborate
process of modelling and testing and subjecting each others results to
intense criticism, while my uninformed notions on those topics undergo
no such rigorous trials.

The lesson I learned from Robin is that if I disagree with someone
else, it's an accident of history which position I ended up with.
I could have just as easily been in his shoes. Hence I should have
no presumption that I am probably right, when there is a disagreement.
Given this perspective, when I am going up against a scientific consensus,
the odds are overwhelming that the scientists are right and I am wrong.

It looks to me like these attitudes are the only appropriate ones to adopt
for someone who sincerely seeks the truth. We have to try to discard
or at least overcome our prejudices and egotistical belief in personal
correctness and superiority. We have to be willing to change our minds
when we come up against a situation where the experts disagree with us.

Without the guidance of the best advice and analysis available on a
subject, I would be concerned about being vulnerable to all kinds of
quackery and fraud. We have many crazy beliefs right on this list.
Some here refuse to accept the reality of global warming. Some believe in
psychic powers. Some reject the link between HIV and AIDS. Some believe
the universe is packed full of intelligent life. Some believe that Israel
caused the 9/11 attacks. Some believe in cold fusion. And that's not
even mentioning the whole complex of beliefs about the Singularity.

Rejecting science means rejecting the best and most successful institution
mankind has ever developed for finding out the truth about the world.
It puts you onto a dangerous path fraught with tempting falsehoods that
can lead you astray. As I suggested above, you better set aside money
for your membership in the Crackpot League, because that's where this
road ends.

Hal Finney
-------------------


http://lists.extropy.org/pipermail/extropy-chat/2004-April/005930.html
-------------------
"These are extraordinarily different things[:]
The practice of science is a social process.
The consensus of science is an opinion poll.

The actual working part of science is Bayesian probability theory, which
individual scientists and their social dynamics partially and imperfectly
mirror. . . .

Science intrinsically requires individual researchers setting their
judgment above that of the scientific community. The social process of
science encourages people to do the work and recognizes when they have
done the work. The social process is not an actual human brain, has not
the power of intelligence. If individuals do not have novel opinions and,
yes, disagreements, for the scientific process to recognize as correct,
there is no science. . . .

The overall rationality of academia is simply not good enough to handle
some necessary problems, as the case of Drexler illustrates. Individual
humans routinely do better than the academic consensus. . . .

Yes, the Way of rationality is difficult to follow. As illustrated by the
difficulty that academia encounters in following [it]. The social process of
science has too many known flaws for me to accept it as my upper bound.
Academia is simply not that impressive, and is routinely beaten by
individual scientists who learn to examine the evidence supporting the
consensus, apply simple filters to distinguish conclusive experimental
support from herd behavior. Robyn Dawes is among the scientists who have
helped document the pervasiveness of plausible-sounding consensuses that
directly contradict the available experimental evidence. Richard Feynman
correctly dismissed psychoanalysis, despite the consensus, because he
looked and lo, there was no supporting evidence whatsoever. Feynman tells
of how embarassing lessons taught him to do this on individual issues of
physics as well, look up the original experiments and make sure the
consensus was well-supported.

Given the lessons of history, you should sit up and pay attention if Chris
Phoenix says that distinguished but elderly scientists are making blanket
pronunciations of impossibility *without doing any math*, and without
paying any attention to the math, in a case where math has been done. If
you advocate a blanket acceptance of consensus so blind that I cannot even
apply this simple filter - I'm sorry, I just can't see it. It seems I
must accept the sky is green, if Richard Smalley says so.

I can do better than that, and so can you."


--
Eliezer S. Yudkowsky http://singinst.org/
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence
-------------------

jimf said...

> Scientific truth is whatever the rough consensus of practicing
> scientists and sufficiently scientifically literate people says
> it is. . .
>
> Politics is whatever arises out of the ineradicable diversity of
> peers who share the world. When you form an argument in the expectation
> that you might meet with disagreement. . . you have entered the province
> of the political.

Now this is charming:

http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2009/03/elves-of-iceland-are-believed-to-be.html
----------------------------------
The Elves of Iceland: "Hidden People" and "Nature Spirits"
By John W. Loftus at 3/12/2009

What's interesting about the belief in Elves is that it comes from
a country in Western society, not a third world country nor a primitive
pre-industrial one. Many Icelanders really believe in "hidden people"
such that it would be "political suicide" if a politician denied their
existence. . .

The Icelandic Elf School...
http://www.gonomad.com/features/0101/waigand_iceland.html
...teaches students and visitors about the five different kinds of
elves or hidden people that are believed to inhabit the country
of Iceland. There are elves, light-fairies, hidden people, dwarfs,
gnomes, and mountain spirits. . . The school is located in Reykjavík,
the country's largest city. The school is headed by Magnús Skarphéðinsson,
brother of the leader of one of Iceland's largest political parties.

Today, 54% of Icelanders believe in elves and hidden people and a
full 90% of the population "takes notice" of this shadow community. . .
----------------------------------

And see also:

_Fairy Tale - A True Story_ (1997)
http://www.amazon.com/Fairy-Tale-Story-Paul-McGann/dp/B0000AUHQR
a movie about the Cottingley photographs in the context of
fairy-belief in World War I England (the milieu in which
J. R. R. Tolkien, as a young soldier, began to invent his own
mythology).

Dale Carrico said...

A few swallowed comments are still in my e-mail queue, so I'm going to try to re-publish them in case they're gone for good:

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Science, Politics, and
Administration":

Those who prefer to emphasize scientific outliers as definitive rather
than simply indispensable to science over the stolid solid science of
consensus tend to be crackpots or dupes who foolishly mistake
themselves for champions of science or who are indulging in rank fraud.

In my view, this isn't the best way to spot crackpottery. Oh, yes,
crackpots always channel Einstein, Wright brothers, Tesla, Von Braun,
etc. ad nauseum. But, unlike the genuine articles, they want special
treatment of some kind for their ideas. Always.

Darwin didn't start a single lawsuit. Korolyov worked for the very men
that imprisoned him, and so did Von Braun (it was easier for him,
though). Einstein wasn't ever a tenured professor, certainly not in
1910s-20s when he made most of his discoveries, and in 1905 he had to
work as a patent examiner, third-class. Wright brothers built
their "flier" (and half a dozen various flying prototypes) first, and
then sought investors.

Some imitate those examples faithfully, and whether their ideas make it
or fail miserably, I respect them. But do crackpots, con men and their
dupes do that? Never! They don't bet their lives and fortunes on their
ideas, they want a sure thing. So they go to courts, to TV, to gullible
venture capitalists, to the internet, organize their own diploma mills,
and get their share of "degrees", "fame" and sometimes, alas, quite
real money. Their "success" is of course, as fake as their ideas and
methods, even financial one.

Another aspect is that those fakes are more malleable and thus more
useful for certain interests, than genuine science. (Lysenko being most
egregious example... Can it happen here?) But that's another story
entirely. The sheer hypocricy of this fake-dissent is enough to make
those types absolutely intolerable.

Any dissenters are welcome, except fakes.

Moderate comments for this blog:
http://www.blogger.com/moderate-comment.g?blogID=5956838

Posted by Anonymous to amor mundi at 1:36 PM

Dale Carrico said...

I don't doubt, though, that some crackpots are willing to die (at least professionally) for their dumb ideas or too stupid or caught up in a full froth of True Belief to grasp that these are the stakes in the game they are playing at.

What matters to me is that we insist on the distinction of marginal hypothesis that are indispensable despite their marginality to the process by means of which we arrive at ever more capacious technoscience, and actual scientific consensus many of the present pillars of which began as marginal notions.

I think that most non-crackpots who are strong champions of presently marginal notions will concede that their views do not yet represent consensus science even if they expect them one day to achieve that distinction.

They will not compensate for their marginality by pretending to a certainty that nobody has, they will not handwave about the ignorance or irrationality of their detractors but seek to better substantiate their cases and persuade them, they will be aware and will welcome that it is the extraordinary claim that demands extraordinary evidences and that their marginality puts the onus on them, they will reasonably qualify their claims in the face of objections rather than hyperbolize them, they will behave like scientists rather than salesmen (or futurologists, all of whom are salesmen).