Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Science And The Free Market (II) : Solving Politics

Last time I asked, "why does science do so well, when politics and markets often fail ?". After all, there are plenty of intelligent people in all walks of life, and the basic network structure of academia doesn't seem to be that different from other areas. If we could only figure out just what it is that makes the scientific consensus so robust, so able to withstand the presence of idiots, maybe we could apply this elsewhere and make the world a better place full of rainbows and kittens.

Having dismissed some simpler explanations as at best limited (namely the people involved and their connections), in this post I'm going to suggest that the key reason science works is its method. The technique science has developed for grappling complex problems seems to be something very special. So let's see if science really does have a magic formula for success, and whether this can be used outside of the hallowed halls of academia.

This post is going start off as a little bit of a gushing review of the scientific method, but do remember : 1) horrific individual mistakes do happen; 2) the process takes a very long time.


How science gets it right

The process of doing research is messy to say the least. Here's my earlier attempt to illustrate it :


This apparent omnishambles somehow manages to give rise to profound truths : the size of the Universe, the nature of matter, why wombats have square poop. For individual researchers it works well; on a larger scale it performs miracles. It has led, quite literally, to turning lead into gold, landing a man on the moon, obliterating cities, and creating small rectangular objects that allow teenagers to access pornography whenever and wherever they want. Oh, and unlimited cat memes. Yay.

Let's start with the individuals. The scientific method is a bit like post-processing an image : it can make a good idea great, but it can't make a bad idea good. You need a fair bit of analytic intelligence to even get started (or at least mathematical ability); science is, it must be said, quite hard.

Nevertheless, the procedure matters a good deal. The basic procedure goes a bit like this. You have an idea, do background reading, think of a way to test it, do background reading to see if this is sensible and/or novel, collect the data you need, analyse it (with more background reading on methodology), see if it fits your interpretation, realise that it probably doesn't, think of something else you could extract from the data (yes, MORE background reading), and assuming it does you write something up and submit it to a journal, argue with the referee about your results (yep, that needs more background reading too), eventually get something published that vaguely resembles what you originally anticipated (or not), and then wait for the community to shoot it down, support it, or more likely simply ignore it (and yes, that means doing yet more reading) because no-one else cares that much except you.

Okay, maybe that didn't simplify it as much as I thought it would. What I want to get at is how this procedure works to determine the most plausible interpretation and meaning of the available data. Lots of these steps are also used outside of science, of course, but there's an awful temptation in other fields to skip ahead. If you have an idea, great, but if you don't test it experimentally or don't check to see if it's already been done, or if you don't bother to check your conclusion with anyone else... you're usually screwed. 

Science, on the other hand, is pretty insistent that you follow the whole dang procedure. And that's not a nice optional bonus - it's crucialIn case it isn't obvious, the whole thing doesn't scale linearly. Skipping a few steps here and there is like deciding to skip a few bricks when building a house - you'll end up with something, right enough, but it won't be nice to live in and eventually something will collapse and hit you on the head.


Previously I've looked in some detail at how people go about forming conclusions, which makes this task quite a bit simpler. The theory goes that when evaluating claims, people consider (consciously or otherwise, for better or for worse) :
  • Evidence
  • Coherency of the argument
  • Comparison to pre-existing beliefs
  • Trust in the source of the evidence
  • The number of people who accept the statement
  • How people will perceive them if they accept the idea
And we should probably add emotional bias into this mix. What seems plausible when forced to give a snap response can seem very different under proper scrutiny. Despite its complexity, the scientific method emphasises the logical, rational, evidenced-based aspects of evaluation, and decreases the reliance on meta-data (which can be influenced by all kinds of irrational factors) and emotive elements. It does this in several different ways.


Being your own worse enemy

To be a good scientist you should punch yourself quite often, but not too literally unless you're researching self harm.
Perhaps the most fundamental part of the modern scientific system is peer review. If you know that your report won't see the light of day unless a randomly-chosen colleague gives it the green light*, you're forced to consider things from other perspectives - effectively, into attacking your own findings and ideas to see if they stand up against a skeptic before you even try letting it loose against a genuine rival. You get a feel for the sort of arguments someone might use if they want to discredit you, so you take steps to make your findings as robust as possible before sending them out into the big wide world on their own. And you do this yourself but also through discussions with colleagues, even if you're the only author on a paper.

* You can of course present at a conference without peer review at all, but how the audience reacts is essentially just another aspect of peer review. The final results, which is what everyone cares about, are in research papers.

This is why there's all that background reading. By setting down the existing arguments that people have used, science forces an in-depth examination of the issue at hand - and more than it, it also gives metaknowledge of how the data was obtained, the strengths and weakness of different techniques, which ones are most common, etc. It compels you to search the literature for things you may not be aware of and resuscitates dormant memories of things half-heard in a conference long ago. This strongly emphasises an analysis of the evidence, the coherency of the argument, and how it fits in with existing knowledge (and of course whether existing ideas might be wrong).

By ensuring that the the idea is confronted with as much existing data as possible, it becomes very difficult to avoid addressing at least the major probable conflicts. Any ideas which severely contradict others are unlikely to survive, or at the very least, any such conflicts are likely to be stated very clearly in the final paper for all to see. It can and does happen that this processes ends potential projects before they even begin, because you realise it's already been done and/or your idea has already been discredited*. Science forces you to change as much as it does everyone else.

* I once spent maybe ~2 months convinced I'd found something really cool that other authors had missed. I did quite a lot of image processing to try and show it as clearly as possible, before I finally realised that the whole thing had been covered in a footnote by people who didn't find it terribly interesting for some reason.

The group aspect of this is important, since what one person might miss, another may spot - or may know who to ask. So the process of producing a written report not only forces you to consult the past, but also a wide range of contemporary sources. The precise network structure probably does matter a good deal here, if not for affecting the methods, then at least for connecting people with different ideas and knowledge.


Thinking with your... pencil ?

More generally, science relies heavily on extended cognition. Ideas you have on the spur of the moment are important, but the process of writing things down, setting out things in different ways (especially through statistical analyses and data visualisation) not only inspires new thoughts you wouldn't otherwise have had, but also also provides a detailed record that others can follow. And of course most fundamentally it allows you to do calculations that even Carol Vorderman couldn't do in her head. Numerical analysis allows you to see trends you couldn't possibly otherwise see, forcing you to objectively test and confront whether your preferred explanation is actually better or worse than others (and often leaves you wondering why the hell you preferred an explanation to begin with).


A subtler aspect is the the length of time all this takes. The constant, prolonged examination reduces emotional bias, as it's hard to sustain wild tear-your-clothes-off enthusiasm for months on end, even especially for Carol Vorderman - generally, at most you'll be quietly enthusiastic  Perhaps most importantly of all, while our default comparisons tend to be relative, recent, and local, the approach of scientific scrutiny helps tend them towards something approaching absolute, established, and global. Although sometimes our snap judgements do turn out to be correct, this protracted investigation is far more rigorous.


Wake up sheeple  !



While careful examination and research expands metaknowledge of processing and other aspects of understanding how previous research was done, it also reduces the reliance on potentially misleading metaknowledge we normally use when assessing a statement. It's awfully tempting to cite a large number of sources as evidence of correctness, and this can and does happen - but the arguments set down in a paper must still be assessed on their own merits even if in flagrant contradiction to what everyone else currently thinks.

And, almost by definition, papers are expected to present some new and interesting result, so there's an expectation on the part of the referee that it might challenge existing findings, reducing any skepticism they might have towards novelty. New results are the implicit goal of the whole process, so while the popularity of an existing idea might grant it preference, it certainly doesn't give it immunity from prosecution. This means that while ordinarily it can be entirely sensible to make judgements based on what everyone else's doing*, this herd mentality is greatly reduced through scientific analysis, even though it's certainly not eliminated completely. So saying, "all these other sheep are running forwards, I'd better run forwards too", might win a scientifically-minded sheep some credit with a reviewer, but not all that much.

* If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump too ? Of course you would. Your friends aren't a bunch of nutters, so they must have had a very good reason for jumping off a cliff, and it's probably not a good idea to wait around and see what that reason actually is.

The process also reduces the reliance in trust in the source. If a random bloke on the internet tried to sell you discounted tickets to the zoo (or whatever), you might be suspicious. If you friend did it, you wouldn't be. Peer review makes it as though every published author was your friend, even if you haven't met them ! Well, okay, not really, but it does mean you have an idea of the struggle they went through to make it that far. You can be pretty confident that it's not nonsense (of course, you might still trust some authors more than others). At the same time, it doesn't mean you take their claims at face value either, because you know referees make mistakes and your reading the paper as part of the community is still part of the wider, extended review process. But your burden of judging who's trustworthy is greatly lessened, and leaves you free to concentrate on assessing the content.

And the process mitigates how much praise and shame authors can expect to receive. The network aspect of this is especially complex : sometimes we can be shunned for an unpopular belief that drives us to change our views, whereas sometimes this causes us only to dig our heels in. Praise and shame have been noted as major drivers of false beliefs, as they affect our standing in our social groups. Scientists are praised when their ideas seem plausible and at least respected if they publish errata or refute their own ideas - mistakes are allowed even for individuals. In contrast, lies are treated as almost unforgivable. Anyone found committing scientific fraud is swiftly tarred and feathered, although usually only metaphorically because you can't claim tar and feathers back on expenses.

Anonymity in the peer review process plays a very important role here. It means a junior researcher is less afraid to criticise a big scary professor of high reputation and/or influence, and means that if the author thinks the reviewer is a ugly, brain-dead moron, then they won't know who to direct their anger against - thus preventing hostility towards them in the future. It's very hard to bear a grudge against a mysterious stranger.


The review process itself also tends to deaden overblown rhetoric, forcing everyone to stick to the data. Its effect is usually to moderate the discussion, both increasing skepticism where needed and allowing interesting discoveries to be presented to a wider audience. Of course, none of this can never fully remove the emotional response of the community, but it does help.

And "help" is important. Peer review doesn't just mean someone else either approves or disapproves - more often than not it means they help improve. Yes, they can and do ultimately reject or allow papers, but this rarely happens without at least some adjustments first. Compromise is usually possible, and sensible authors and reviewers alike recognise that they shouldn't expect all their arguments/requests to be accepted. It's going to be very important to bear that in mind later on. So when Anakin Skywalker says that "people should be made to agree by someone wise" :


... he's being a twit, and hasn't read his Plato. Plato realised that sure, a benevolent omniscient dictator was indeed the best solution of government, but this just isn't practical. So instead we have laws - external, prior standards we all adhere too. Similarly, peer review doesn't mean forcing one side of the other to seek victory, but to "act together in support of the truest suggestion", as Plato put it. When it works well, peer review means that both sides follow the rules and don't say anything of consequence that they can't substantiate; both sides usually make concessions, and no-one is forced to agree to the opinion of some mythical wise despot.

Science doesn't stop scientists getting emotional, but does strip emotion out of the analysis they do. It does not lead to perfect objectivity, or prevent us having preferences, but it does greatly restrict what can be set down in print. Speculation and interpretation are not killed outright, but kept brief. The constant criticism, being done in the knowledge that the goal is to establish truth (and not knowing who the referee is), usually does not lead to anyone hating anyone else : competitors can become future collaborators, and at at some level we all benefit from and can build on each other's research. Peer review acts to promote a moderate level of competition, not send it into a death spiral of hyper-polarisation where everyone constantly resorts to "yo momma" jokes by way of argument.


So that's the magic. Science forms conclusions through competitive collaborations, marrying the collaborative strengths of group size and diversity with the independent creativity of competition. The precise method it uses forces skepticism of all parties without falling into hostility. Hurrah !


Why doesn't this work elsewhere ?

Okay, so science has this successful recipe for eventually converging on the truth. As mentioned, some of these stages are applied elsewhere, but not usually with the same formality and degree of rigour. But how come competition in science prevents a false consensus, whereas in other sectors it just makes people incredibly angry ?

As far as I can tell, both the network structure and process behind political decision-making are very different to the scientific approach. Politics all too often feels not like a vehicle for progress, despite the earnest intentions of many politicians, but an engine for the utter annihilation of rational thought.

Nice to see that the art of Roman realpolitik isn't quite dead yet.
While competitive collaborations certainly exist in the commercial sector, I reckon that it's not this network aspect that's responsible for their failure so much as it is the exact process used and the goals sought. Not least of which is that for science, truth itself is the product - there is little point in doing fraudulent academic research, because everyone is trying to disprove you anyway. Your ideas can and will be tested. So the safest bet by far is to be honest and careful, and there are far better avenues to fame and glory than researching the mating habitats of toads*.

* Although anyone who did manage to achieve fame and glory by researching the mating habitats of toads would be a formidable fellow indeed, and I've like to meet them.

In contrast, commercial products are designed for sale and corporations have much less of a stake in each other's success. Few scientists are arrogant enough to think they have a monopoly on truth or even want one, whereas in the corporate world, crushing your opponents* is a laudable goal. And their products have to respect truth to a far lesser degree than scientific discoveries : adverts just have to be convincing enough to make sales, and products just good enough to keep people satisfied for a while. Ultimately they have to make as much money as possible. The demand for rigour is much less, and in adverting honesty is about as desirable as being suddenly crushed to death by a beluga whale. The competitive aspect works to give people what they want, not necessarily what they benefit from.

* Well not literally, obviously : better to absorb their employees into your own. But this still reduces their independence, and with relatively limitless funds and potential workers, the tendency towards global dominance for a sufficiently large corporation is far greater than for any research institute. CERN is huge, but its whole nature prevents it from ever attracting or desiring researchers outside of particle physics.

Politicians, on the other hand, barely seem to even employ competitive collaborations much at all. Cross-party issues are rarely treated as such, and ideas suggested by the opposition tend to be simply ignored. Even mass public protests do not always work. As mentioned last time, politicians themselves don't even get to say what they really think very much, still less to act and investigate as they might wish. If science is a loose network that tolerates and even welcomes dissent, then political parties are more like highly centrist hives full of especially angry bees. And it's very hard to trust a politician if they say things only because they've been clearly whipped into line.

There are exceptions that prove the rule. In "Why We Get The Wrong Politicians", Isabel Hardman describes that some of the committees in which laws are drafted still work well when they're not under control of party diktat. When politicians are given some level of independence, they're actually able to scrutinise legislation in a basically functional way. It's not perfect, but it's a damn sight better than many other aspects of politics; when committees are closely controlled by the party bosses, the result is little better than a farce. Any collaborations that do exist even within individual parties are all too easily snuffed out, never mind forming a cross-party consensus with The Enemy.

But politicians have other problems as well. Hardman is at pains to describe how much money it costs a candidate (out of pocket) to even stand a chance of being elected, which immediately enforces a strict, seriously weird selection effect on who gets to manage the country. Tuition fees notwithstanding, science has no such ridiculous constraint : personal wealth is irrelevant.

Science forces people to confront arguments directly. Politicians can easily avoid this - they can use whatever tactic persuades voters. If attacking the personality of their opponents is more persuasive than debunking their arguments, then that's what they'll do. Theatrical performances awash with high rhetoric are the norm. This undeniably makes it very entertaining (if you find Jermey Kyle or Springer entertaining) but it does the exact opposite of encouraging rational, objective analysis. Even worse, rhetoric often disguises a lack of understanding of the data, forcing voters to make choices based on little more than their subjective judgement of who they like best.

Others have pointed out that this would at least be better than the current absurdity that passes for governance.
Compared to science, the political arena has gone arse over tit when it comes to praise and shame. Scientists are actively praised for trying things that don't work, and seldom lose respect for making mistakes unless they're seriously awful (at least in pure research), whereas if they're caught lying then they barely have time to kiss their career goodbye. Politicians, however, are hailed as idiots if they try things which don't work, are rarely treated with anything but contempt if they even apologise for making mistakes*, yet brazen lies often win them elections. This is completely mental.

* One of my biggest pet hates is people who shout about how awful people are but don't give them a chance to change. These people, especially those who think "woke" is a sensible word, don't really want to make the world better, they just enjoy making other people feel bad.

To be fair this aspect isn't really politicians fault. Politicians, corporations, and scientists are all constrained in action by their audience, but for the latter, the audience is expert and trained in using a sophisticated system designed for objectivity (scientists do suffer the wrath of the idiotic media, but mainly their own critics are each other - most discoveries never make it anywhere near the gutter press). The other audiences are not. That is not to say they're stupid (though they often are), but they lack any kind of formal analysis procedure. Who buys a robotic talking cat and actually tests that it does everything it says on the manual ? Who's dedicated and skilled enough to fact-check political speeches, and how many people even bother using professional fact-checking websites ?

Oops.
Politics fails because of politicians themselves and their audience. The system is designed to give people a choice, and therefore to some extent that means presenting bizarre and pointless alternatives. This works well enough when all participants are reasonably sensible, but it's vulnerable. The recent failures are but the latest in a long line of problems, albeit perhaps rather extreme examples (at least in peacetime). In Britain, we happen to have the highly peculiar situation of the leaders of both major parties being exceptionally ill-suited; it's not that uncommon to have one, but two at once is rare. The role of sheer bad luck should not be underestimated, but that is no reason to suggest we can't make the system more robust. Quite the opposite.


Make Politics Scientific Again

Or more accurately, "for once". The lessons from the success of science and the failures of science seem clear. So can we design a better system ?

I believe we can, but it's going to be radical. While Hardman suggests a number of reforms that would improve the system a great deal, I'm going to suggest something much more extreme. Science is investigative, whereas politics is mainly about making decisions from available data - but the two goals are not totally different. So, don't make scientists into politicians, that will lead to disaster. Instead, make politicians operate scientifically.

No, I'm not sure this is a good idea either. Good thing this is only a blog and not an actual experiment, eh ?

Choose wisely

First, remove the money-based selection criteria. Allocate a fixed amount of public funding for every candidate standing in every seat, with some limitations to prevent the numbers spiralling out of control. Parties would retain control of which candidates they select to run for office, but their selection criteria would have to change.

In science we use a mixture of expertise from theoretical and observational backgrounds, and in politics it should be no different. For the theoretical, have parties seek out candidates from academic backgrounds but in specific areas : historians, psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, political scientists, and lawyers; for the observational front, find people who have actually worked in different sectors at different levels of seniority, be that on a factory floor, at a farm, in retail, or wherever (and throw in a few professional public speakers as well). It shouldn't be possible to become a defence minister without having served in the armed forces, nor become a science minister without having several published papers. Make our elected representatives be, well, representative.

It's important to stress that this would be no kind of ivory-tower elitist club. In fact, by removing the need for personal funding, it would greatly increase the chance of ordinary people achieving high office. And anyone could always stand as an independent. But the make-up of Parliament would likely look very different to its current situation, because if the role of politicians is to make policy, then dammit, a wealth-based selection system is monumentally stupid. Yes, you're going to need Parliament to have a skill set disproportionate to the population as a whole, but no, being rich has bugger all to do with it, for goodness bloody sake. Except in the treasury, possibly.


Write laws as if they were research projects

Define the role of a politician to be that of a researcher. Their aim is to come up with the best policies possible, supported by the evidence. Anything proposed for vote in Parliament should have gone through the same level as rigour as an academic research paper : it must cite existing research, it must be clear and avoid rhetoric, it must be scrutinised by an anonymous peer or external expert in that field (perhaps chosen by a full-time editor who would essentially manage the Parliamentary journal). Let the European Research Group actually become published researchers, if the feckless twerps think they're so smart.

Allow politicians a consultancy budget, where they can bring in outside experts (importantly, from a pre-established group chosen by an independent body instead of whoever they feel like) for help and advice in drafting their papers as well as utilising the existing committees. Demand at least some co-authors be recognised experts in their field (this is important for smaller parties, who may only have a few MPs and would otherwise become pointlessly specialist). Encourage cross-party co-authorship, and where the authors are only of a single party, bias the referee selection to be either external to Parliament or from another party. This gives MPs a mutual stake in each other's proposals while still being competitors. It will also have a selection effect of dissuading bullies from applying in the first place.

Contrary to what you might expect, the skeptical review process can be extremely successful at getting to the truth even with fiercely opposing views, so long as it's well-managed (more on that in a bit). A wide pool of referees leads diminishes the chance of getting a biased report, whereas if the pool if small, as it would be if the default is to seek a reviewer from another party, then the chance that roles will be reversed in future is high. This would give politicians a stronger incentive to cooperate when reviewing each other, while external sources could be sought when an impasse is reached.


Separation of talents 

Thus, use politicians to define policies that are actually supported by the evidence with a strong degree of rigour (this doesn't forbid more radical ideas at all*, it just prevents them happening without justification). Use politicians (and consultants) with legal expertise to ensure their proposal is already legally watertight before it even gets to Parliament. Then use professional speakers in the same way that science uses science advocates : help them advise the politicians by all means, but let the orators do the bulk of the work in presentation**. The actual authors can play a secondary role, thus separating the arts of persuasion and objective analysis. By no means would this absolve the original authors from scrutiny - some degree of persuasive force will always be required from them, and it's essential that they themselves are accountable to various Parliamentary committees as well as the people. But let most of the work be done by professionals.

* Seriously. While politics was struggling with the idea that women should have the vote, science was realising that time runs at different rates in different places. A century later and politics is wondering if gay marriage is okay, while scientists are pondering if there are multiple realities. Science is a highly creative process tempered by evidence; politics... isn't.
** Real research has plenty of interesting moments but awfully long periods of extreme tedium. This doesn't make for good television, but we'll still need the public to be at least slightly interested in (rather than excited by) what's going on. 


Politicians already use external consultants, of course, but with a free hand. I propose restricting who they can choose for spin doctors and political strategists. The goal is to make the whole business about policy as much as humanly possible; forging a true consensus is not the same a backroom marriage deal of convenience, which seems to be the only kind of unholy alliance politicians are currently capable of.


Smash the hives

Let's not stop there. Give politicians the same powerful competitive collaboration model that works so well in other sectors. Do not abolish political parties, but greatly restrict their power over their own MPs, encouraging a truly broad church where everyone gets to say something close to what they really think, but only publish what can survive rigorous analysis (as in scientific conferences versus papers). Let parties be responsible for selecting candidates, but thereafter only for facilitating the aims of their individual MPs, not for telling them to shut up and toe the line. Remove whips entirely, or at most retain them for only a few key pledges. Tribalism in politics ? Bam, knocked on the head, right there. Party affiliation would serve more to identify suitable referees than anything else.

Give the poor buggers some training, either when applying to be a candidate, or perhaps in a period lasting a few months before office. This training needs to be done by independent groups not affiliated with any party. We don't need to go the whole hog of treating politicians like PhD students (that's one aspect of science that could use a lot of improvement anyway), but getting them to do a small "research" project before they take office would let them hit the ground at least at a brisk walk.

Fund the entire thing publically, a la academia (ditching the grant system, which is stupid). No more trade unions or wealthy individual donors calling the shots for different parties : that system is positively berserk. He who plays the piper calls the tune, whereas Plato rightly said :
We maintain that laws which are not established for the good of the whole state are bogus laws, and when they favour particular sections of the community, their authors are not citizens but party-men; and people who say those laws have a claim to be obeyed are wasting their breath.
So no more nonsense about funding political parties via any other method than through the state. Politicians are servants of the people : not one person nor any particular group of people, but all the people, dammit.


Empower Parliament, not the government - end the "winner takes all" approach

Let the government be explicitly subject to the sovereign will of Parliament. It shall have a few executive powers on which Parliament will not be consulted, but all major policies will be produced and enacted by Parliament. Let any MP of any party be able to submit a motion (the government shall have no power to decline the debate, nor prevent votes from happening, nor to suspend or delay them), as scientists from any institute can submit papers to any journal. There will still be an advantage to winning a majority, since that party will be able to submit the most proposals, but it will also mean that the other parties do not sit idly by like great big lemons for five years, having a voice but no real power at all.

Consider restrictions on who can vote in Parliament (what's the point of someone voting on something they don't understand ?), either at the initial or final stages, utilising their recognised specialities. Such designations would be enacted by a body chosen independently, who will assess if MPs are sufficiently expert with no regard whatsoever for which party is currently in government. If accepted, let that proposal be subject to revision by the entire body of the Lords. All these independent bodies could be part of a "political council" that fulfils the same interface role as existing scientific councils.

Just as peer review by other parties and/or external experts will affect the dynamic of the House tremendously, so should the opposition be given some real teeth : big, nasty, pointy teeth. Allowing them to propose motions is one thing, but insufficient. Yes, they can already hold the government to account through criticism, but that's rarely enough. Hardman emphasises that the role of praise and shame is effective in dealing with many politicians, but this doesn't help against people who genuinely don't care. And there seems to be a bias towards such people reaching leadership positions, since "the worst are full of passionate intensity", as Yeats put it. So for starters end the lying; those found to repeat known falsehoods after being corrected on it need not to be merely exposed (that doesn't affect them in the slightest and the voters don't care about it) but actually experience a meaningful penalty. Like being deposed, barred from office, imprisoned, or for my preference covered in honey and attacked by angry badgers. Nothing less will work.

Seriously. One of the most stupid judgements of any court is that it's okay for politicians to brazenly lie to the people. What the hell kind of free society do we live in if not to be free from deceipt ? 
Furthermore, let there be some major governmental powers which are subject to explicit approval by the main opposition party. Plato warned us against the approach where "the winners take over the affairs of state so completely that they totally deny the losers any share of power." The current winner-takes-all approach is far too strong : not only is your vote wasted if your preferred candidate doesn't win, but it's also largely wasted if your party doesn't win. This is so inherently divisive that it actively discourages sensible policy-making, since the goal is to get one over on your opponent rather than do something good. The exact details of this I will leave, as they need to be very carefully considered : the aim is that the major parties co-operate on some issues, not that they continuously render each other impotent. Co-operation should be routine and expected, not a nuisance that the government can claim is preventing them from getting anything done.


Make politics investigative

All this will slow down the whole process considerably, but it will replace the loud theatrical shouting matches - entertaining though they are - with proper investigation and scrutiny. A much more experimental approach of lawmaking is also called for. Even when a law is fully passed, insist on trials before it can be rolled out nationally (the public hate this, but that difficulty must be overcome - for science, trying something which doesn't work is counted a success, although obviously that needs adjustment for politics !). Following this there would need to be another paper produced to analyse the results, after which it might just be possible for the House to reach something like a proper consensus.

Finally, the review process used in science needs to be adjusted for the political sphere. As scientists do not have any innate reasons or tendencies to attack each other on sight, journal editors currently play a minor role. For politics they will need to be more active - not acting as a second referee on the proposal itself, but judging whether the author and referee are acting in accordance with the agreed standards (in particular, whether they are really tackling the relevant arguments directly). Unlike the refereeing, that only needs broad familiarity with the subject matter, not specialist knowledge. This keeps them truly independent (being impartial really is possible if that's your goal and role) and prevents the need for an infinite chain of referees or Anakin Skywalker's wise despot. We might also consider making all stages of the reports and responses public, so that everyone can see if the process has indeed been fair or not.

There, that should do it.


Summary and Conclusions

The future of politics, if I have anything to say about it.
Plato's Republic was based on the principle that good people could only be discovered; Laws on the idea that people could also be controlled and cajoled into becoming virtuous. Plato's latter approach was in some respects very crude, rewarding and punishing people much like dogs until they did what Plato thought was best. Fortunately, society has advanced quite a bit since ancient Athens.

No-one could come up with modern scientific methodology from theory alone, not even Plato. I've lifted this complex mix of discovery and persuasion, and its checks and balances, directly from observation. We select known experts (academics and others alike) and give them a system proven time and time again to foster objective, rational analysis. The system works both by selecting people who are able to work within it, rejecting the most irrational, stubborn, and the just plain stupid, and then dealing with the inevitable human fallibilities of those selected. It accepts that even the most well-intentioned and intelligent have some really daft ideas and bloody stupid biases, and does its damnedest to mitigate that. And it works very, very well for science.

I mean, it doesn't stop every problem, obviously, but the system does tend to stop the worst of it.
To give credit to Plato, this isn't all that far off the fundamental basis of Laws. Training people to use the scientific method can indeed help them to be scientific and coolly analytical in other areas. But only continuous, rigorous enforcement of the system, following external, common rules, is able to keep them on the straight and narrow. That's why merely parachuting a bunch of scientists into Parliament is never going to work : the astonishing results of science come from a collective effort, not from individual geniuses.


Everyone hates common sense

Many things here should probably be re-phrased in more Parliamentary language, but the principles still apply. Seek to forge consensus as the norm, not an obstacle to be circumvented by knavish tricks. Restrict the tribal aspect of politics as much as possible. Allow politicians expression free from party policy, but constrain their policies to be based on a thorough, cross-party and/or external review. Retain giving people a choice in voting. Retain the party system that can draw together people who share at least some common attributes. But stop allowing people to vote for bullies and thugs, who would do miserably in a system where cooperation is as important as competition. Have their psychopathic tendencies checked by far more than merely exposing their problems, which they don't give a damn about anyway. And bring in genuine skepticism and doubt, as opposed to the current system where everyone hates everyone else simply because they're not in their own stupid political club - or worse, has to merely say that they hate them because they're on the other side.

In terms of parliamentary reform, this is undeniably extreme. But it many ways it's not radical at all. It's not crazy to demand external review so that policies are produced with a high standard of rigour and impartiality. It's not insane to say that Parliament should represent the whole people and not whoever happens to win the latest election, denying everyone else much of a say. It's not mad to take the money out of politics and make the system more transparent. And I don't think it's lunacy to suggest that we apply a model proven to work, that fosters rational skepticism without promoting hostility, and that combines the benefits of both collaboration and competition. More pragmatically, it keeps the basic parliamentary structures and party system; the average voter will see no changes except for better policies and less bullshitting.

At least some of what I've suggested ought to be close to reality anyway. I don't doubt that many politicians do put a lot of work into their proposals, consulting and reading evidence just as I've said, and even seeking cross-party agreement. But I do doubt, very strongly, that these standards are always applied. To insist on mandatory, uniform standards of skeptical, anonymous examination is hugely different from allowing politicians to consult experts as and when they please.

I've skipped over the electorate and the Lords, neither of which has an obvious counterpart in academia. I would suggest that the first-past-the-post system be retained for MPs, but allocate a set of Lords allowed to vote in direct proportion to the vote share for each party. Not every Lord will be allowed to vote in each Parliamentary session; their allocation will be set by their party. This then combines multiple systems : two democratic voting procedures together with expert appointment*, and by numerically restricting the Lords it prevents people with no real or relevant qualifications at all from having a say. I'm also going to skip the tricky issue of local versus national-issue MPs; my emphasis has been on the national side of things and local politics is really another topic.''

* Plato and Cicero alike encouraged the use of multiple systems rather than wholly favouring one or the other, since each have advantages and disadvantages.


What about other ideas ?

Two of the most popular other "radical" proposals I see floating around the internet are proportional representation and the direct election of government ministers. Both presume that it's better politicians we need, not a better system of decision-making. PR does at least recognise that we'd probably have more coalitions and collaborations in such a system, but doesn't by itself propose how we get politicians to work together. Direct elections of ministers does away with the damaging tribal system, but requires many more elections and a highly active, motivated electorate. That somewhat misses the point of a representative system, which is supposed to take the fine details away from the voters so they can run their own lives without undue bother.

This proposal explicitly sets out the mechanism by which politicians collaborate. It's not absolute and doesn't mean everything must be reached by forcing mutual enemies to reach some half-baked compromise. It keeps the burden of choosing ministers on the elected officials, but prevents appointments of unqualified idiots who only got there through rhetorical skills - which is, I assume, the main goal of those suggesting direct elections anyway.

The more difficult aspect for this idea is that it swings the balance of the concept of "representative democracy" firmly in favour of representative. True, it allows both first past the post (or some other system) to operate alongside proportional representation, using a different system in different houses. It avoids the winner-takes-all approach of contemporary British politics, giving a say to those who lost. In that sense it gives voters more choice, since pretty much all political views will get genuine representation, each party some genuine power.

But fundamentally, its emphasis on cooperation makes it harder for voters to have a direct say in policy. Currently, so long as a government wins a majority, people know more or less what they're voting for (except when they elect someone very untrustworthy, which is a big problem). With this system they'll have less knowledge of which policies they'll end up with. This goes against my own preferences, though coalition governments do seem to work in most of Europe. Still, I'd like to find a way to include some aspect of more direct voter influence over policy.

But perhaps that too can wait for another time. The elephant in the room is the media. Without getting them to reform as well, any changes to the political system aren't going to be much more use than re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

But look how neat they are !
I hate to end on a pessimistic note, so I won't. See, there's an optimistic take in suggesting that the system used matters more than the people chosen. Democracy, supposedly, is founded on the notion that ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things, while it's often said that our knowledge and intelligence outstrip our wisdom. Here I'm suggesting that there's a good reason that science runs so far ahead of politics : it's not because one group is especially better (or even just more rational) than another - we all know where that road leads. No, its only because one group has found, through extremely arduous effort that took many centuries, a better system to manage itself than the other.

Science has given us discoveries and devices that have reshaped the planet and ourselves, not always for the better. But perhaps these products of the scientific system are relatively minor. Perhaps it's that system itself, proven to unleash the potential of ordinary people who throw up drunk in the street and then the next day decode the human genome or peer into the depths of the Universe, which is science's greatest contribution to society of all. Or perhaps it's all just bollocks.

No comments:

Post a comment