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, 21 January 2020

The Power Of Three


Three was a natural number for witches. When you had three, you had one to run around getting people to make up when there'd been a row. Without Magrat, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax got on one another's nerves. With her, all three had been able to get on the nerves of absolutely everyone else in the whole world, which had been a lot more fun. Because, while three was a good number for witches, it had to be the right sort of three. — Terry Pratchett, Maskerade
Pratchett was on to something here, I think. Not necessarily in the very literal sense, because human dynamics are more complicated than that. If they're properly organised, more people can bring more knowledge, perspectives and ideas : diversity really does matter. If they're not properly organized, you get groupthink, dogma, or just a simple massive row or a small war.

Recently I had a brainwave that if science is so darn good at finding out the truth, why not apply some of its hard-won lessons to other arenas ? Like politics, for instance, which seems very badly in need of a good dollop of objectivity and a lot less of tribalism. This post continues my efforts to attack this proposal and root out any weaknesses. Scientists suffer all the same weaknesses of other hairless monkeys, yet, while getting them to agree on anything is like herding cats, this doesn't seem to be much of a problem. In fact, this is even something of an asset, because everyone wants to make the next big breakthrough. In politics, each side just seems to want to break the other.

One lesson from science's truth-finding endeavour is the importance of the triple structure of peer review : author, editor, and reviewer. After finding a skeptical reviewer, the editor themselves doesn't provide extra review for the submitted manuscript, but checks if both author and reviewer are following the rules. In this way they can provide a genuinely independent, impartial check on the whole thing. The editor, in fact, is our Magrat. This works well, and I say this after having endured a year of peer review gone horribly wrong, so if anything I should be biased against the system.

There are plenty of other aspects to the structure and method of scientific inquiry, and plenty of other possible points of weakness to be examined in future, but today I want to look at how this kind of arrangement applies in society and where it's not working. The simplicity and power of this analytical triumvirate is too tantalizing to ignore.


1) The triangle of government

When I was very young, I used to think that the government was In Charge Of Things. They were sort of like elected tyrants in my mind, accountable to no-one and could do whatever they wanted. If a company was misbehaving, they could inflict whatever punishment they liked and that was that. If the dog down the street bit someone, men from The Government would show up and sort it all out.

Very, very slowly, I've come to realise that things are a teensy-weensy bit more complicated than that.

I've written a bit about the importance of understanding the networks that underpin society, and I've mentioned how I want some nice simple diagram to illustrate how the major components of society relate to each other. So it's time to try and start to construct one. At least, very, very crudely. This is all part of my super-secret ambition to work out how to make the world a better place, but don't tell anyone or they'll say it's impossible.

It seems to me that there are two major networks underpinning the governance of society. The first is the body politic itself, which looks a bit like this (you can already find umpteen versions of this elsewhere, of course) :
Okay, that should really be the executive, legislative, and judicial, but I'm a simple man and I like simple terms. In essence, and ideally :
  • The government (the executive) carries out the will of Parliament (the legislative). It has some degree of control over Parliament, but is ultimately answerable to it. It has first priority, or even sole ability, when it comes to proposing laws, and carries out things which can't or don't require a vote.
  • Parliament (the legislative) makes and repeals laws. Its agenda is largely set by the government, but it has the final say on what the government gets to do via voting. 
  • The courts (the judicial) decide how to interpret and apply the laws set down by Parliament. Courts cannot make law but they can set precedents. They decide if both the government and Parliament are acting lawfully. Neither Parliament nor the government have much direct influence over them.
Here I want to be deliberately crude - I only want to understand how the major blocs relate to each other, not how each operates internally*. I've completely ignored how all the nodes access external information - factual data, popular opinion etc (though there are a couple of very nice, slightly more complex diagrams illustrating how political principles are established here). Instead of looking at the details, let me bash out a few ideas here about how these great big nodes are related to each other in practice.

* This runs the risk of missing effects that emerge from the complex underlying structures, but we have to start somewhere. There's value in simplicity.

The connections between all three are fundamentally complex. All sides get to hear each other, so there's always a passive connection between each. But that flow of information's not going to be equal : it's going to be stronger between the government and Parliament, as both sides get access to private information from the other. The courts get some level of private information from each, but I see no reason to think that this flow would be unequal on either side.

Of much greater importance is that the connections are fundamentally different. This is crucial in avoiding a circular firing squad and helping prevent the need for infinite chains of oversight : with everyone performing different types of checks and balances, Plato's problem that it's "absurd for a guardian to need a guardian" is elegantly solved. You do want guardians to have guardians, but they all guard different things. In an academic journal, the editor doesn't act as a second reviewer of the article, but as a reviewer of the reviewer and of the author's responses - they check whether the rules were followed, not the content of the proposal*.

* Though the author doesn't really get to check if the editor is doing their job properly, except in that if they feel unfairly treated they can go somewhere else. Perhaps that's a lesson for research journals.

So it should be with the courts. If the government is the would-be author, then Parliament is the reviewer, and the courts are the editor. They're supposed to be independent, or else there's really no point in them existing at all. Their independence is partly maintained by their separation from Parliament and partly because their authority is fundamentally different. This three-way structure then becomes very powerful : it is robust, difficult to break, but also simple and comprehensible.


In practise...

But this is hardly a universal truth. Bafflingly, in America they have elected judges, which confuses the heck out of me. Worse, their supreme court is appointed by politicians. What the hell the point of that system is, I don't know. I guess if we account for this then we have to redraw the graph :
The court is here little more than a sort of parasite, feeding on whatever scraps the government deigns to give it like a particularly ugly and gruesome deep sea fish.


You might also say, "but hang on, surely the government is only a subset of Parliament, so it's not really independent from it". That's true in many countries : the power to propose a law and the power to vote on the proposals are both allocated to the same people. An easy solution - if this is even a problem - would be to forbid legislators from voting on their own proposed laws, though that's only likely to make a difference in the really knife-edge cases.

This leads me on to Britain, where there's a different problem : the court is indeed independent, but the prevalence of large majorities (lacking in recent years but now restored) for the governing party means that Parliament rarely acts as a properly skeptical reviewer - it can criticise, but it usually can't/won't enforce*. And since both sides rarely actually break the rules, the courts can do little to intervene. The government thus has near total control of Parliament - not quite total, because rebellions among its own MPs do happen, but nearly so. This means that the government is effectively a parasitical predator of Parliament.

*At least in the Commons - things are a bit better in the Lords, and this is a limitation of making these graphs too crude. I read with dismay when people complain about these "unelected peers" without ever checking to see if said peers are actually doing a decent job. We might as well complain about unelected doctors or unelected electricians !


Which is of course inspired by Futurama's mind-controlling brain slugs.


This situation, I'm coming to realise, is as stupid as having the government play a similar role towards the courts. Without having that vital triple-way system of checks and balances, the system is reliant on the goodwill of those running it : it can function, but only if everyone is genuinely committed to acting fairly. What does it matter if the government appoints the courts if it appoints genuinely fair and impartial judges ? What does it matter if the largest party has a huge share of the seats if most of its members are prepared to act against the executive ? Answer : it doesn't, which is an especially insidious obstacle. It's difficult to see the need for a reform when everything's going well, and the structure of the system doesn't guarantee it will fail, it just makes failure much easier.

And that of course is the real problem. If a government does not act fairly, it can appoint toadies to the courts and/or have no meaningful check on its actions from Parliament. In both ways, such a system tends towards my childhood idea of elected despotism. Government control of Parliament means it can make any law it wants; government control of the courts means it can break any law it wants.

Of course any reasonable democracy has provisions that means it's not quite as bad as all that, e.g. judges may have staggered terms of office so aren't all appointed by the same government, altering laws can be a slow process (especially if they are deemed constitutional matters, making any changes subject to judicial review). Ultimately things can only be pushed so far before open revolt breaks out, or more probably before the public will vote the ruling party out of office come the next election.

But therein lies the catch. The point is not that the dysfunctional systems ever reach these tyrannical end states - it's that they can be perverted arbitrarily close to them. In some ways this is worse than abject tyranny. You know where you are with a ruthless tyrant : eventually the people will rise up and may or may not be brutally crushed. It isn't nice, but at least it's simple. Whereas a perverted democracy is a lot more like a toaster that only works if you press the button down in just such a way; it's inconvenient and annoying, but since it basically functions (albeit with a lot of very serious problems*), most people are content to deal with it rather than go and buy a new one.

* Such as burning the toast and/or delivering random electric shocks and occasionally starting small fires.

Much as I love the morality of Doctor Who, when the Doctor says...
The systems aren't the problem. How people use and exploit the system, that's the problem. People like you.
... I think she is only provisionally right. Some bad systems used by good people will produce good results, but not all. And some good systems used by bad people will produce bad results, but again, not all. Systems cannot be so readily divorced by people using them - both the system and its people are inevitably caught in mutual feedback loops that affect them both.


2) The triangle of information

The second key network is on a much larger scale and it looks a bit like this (I've alluded to this before) :
This time the nodes aren't individual institutions - the body politic comprises the entire political system of the first diagram. The whole thing works something like this :
  • Laws are enacted, enforced, and interpreted within the body politic. Its laws and rulings are applied to both the media and the general public.
  • The media are the primary means of conveying information between the body politic and the public. The media interview politicians and report what they're doing, but they also do the same for members of the general public.
  • The public are influenced by but also influence the media and politicians directly. They have limited direct interactions with politicians, except through voting, but have enormous influence over the media via sales.
As I've said previously, anyone hoping to get a truly better system of government had better consider this whole shebang (see link for a nice review of the complexities of this) and not just individual aspects of it. Of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't stop propoposing corrections to small-scale problems where we find them, because that would be silly.

This system is quite a different beast to the first one. "The public" do not represent a single entity that's capable of making an arbitrary choice - its decisions are emergent from the internal actions of its millions of individual parts. Of course, this is also true of the other nodes, but to a far lesser degree : an editor can decide which stories to run and which to pull; politicians can pick their battles. Whereas whether the public even like something or not is far more complicated. Sometimes people sit back and do nothing except feel faux-outrage. At other times they become, en masseinexplicably violent.

As evidence of people being weird, I will again cite the case of someone preferring to accidentally murder their best friend than get their grandmother addicted to heroin.
While we can propose endless reforms to the political system or how the media operates, the same cannot really be said of the public. Such an enormous, diverse group is composed of a dizzying array of networks and hierarchies, flows of information, resources, and funneled emotions. Some of those networks are purely consequential, emerging from the choices made by individuals, but others are causal, constraining the actions made by their members. Many are both. Most groups tend to reinforce their own existing norms but rarely with 100% effectiveness.

This is why any kind of proposal saying, "we just need to be better people" is doomed to fail. You can't make the public, or indeed any kind of complex group, behave more nobly just by hoping, or even by winning enough of them over through persuasion. You have to manage the network in which they're embedded, otherwise you're just pissing up the waterfall of information contradicting whatever it is you're trying to achieve.


In practise...

And as before, the above diagram is the ideal case. A lot of people are rightly worried that this will be perverted like so :


It's perfectly obvious why this would be bad : with all of the information flow coming from a government-controlled source, the potential for abuse is huge. Note that there is now no direct link between the public and the courts or Parliament, and the connection between the courts and Parliament is severed. This is another dangerous perversion of the system, allowing the government to claim, "look, we've still got the other essential parts of parliamentary democracy", though in reality it controls them both separately and independently. If the court cannot rule on what Parliament does, which is entirely at the behest of the government, it's rendered impotent - but so much as to provoke any serious kind of public response.

Again, if all parties act fairly, then there's no problem, but as before, if all parties act fairly, then there's little disadvantage to the idealised system. Of course no-one trusts the government not to misuse the power that direct control of the media would bring, so the extra regulations and bureaucracy necessary to separation are more than compensated for by the benefits of keeping the system fair and impartial.

We need not go through the plethora of historical examples of why the media as a minion of government would be bad. I'm more concerned that we've developed something of the opposite problem. The media may already act as a brain-slug controlling parasite of government, or maybe it's even worse than that.
The media doesn't feel so much like a parasite of government so much as a terrifying monster that neither the public nor the politicians feel able to challenge - or worse, are unaware of the need to challenge it. You must understand that though I'm not describing all media outlets here, I am speaking of both right and left leaning press, both of which are equally adept at spinning the same news to support whatever agenda they wish (link has a very nice apolitical example). Or worse. The default setting is not "defend" but "attack" - regardless of the story, there must be something awful about it and someone to blame. 

Even on a good day, all too often impartiality goes haywire.

This may be impartial in the strictest sense of the word, but it's not fair and it's certainly not objective. Even the best interviewers seem to have fallen victim to attacking absolutely everyone before them as though everyone was guilty of something, treating idiots and criminals the same as experts. Is that really being impartial ? Is it in any way sensible to attack experts and lunatics with the same degree of rigour ? How can the public trust anyone in that setup ?

The press seems like a dangerously whimsical beast indeed. Someone can be their darling one day, but should they breathe so much as a word of criticism of the press, then watch as they're immediately cast aside and their once-endearing qualities thrown against them. Too often the media just gets everything wrong, failing to attack what needs attacking, and defending the absolutely indefensible. This is stupid.

And reality is considerably worse than that, because "the media" isn't a single unified entity. Parts of the press will at all times attack the government and any and all who support it as though it was about to bring on the apocalypse, even if it's only trying to alter the taxation rules for strawberry milkshakes. Simultaneously, other parts of the press will defend the government even as it plans a full-scale nuclear attack against Liechtenstein, claiming that everyone hates that stupid tiny country and they're not really people anyway. And both sides will act with stupendous inconsistency : praising and shaming those they like or dislike even if their actions and motivations are identical.

The media is a terrifying monster not just because it's got big nasty teeth, but also because it's got the norovirus. It's continually vomiting from both ends over everything, submerging what's really going on in an acidic fug of atomised bile. And worse, it does this in such a way that people want to keep on buying it.

I could go on, but I won't. What I do want to point out is how incredibly important the media link in the network is. The media is a hugely dominant communications channel between politicians and the public. Even if we had both a sensible public (we don't) and sensible politicians (again, no), then a piss-poor media would still bugger everything up. You can't act sensibly if you don't have sensible information.


This all sounds very bad.

Indeed it is. So is that apparently powerful triple structure really inherently stable ? I would say no : these networks are a consequence of the methods adopted more than they are a cause of the results. A government which wins a strong majority and is sufficiently stupid can easily alter the law to affect the power of the courts however it likes. Unregulated media driven by profit will always grow monstrous.

But this doesn't mean that the triple structure of organising politics, information and so on is unimportant. Far from it. Instead, we should think of this overall structure as the goal, not the method. We should aim to create something like the ideal triangles of checks and balances, but we shouldn't be naive to think that that in itself will be enough for a stable, sensible end result. Rather, we have to consider the internal functioning of each node, otherwise we'll always be at risk : a single weak link in chain of three can quickly go badly wrong.

Ironically, we need look no further then Parliament itself for a good example. The triangle of government, opposition, and Speaker hardly produces constructive debates (though other political debates, with the same people but run in a very different way, are much better). The rules and methods used matter a great deal : the role of the Opposition is to provide an alternative, not act as a skeptical but sincere reviewer; the role of Speaker is to ensure everyone follows the rules, but these rules don't include any fact-checking whatsoever (nor is there even any necessity for politicians to respond to each other's arguments directly - it's perfectly fine to launch a counter-attack or spout meaningless drivel instead). Whereas in that other node of the body politics, the court structure of appellants, judge and jury does seem to basically work.

This hasn't really shed much light on my proposed scientific political system. The methods of checks and balances I've suggested might be enough to keep the thing from collapsing horribly, or they might not; the other unique pressures acting in academia could be crucial, or I may have missed something entirely. Which means this has been a very inconclusive post.

Let me end by summarising some of the major requirements for a better political system. First, it has a number of competing interests it has to balance purely for its own sake :
  • Competition and cooperation. Excessive competition leads to hostility, whereas excessive collaboration leads to dogmatic groupthink. But the right amount of each - competing groups who want to outdo but not hurt each other - can be a stunningly powerful combination.
  • Diversity and focus. A wide range of opinions and perspectives is essential to tackling a problem from multiple angles - specialists should not all come from the same social backgrounds. Only the smallest number of uncompromising fanatics should ever be included; there are some positions so extreme that no reasonable system can ever handle them.
  • Publicity and privacy. The need for private discussions is vital, as no-one can realistically be expected to think sensibly while being throttled by the ubiquitously hostile public/media. Yet at other points we need the system to be as transparent as possible, so that the reasons given can be subject to proper scrutiny.
  • Stability and flexibility. Probably the hardest to unify. The system needs to be able to respond to the changing needs of the day without having to completely remake itself into something unrecognisable and potentially unpredictable, being able to wield both the sharper and blunter instruments of society without falling victim to them.
And one more, an especially important one : dedication and detachment. The weirdest extremists of all are the charismatic, analytical psychopaths - the kind of people who can work out in great detail how to solve a problem but have no clue if their solution is a good one, who don't care* who gets hurt in the process, and have a gift for making their stubborness mistaken for being morally principled. Such people are rare indeed, to be sure, but they are disproportionately dangerous. Whereas your regular fanatic is committed to a specific cause or two, these people are dedicated only to their own advancement - or, worst of all, to tearing apart the system because they honestly believe it should be destroyed. These are the kind who just want to watch the world burn. More important than selecting for the extremists willing to die for their cause, the ones of extreme dedication and determination, may be to select the people who aren't even mad keen on working weekends : normal people, hard-working but able and willing to listen to reason and to compromise. The usual tactic of calling such people out when they mess up is usually successful - it's only the uncaring psychopaths who need stronger measures.

* Holding politicians to account by exposing what they've done works well for people who have the decency to care, but it has no effect at all on those who only care about themselves.

There are other things the system must do more for the sake of the society is serves than itself. Without going into what would make for an ideal state, these attributes include :
  • Allowing genuine self-determination and meaningful choice. The system must temper bad decisions with expert oversight, but people must be able to make their own mistakes that will even cause them some degree of harm. The trick is to prevent (or reduce) those mistakes from impacting others.
  • Combining different methods of decision-making. Democracy, oligarchy, despotism, monarchy - all have their place. Sometimes you need a strongman, sometimes you need maximum diversity.
  • Consider both long-term and short-term impacts. Speaks for itself, really.
  • Acts in the interests of the whole country. Not just for individual political parties or interest groups. It's going to have to manage competing and conflicting interests, often from groups who don't even realise they're at odds with each other. Somehow it must stand for all of them.
  • Willing to learn from past mistakes. U-turns that occur in response to the evidence should be welcomed, while those due to populism serve as warning signs. Trials of different processes should be used, but not the extent of becoming experiments on people.
  • Be comprehensible. And even better, be genuinely simple. One of the advantages to Universal Basic Income is that it's so simple it's impossible to cheat - the ideal political system should be like that as far as is possible, not merely accessible to the interested layman.
So that's my rant for today. Some of those aspects I've already tried to include in my suggested system, others I'll look at in the future. Some parts rely more on reforming society itself than they do the political structure. My main goal is to establish if there is, in theory, a way of organising people that will actually work, given people's actual failings and not idealising them. Never mind implementation for now, that's an entirely different question.  Such an organisation would not be Utopian, but only mean that people are basically content, wherein politics was something they would engage with but was fundamentally boring, where there'd be no point trying to seize power because no-one felt the need to trash a working system that already did what they wanted it do. I still feel the current system is far too unstable, but I'm considerably more optimistic that a better one already exists.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Paper X : The Bizarre Murder Of The Windy Strippers

So here it is : the big one-zero, my tenth paper as first author. Let there be carefully moderated dancing in the streets and joy's restraints be substantially loosened.

Party like it's 1899.
I've previously described the hellish things that can befall a luckless author should the essential evil of peer review go awry. But this occasion was such a ridiculous case that I felt compelled to describe the whole stupid saga in its own post here. In short, it was a game of silly buggers that took more than a year to publish what should be a very uncontroversial result that wasn't at all complicated. What went wrong ? I dunno. Sheer bad luck, I think.

But I shall say no more of that here. On with the science ! Or, if you prefer, a much shorter summary with hardly any jokes is available here.


Introduction : How To Kill A Galaxy

Cast your mind back, dear reader, to the heady days of 2006. Picture the younger me, fresh-faced [beardless] and fancy-free, strutting gaily through the corridors of Cardiff University's Physics and Astronomy Department, unfettered by the latter-day cares of right-wing populism in a World Gone Mad. Carefree Rhys had two main topics in his PhD : finding gas clouds that looked like galaxies but didn't have any stars, and murdering galaxies by taking all their gas away finding streams of gas from galaxies due to different environmental effects.

Long story short, we found some stuff that fits the bill quite well for the first one, which I've written plenty about already. But we never saw much in the way of streams. Considering the target area was the Virgo Cluster, a region so dense galaxies can legitimately be said to be harassing each other, this was a bit odd. It'd be like going into a house party and finding everyone is blind drunk but no-one has thrown up on the sofa. What gives ?

To understand that, it probably helps to have some background. A typical galaxy looks like this :
Note that the gas is a lot more extended than the stars. Being further from the centre makes it easier to remove since it's less tightly held by the galaxy's gravity. The whole thing is embedded in a much larger, more massive dark matter cloud called a halo, though we can largely ignore this here.

A galaxy cluster consists of hundreds or even thousands of these beasties all buzzing around like... well, I usually like to say a swarm of bees, but that's not really accurate. Time for some movies. Here's a beautiful one from the mighty Illustris "Turn On ALL the Physics !!!" simulation :


Very cool, despite a daft choice of music, but quite difficult to understand what we're looking at. A galaxy cluster is more than just a bunch of separate galaxies hanging out : the cluster itself has its own dark matter, gas, and even stars, which makes it horribly complicated. So if we want to get a feel for the sort of stripped gas features we expect to find here, we need to simplify things. Let's start with the orbits. Nice, simple, happy orbits. We think they'd look a bit like this :

Trajectories of 250 galaxies from a numerical simulation.
A galaxy falling through this spidery omnishambles experiences a number of different effects. First, it's accelerated to tremendous speeds, ~1,000 km/s or more, by the gravity of the whole cluster. Second, it gets bashed about by the other galaxies swarming around it. Since the directions are basically random and the speeds very high, each galaxy seldom spends much time in the company of any other galaxy*. That means that mergers are likely rare, since they're all moving too fast to catch each other, but they still feel each others gravity (these repeated, fast, unwanted encounters are called harassment, a term originating in the pre-#MeToo era).

* The house party is probably a bad analogy. A better one would be a heaving nightclub in which almost everyone is very drunk, kinda horny, but somewhat antisocial and super judgemental.

And thirdly, the gas in each galaxy feels a ram pressure from the cluster gas as it moves through it. Stars are too small and too dense to be affected by this, but the gas is low density and very spread out, so it has no choice but to get clobbered. If the ram pressure is greater than the gravity binding the gas to the galaxy, the gas will be pushed out and lost forever. More on ram pressure stripping here.

A galaxy consisting only of stars (left) smirks at the cluster gas as unimportant. A galaxy with its own gas (right), however, is in for a big surprise.
When it comes to stripping gas out of galaxies, ram pressure is widely believed to be a lot stronger than galaxy harassment or close encounters (at least in clusters). Stripped gas from ram pressure should be a lot tidier than what you get from galaxy collisions, but given the orbits, it can still look pretty messy. And once it's stripped, the gas feels the effects of harassment itself.

To get a feel for this, a very useful rendering comes from the webpage of astronomer Rukmani Vijayaraghavan. This simulation shows only the hot gas, both in the galaxies and the cluster. It shows very clearly how the gas is stripped and swirled and squished by the galaxies silently swarming about.

Ram Pressure Stripping of a Cluster of Galaxies from Rukmani Vijayaraghavan on Vimeo.

Why mention that this shows only the hot gas ? While the gas in the cluster can be described only as "hot and thin" (...insert joke about David Tennant here), galactic gas can be broadly divided into three main components :
  • The hot, diffuse gas shown in Vijayaraghavan's simulations. This is very easy to remove by ram pressure, but it doesn't get involved in star formation much because its heat keeps it from collapsing.
  • The warm atomic HI gas, i.e. the best, sexiest gas that we study with radio telescopes. Much denser and cooler than the the hot gas, this can also be removed as long as the ram pressure is strong enough. Exactly how (and even if) it relates to star formation is unclear.
  • The cold molecular gas, which we now think is the main component directly involved in star formation. This can only be directly stripped if the pressure is extremely high.
All of these play different roles in star formation - if we want to understand the effect of gas stripping on the life of a galaxy, rather than studying the stripped gas for its own sake, then ideally we'd measure all three components. And all three respond to ram pressure and the cluster gas a bit differently, and need different methods to detect them. This means the above animation is useful, but only as a rough guide to what we expect.

So how do you kill a galaxy ? Think of its gas as its fuel for star formation. If you remove only the hot gas, you've essentially skimmed a bit off the top. Sure, it'll run out of fuel eventually, but it's still got plenty in the tank for now. You can't really get to the cold gas much, which is actually flowing from the tank and already in the pipes. But you can still remove the warm gas, i.e. emptying the tank and letting the galaxy sputter its last bits of fuel into the engine before it finally gives up the ghost.


Where are all the bloody entrails ?

But all that fuel can't just disappear. Or to take the galaxy death analogy much more literally, courtesy of the fabulous Robert Minchin :
Neutral hydrogen is the life blood of galaxies - it enables them to continue forming stars, and galaxies that have lost their hydrogen are frequently described as 'dead'. Our radio telescope can see this hydrogen, and we can use this to find galaxies. In this new survey, we will be looking at the Virgo cluster - our nearest galaxy cluster.  This is a 'galaxy city' - lots of galaxies are crowded together and interact with each other, often violently. We act like forensic scientists trying to piece together what happened from the small bits of evidence we can find: 'wounded' galaxies that are in the process of turning into 'dead' elliptical galaxies and dark clouds of hydrogen lying around outside of their original galaxies, like pools of blood at a murder scene. These clues allow us to peer deeper into the violent world of the Virgo cluster and trace the fate of its denizens.
I could add that since the galaxies are dying through loss of gas, they're essentially farting themselves to death. Lovely. Fortunately I won't add this, because the blood analogy works much better, as we'll see.

This isn't exactly a whodunnit though. We already think we know who did it (the intracluster gas), how they did it (ram pressure stripping), what they did (strip the galaxies), where and when (using our earlier model and observations, we can calculate these), and also why (because it's physically inevitable). What we don't know - what threatens to undermine the whole otherwise elegant hypothesis - is where the hell are all the bloodstains ?

Or to put it another way, about 60% of all the hundreds of galaxies in the cluster appear to have lost significant amounts of gas, but only 3% of them show streams. Now, it's possible that a lot of them had their gas removed ages and ages ago and it's since dispersed and become undetectable. But we also see a lot of gas-poor galaxies in close proximity to those which are still gas-rich - implying that quite a few ought to be losing gas right now. So naively, we expect to see more streams than we actually do. But how many exactly ?

That's what we tried to quantify in this paper, a problem that had me worried since the heady days of my PhD. In fact, my very first presentation at a major conference was all about a new method of searching for very faint streams that hadn't found anything. The audience humoured me. The prevailing wisdom in the room seemed to be that the cluster's hot gas would rapidly heat up any escaping gas, rendering it undetectable. "It's not really a puzzle", they said. The younger me was no way going to debate this in front of a live audience*, so I said something about just wanting to test a new method, which was bollocks and I knew it.

* Or even a dead audience.

The thing is, there are some streams in the cluster. So how do they survive while most of the others are apparently destroyed more quickly than the reputation of British children's entertainers from the 1970s ?
Map of the known optically HI (atomic hydrogen, a.k.a. warm neutral gas) features in Virgo. Black arrows show streams to their actual scale. Grey arrows show smaller features and are not to scale. Black diamonds show unresolved clouds. Red, green and blue points show optically bright galaxies, while the big grey rectangle highlights our survey area. 
Known features don't show any particular pattern than could explain this. Some are tiny, some are huge. Some are massive, some pathetic. Some are near the violent, fun-filled cluster centre, where ram pressure and evaporation should be strongest, while others are on the outskirts where nothing much at all is going on. So the mechanism that destroys the streams seems weirdly inconsistent and almost magical, like a mad wizard who hates gassy strippers. Don't tell me that's not a puzzle.

In Vijayaraghavan's animation, you can see the tails flaring out as the gas escapes. But that was hot gas, and simulations of the warm (HI) gas show it should remain narrow and confined. Still, over time even this gas ought to disperse, and if its density becomes too low it should no longer be detectable. So we made a simple model to quantify this, accounting for how the viewing angle changes the appearance of a stream in our data. The bottom line is that if the known streams are representative of the general population, then with our survey we ought to detect about 11 streams (we actually detected 2) and another, larger survey should have detected 46 (it actually detected 5). Not great.

Fortunately, this so-called "geometrical dilution" is just one factor that could explain the missing streams. We also need to consider how many galaxies are currently actively losing gas (i.e. expected to have streams right now) and what happens to the gas after it leaves (i.e. how quickly it's dispersed).

That's where our earlier model comes in. One thing I will concede that the torturous refereeing process did improve was our use of our model to predict how many galaxies should be actively losing gas. I would dearly love to say we could use this to make a prediction, but the reality is that we can't - it has just too many uncertainties and the data we need is available for too few galaxies. Booo ?

Well, yes, but we can still use it to do a couple of neat things. We can say which galaxies are more likely to be losing gas right now (just not for the whole sample, unfortunately), and we can estimate how quickly the gas must be dispersing in each case. The model also still has a big advantage over measurements of how much gas has already been lost, in that it models current stripping activity* - it's just not good enough to make a honest-to-goodness prediction. At least not yet.

* Just as with real life, where it's far more important to know who's about to get naked than who already took their clothes off.


Here they are !

Having done all this, it really seemed like there should be more streams present. Plenty of objects seemed to be experiencing enough ram pressure that they should have streams, yet barely any did. Was it possible they'd simply escaped detection ?

Given that I'd spent bloody years staring at these data cubes, that didn't seem likely. I used to joke that I should go on Mastermind with the VC1 cube as my specialist subject. And I did know more about this particular data cube than anyone else alive, because no-one else had done much more than glance at it. But I was foolish to think I knew everything about it.

See, younger me expected that all streams would be spectacular, really obvious features like this one :


Which is the famous VIRGOHI21 as seen with the Westerbork interferometer. But the data I had was from Arecibo, which is more sensitive but has lower resolution. So the kind of tails we should expect to detect with this ought to be faint and appear to be very short. It was fair to say there were no features as spectacular as VIRGOHI21 lurking in the data, but this didn't mean there weren't any detectable streams present at all.

If my first mistake was not understanding what kind of features to look for, my second was over-confidence in my knowledge of how to look for them. Which didn't come from nowhere : having spent several years in creating a better data visualisation tool, I thought I must surely have looked at the data very thoroughly indeed. In fact I had, but in the wrong way.

I have a penchant for volume renders, which show the whole data present in a cube and look cool. I dismissed isosurfaces and contour plots as being not cool enough good for analysis but not for finding sources, because they inherently limit the information shown. Whoops. In fact, isosurfaces - basically just contour plots in 3D - are an awesome tool for finding short extensions, as we'll see if you just bear with me a minute longer.


The thing with our survey is that it's so damn sensitive that it makes the galaxies look incredibly bright. Unless you subtract the "glare" from the galaxy, their tails can remain forever invisible. I'd very successfully subtracted the galaxy emission in previous, more distant cases. Those were easy, because very distant objects become point sources, which have a distinct, known profile shape that's given by the telescope geometry. So you can just input the known shape and subtract it, et voila, the galaxy is removed, leaving the stream behind. Kindof like the Chesire Cat, only waaay less creepy.

From an earlier paper.
And for very close (or very large, well-resolved) sources, you don't need to remove anything : you can see by eye where the galaxy disc ends and its extension begins, if it has any. No need to do anything to the data here at all, you can just go ahead and measure it.

But in this case we were in the unhappy middle ground. The Virgo cluster galaxies were not so distant that they could be considered as point sources : trying the usual subtraction procedure left hideous artifacts that were more offputting than Justin Beiber's Lyme disease. But neither were they close enough that we could directly see the extensions and clearly state that this part is the galaxy's disc and this part is the tail. So what to do about these marginally resolved cases ?

That's where contour plots and isosurfaces come in. Our radio data images the sky just like an optical telescope, but it takes thousands of images of the same region. Each of these frequency channels shows how bright the hydrogen is at slightly different velocities. Since galaxies rotate, different parts of galaxies are visible in different channels. So when you go through channel by channel, you see something like this :

The galaxy (optical image here) slowly drifts across the image, with one side coming towards us (lower velocities) and the other side moving away (higher velocities) due to its rotation. This example shows a case where there's no extension present, so you just get nice circular contours that drift a bit. But looking at every single image is a tiresome as watching the Star Wars Holiday Special, so normally we use different display techniques. One, shown on the left below, is to sum up all the flux along the line of sight -  a volume render. The alternative, on the right, is to show all the contours at once with a different colour for each velocity (this is called a renzogram).


Ahh. This is not quite so circular any more. It's not a very pronounced effect in this case, but if the centre of the flux were to drift a bit more, we'd get an elliptical appearance even though the galaxy itself is pretty circular.

Trying to spot extensions in these complicated cases just by looking at them is... well, I'd been looking at this data for the best part of a decade and not seen them. With volume renders, the streams tend to be so faint that it's hard to set a display range for the data that shows them clearly without having them get lost in the glare of the galaxy. With individual channel maps, as well as being incredibly tedious, it's hard to know if any channel contains any features more elliptical (i.e. sticky-out extendy bits) than any of the others. But using renzograms, it becomes much much easier to see the extensions even when the centre of the contours drifts from channel to channel.

The clearest stream we detected was from the galaxy VCC 2070. The orange contours show a tail, whereas the blue contours (at higher velocities) are nicely circular. It's much easier to see the sticky-out extendy bits when you've got the circular bits visible for comparison at the same time.
And we can tweak this for display purposes. We don't have to show contours for every channel, which can be confusing. Instead we can select the channels which show the extensions most clearly. Here's our main figure showing the streams we're most confident about :


How do we select the best range ? Well, we can also plot the contours in 3D, where these "renzograms" become true isosurfaces. Here's VCC 2070 again. You can clearly see the extension is found only on one side (in velocity) of the galaxy.


And here's the entire data cube, with the surface levels chosen for each galaxy to show everything as nicely as possible. Of course, this works much better when you have a fully interactive model to play with.



So, mystery solved, right ?

Well, umm... well... yeah, actually, it is ! Given how much I've warned y'all about science headlines that use this abominable phrase  I don't say this lightly. But in this case, it really seems to be true.

Finding the streams one expects to find is very nearly as surprising as finding a tiny hedgehog in one's tea.
Now you might think, looking at the above figures, that there's not much scope for doubt about the streams. You might think that with even more gusto if you know that most of the galaxies in our data have perfectly decent circular contours with no signs of streams at all - if they all showed such features, it might be due to some problem with the data processing.

But only a few show extensions. And the number of streams well-matches our expectation, and the basic predictions of our model stand up well. Galaxies our model says should be stripping have a much stronger preference to have tails, and galaxies which shouldn't be stripping don't have tails. The morphology, mass, length and velocity of the streams all exactly fits what we expect for ram pressure stripping. Everything just works.

And yet we had a terrible time convincing not one but two referees about this. For the life of me, I can't understand why. It's true that most streams are quite faint, but they're not that faint. So we spent an inordinate amount of time proving - yes, actual proper proof in this case - that the number of similar features we expect to see due to the noise in the data is essentially zero. We injected fake galaxies into empty regions of the cube containing nothing but noise, then searched through these to see how many contained what looked like streams. And to avoid fooling ourselves, we also injected fake streams only into a random number of these tests, so that when searching we couldn't be sure if we were looking at something we'd injected or a genuine artifact.

Small selection of our fake galaxies, some with fake streams and some without. In other cases we also tried varying the direction, but here they all run from the centre of the galaxy to the right. Although in some cases a fake stream was injected but isn't clearly visible, hardly any show streams which are actually just artifacts due to the noise.
The bottom line is that we don't think any of our ten most confident detections are false. Our 16 other, less sure detections, may well have a significant fraction of false positives, but it's hard to quantify that. So we basically ignored all except the ten best streams in our analysis, to be on the safe side.

When we run the numbers, we find that we can indeed solve the mystery of the lack of bloodstains. Four factors combine to explain why so few streams were visible. First, they do exist, but it takes the right survey and the right visualisation techniques to find them. Second, you have to account for the number of galaxies currently losing gas. Then, third, the geometry of the streams affects their detectability. And finally, using the observational measurements plus our analytic model, we can calculate how fast the gas disperses. The dispersal rate seems to be fast enough that low-mass streams quickly fade from view, but the high mass ones can last much longer. So there's no magic wizard, just gas evaporating quite naturally.

(Or, if you prefer, if you prick someone with a needle, the slowly dribbling blood will quickly evaporate away. Stab 'em in an artery with a knife and gushing torrent will take ages before it disappears.)

The other thing I have to mention is the orientation of the streams. Google Plus survivors may remember I ran a poll to check if I'd identified the direction of the streams correctly. What was odd about this was that they all seemed to be pointing either towards or away from the centre of the cluster, even those that were from galaxies in separate sub-clusters that are just too far away for the main cluster to have any real influence :

Streams in our survey area. The red arrows show the actual stream direction, while green arrows point towards the cluster centre. Grey and black outlines highlight galaxies which are in more distant sub-clusters where there shouldn't be any coherent alignment towards the main cluster.
Here I will again reluctantly concede to one of the referees that it was probably better that we took this out of the final paper, but I'm not thrilled about it. What we think is going on is just small number statistics. For the galaxies in the main body of the cluster, we expect there to be this sort of alignment so there's no problem. Once you take those out, the numbers in the sub-clusters are pretty small. It would only take a couple of membership misidentifications before you could find completely different patterns - with regards to cluster centre alignment, we're essentially seeing what we wanted to see, not necessarily what's really there. The same data can be interpreted very differently, depending on what you think is significant.

If we give ourselves a little slack, we can select regions where the streams appear to be aligned in very different ways. So the large-scale alignment is probably just a coincidence.
Of course, we've only looked at a small part of the cluster, so it's still possible there are other mysterious things going on elsewhere. In fact we know there are, because as I described previously, certain features just don't make sense. And we've solved the mystery statistically, not for every single individual object. So this claim that everything is done now is strictly limited. But the fundamental problem of why we don't see that many streams - that, I think, is well and truly done.

What's next ? Well, we've got loads of other old data cubes that we could re-analyse, and brand new Virgo data coming in. With more galaxies, we might be able to say something about the orbits of the galaxies in different parts of the cluster, and see where gas loss is most active. It's also a bit of a puzzle how some galaxies are losing gas despite being in the cluster outskirts. But for now, given the years it took to get this far, it's time to do something else completely. After all, there's only so much research into the death-throes of a windy stripper that any self-respecting astronomer can put up with.

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.