You Won’t Get Elected If You Don’t Speak Klingon.

Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? Too bad it’s pretty much the way we do things in this hemisphere.

Here in Ontario, we face the imminent prospect of double-barreled elections: one provincial, one federal. The leader of our provincial Conservative Party recently allowed that his plan to publicly fund religious schools would include taxpayer support of those teaching creationism because, after all, evolution is “just a theory”. Our prime minister Stephen Harper, whose denial of climate change was unswerving until polls revealed that at he’d pick up a few extra votes by paying lip-service to reality, has just frozen the budget of the Canadian Wildlife Service — that branch of government responsible for monitoring inconsequential things like, oh, pesticide bioaccumulation and the destruction of wilderness habitat. (Just before this decision game down, one of Harper’s hatchet-wielders showed up to “assess” the labors of a CWS biologist of my acquaintance. She wanted to know why he had to keep going out and collecting all this data; after all, hadn’t they already collected data the year before? Couldn’t they just stay in their offices and play with that?) And of course, the whole lot of them not only admit to being superstitious, they trumpet the fact — because here in the twenty-first century, nobody has any public credibility unless they take their marching orders from an Imaginary Friend. (As long as you call him God or Allah. Call him Harvey and they’ll lock you away.)

Who are these people? What are their qualifications for running a country of thirty-three million people?

The majority of politicians have backgrounds in either law or business. Human laws — The Law, as it likes to be known — is fundamentally predicated on presumptions of free will which we know to be neurologically false (evidence to this effect has been accumulating for well over a century now. Google Phineas Gage if you don’t believe me). In some cases The Law verges on recognizing as much; that convicted pedophile was, after all, released when his violent behavior was shown to result from a brain tumor. But it won’t take the next logical step — if we aren’t responsible for behavior induced by a tumor, how can we be held responsible for the wiring that turns us into sociopaths? How can anyone be held responsible for any behaviors arising from neural circuitry over which we have no control? That road leads to such dark and unpleasant places…

Then there’s the business community. Economics. The “science” that tells us that oxygen has no market value, the spreadsheets proving the Exxon Valdez spill was the best thing to ever happen to the Alaskan economy, the models that shrug at deforestation in Brazil and mine tailings in Howe Sound because hey, dead ecosystems don’t show up on the ledger. Does anyone outside the stock market really believe that the utility, abundance, the real value of copper fluctuates hourly based on Wall Street rumors? Are stock brokers transmuting the stuff with their minds?

Both Law and Economics, in other words, are human artifacts. They’re like Gibsonian cyberspace, a consensual hallucination that only works because everybody agrees to stay inside the playground. They’re Klingon Summer Camp, they’re Dungeons and Dragons for geeks with MBAs: beautifully arcane, deeply developed, honed and crafted by decades of game play. But they’re arbitrary. Lo, the DM changes The Law, tweaks interest rates: watch all the PCs dance to the rules of the new edition!

Try that in the real world, though. Try repealing photosynthesis or gravity and see where it gets you. Anyone who thinks The Economy has anything more than a tangential relationship to the real world is an idiot.

So, why is it always suits making these decisions? Why so few scientists in politics? Why isn’t the real world governed by those practiced in studying the real world, instead of geeks who can’t admit that Klingons don’t actually exist?

I think it’s because science is nasty. It is a methodology that recognizes the prejudices and blind spots of its practitioners, and drags us kicking and screaming to unpleasant truths we’d rather not recognize. It’s the only approach designed to be self-correcting — to the point that it’s responsible for conceptual advances even among its self-proclaimed alternatives, be it neuroeconomics (in the dismal science) or a heliocentric solar system (in the Christian church).

Science starts from the assumption that the things we believe are wrong, and tests them to destruction. One does not “prove” scientific claims; one only fails to reject them. This is why relativity, evolution, and dark matter remain “theories”; we must always allow for the possibility that they could be subsumed by a better alternative, as Newton was subsumed by Einstein. But by the same token, there is no such thing as “just a theory” in science. To become a Theory is to achieve an exalted state, accorded only unto those few hypotheses still standing after being hammered by the most unforgiving attacks that colleagues and rivals can muster. Anyone who seriously utters the phrase “just a theory” is too ignorant for anything beyond the scrubbing of test tubes and the picking of noses.

And it is that strength, I think, that explains why science is so routinely ignored — nay, downright disparaged — by those who insist they know what’s best for us. It explains why John Crosbie could dismiss as “demented” the urgings of federal biologists that cod quotas be cut, only to blame the “arrogance” of those same scientists for the inevitable collapse that occurred a few years later. It explains the routine gag orders muzzling government scientists on every subject from cod to climate; because for a myopic pest species six billion strong, Truths are the last thing anyone wants to face. And if you think only one of them happens to be inconvenient, you probably did get the government you deserved.

We’d all just rather follow the fat guys waving the Battleths.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Tuesday September 25 2007at 03:09 pm , filed under rant . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

22 Responses to “You Won’t Get Elected If You Don’t Speak Klingon.”

  1. “How can anyone be held responsible for any behaviors arising from neural circuitry over which we have no control? — because that road leads to such dark and unpleasant places…”

    Which I think is one of the most interesting questions we can explore. How much of our behavior is innate wiring, how much is just random interaction, is any of it a conscious decision?

    And if our involuntary actions cause harm to someone else, what do we do about it? Do we just write it off as a defective brain and chuck it? Is there any useful way to re-wire it and if there is, would it be worth the time and trouble? What happens if one day you wake up and realize you used to be a serial killer before the nice people at NeuroRepair fixed you up?

    This is the reason why I love/hate Blindsight. I finished the book and then spent the night awake in an existential nightmare. Fun stuff but it’s hard to ponder the fact that you’re not just watching shadows on the cave wall — you are the shadows.

    later
    Tom

  2. I don’t follow your line of reasoning that leads to people lacking freewill in the classic sense being any sort of problem. I’ve pretty much accepted that idea and I don’t have any problem with executing some people and not others. Oh sure, the run-of-the-mill murderer might not be “responsible” for their actions in any real sense, but that’s entirely besides the point in the decision on whether or not to execute them, isn’t it?

    The sooner the world at large realizes this, the better off we’ll be.

  3. I wanna put you and Carlos Yu in a cage and watch you fight to the death.

  4. Somewhat off-topic regarding the new poll…

    Thanks for putting this up. I appreciate the humor in option #3 (“I have no appreciation for thematic consistency with the rest of the site: give me dark text on a light background”), but I’d like to make one point.

    Visual consistency with the rest of the site is an important and worthwhile goal. However, when it adversely affects the usability of page, it’s time to change it up. You want to do *everything* you can to drive people to your content and keep them there. Web surfers are immensely fickle and will click away faster than you can blink.

    I know I’ve been outvoted in the polls, with over 70% of respondents saying they liked the site just fine, but I want to go on record one more time stating that reading huge blocks of pure white text on a pure black background hurts.

    That is all. End transmission.

  5. The majority of politicians have backgrounds in either law or business.

    And to think, we keep bitching about lawyers, but we keep electing them. Maybe because so many of them run.

    Does anyone outside the stock market really believe that the utility, abundance, the real value of copper fluctuates hourly based on Wall Street rumors? Are stock brokers transmuting the stuff with their minds?

    You misunderstand economics. All of it is relative. Every last ounce. Even when it was based on ounces of something.

    Try to imagine all of economics as a communication protocol (or rather, a series of protocol layers). TCP/IP, up to HTTP and XML-RPC, then to shiny AJAX apps and flash videos. Currency is the base, but it’s only a communication of promises and intent. So yeah, what we think is important fluctuates all the time based on the transient opinions of the greedy people we trust to move our money around. And it does relate to the real world (at least vaguely), since enough of us want the shiny things we’ll build the Exxon Valdez and let it crash. Sometimes that scares me as much as the free-will arguments.

    Why so few scientists in politics?

    Easy. They’re too smart. People hate smart. Smart tells them they’re stupid. Smart tells them they’ve wrecked things, that they’re still wrecking things, that they possibly can’t stop wrecking things. Smart can’t make up it’s mind, keeps flip-flopping on whether drinking’s bad for you, which carbohydrate is good for you, whether people have will or not. Smart tells them that they can’t trust themselves or anything else. Stupid hates not trusting something. So stupid finds an imaginary friend.

    But it’s not just that science is nasty. Plenty of people used to nasty truths and brutal realities wouldn’t trust a scientist in charge, for fear they’re too removed. Just sitting there, collecting their data (which as often as not includes said nasty, brutal people).

    I think it’s that science is also fast. You have to pay attention. To school, to the news, to the details, to the subtleties and the possibilities. You have to integrate, live with doubt, and keep up with a blistering pace. It requires a certain attitude towards information in general which is distinctly lacking in teh stoopid.

    But hey, try to prove it wasn’t always thus.

  6. Thanks for the link to the pedophile story. Absolutely fascinating. It leads me to wonder why the fellow didn’t become a cleptomaniac or develop some other more ‘benign’ impluse disorder. The fact that we have evolved specific brain structures to ‘hold in check’ other parts of our brain is some what troubling…in a cool and amazing way.

  7. Try reading Kim Stanley Robinson. He talks a lot about the relationship between science and politics, especially in his last trilogy. He’s been described as “utopian”, which may be offputting for you, but at least he’s thought a bit about the topic.

  8. Try reading Kim Stanley Robinson

    I’ve tried. He’s just not my cup of tea.. I can’t get into his style at all.

  9. AR said…

    I don’t follow your line of reasoning that leads to people lacking freewill in the classic sense being any sort of problem. …, the run-of-the-mill murderer might not be “responsible” for their actions in any real sense, but that’s entirely besides the point in the decision on whether or not to execute them, isn’t it?

    Not as far as N’Am legal systems are concerned. You or I might not blame the dog for being rabid, but kill him anyway for the public good — but The Law is obsessed with culpability. “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity” makes all the difference in capital cases — and yet, neurologically, you might as well say “not guilty by reason of inherent neural wiring”, and let everyone off.

    The sooner the world at large realizes this, the better off we’ll be.

    That, I’m not entirely convinced of.

    Anonymous opined…

    I wanna put you and Carlos Yu in a cage and watch you fight to the death.

    Google returns far too many Carlos Yu’s for me to know who the hell you’re talking about. But whoever he is, he’d probably win. Those Asiatics all have black belts.

    Raymond said (among other things)…

    You misunderstand economics. All of it is relative. Every last ounce. Even when it was based on ounces of something …. < snippage > … And it does relate to the real world (at least vaguely), since enough of us want the shiny things we’ll build the Exxon Valdez and let it crash.

    Oh, sure: the Economy most definitely has an impact on the real world, just as a model that fails to account for gravity will generate very profound real-world consequences when it drives a bunch of people off a cliff. But the reason it has such a profound impact is because the model itself is so bad at representing the real world. That’s my point.

    I think it’s that science is also fast. You have to pay attention. To school, to the news, to the details, to the subtleties and the possibilities. You have to integrate, live with doubt, and keep up with a blistering pace…. < snippage > But hey, try to prove it wasn’t always thus.

    I don’t think science was always so fast. da Vinci could afford to be an expert in everything, after all, because there simply wasn’t as much knowledge to assimilate. These days, you can’t even be an expert in marine biology any more— the most you can hope for is to get a good basic feel for marine biology, and then become an expert in vestigial vibrissae development in fetal dolphins or something. That’s the price we pay when science pays off in compound interest.

    Jacqie suggested…

    Try reading Kim Stanley Robinson. He talks a lot about the relationship between science and politics, especially in his last trilogy. He’s been described as “utopian”, which may be offputting for you, but at least he’s thought a bit about the topic.

    I’ve read some of his shorter stuff, but never his longer works. He’s on my perennial get-around-to-someday list, but I am seriously backed-up in my reading. I was just about to get started — finally — on some books Neal Asher sent me about a year ago, only to have FedEx show up at my door with two other books I’ve promised to look at for blurbing purposes. And of course the deadline for feedback on all these blurb-hungry books is, like tomorrow, and I’ve already got two others in the hopper due today. So ol’ Kim is gonna have to wait. At least for sixty days.

  10. “And if our involuntary actions cause harm to someone else, what do we do about it?”

    That brings us to the dark and unpleasant place Peter mentioned. Creating a scapegoat for our actions is definitely not going to help things. I think even if the evidence of such free will illusion were to become so convincing that no other alternative made sense, it would still be a mistake to embrace it on a social level.

    Regarding scientist and politicians: I believe that many politicians may honestly believe they started out for a cause or purpose that was nobel (to someone at least), then they get wrapped up in so much social bullshit and pressure from their peers, superiors, and publc that it quickly because hindsight. Like so many jobs their purpose gets lost in putting out constant fires erupting all around them. I don’t believe a scientist would except that role, and if he did, I bet he would quickly get lost in the same snowball plumetting down Mount Unpopular.

    Pardon my spelling/grammar, I write software for a living.

    J

  11. There are more bad & stupid people than good & smart.

    For example: if everybody was good & smart, wars would not even be possible.

  12. Hey Peter, I thought you might be interested in this:

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21034344/from/ET/

  13. Jason said…

    I think even if the evidence of such free will illusion were to become so convincing that no other alternative made sense, it would still be a mistake to embrace it on a social level.

    Yeah, that’s the rub, and it’s like sandpaper with cleats: the moment you accept that we’re deterministic systems in principle, then you’ve basically let everyone off the hook for anything they ever do, since none of us have any free will of our own. Any system based on notions of culpability falls apart. Ordered society falls apart.

    What’s the alternative? Replace notions of will-based morality with sheer expedience, I guess. Do away with any bullshit notions of good and evil, and simply eliminate threats because they’re threats, not because they’re at fault. And perhaps take heart in the knowledge that whatever we do, whatever kindnesses or abuses or preemptive measures we mete out, we’re not really to blame for them either. None of us has any choice, no matter how profoundly we feel that we do.

    Not very satisfying, is it? But then, science is a little like The Matrix’s red pill: all it gives you is the truth. It doesn’t pretend to tell you how to live with it.

    Anonymous said…

    If everybody was good & smart, wars would not even be possible.

    I disagree. I think all you need for war are irreconciliably conflicting interests. (Oh, and relatively equal strength between the combatants. Otherwise you just get a rout.) For example, if you accept that protecting one’s family is “good”, then stick two good families in a lifeboat where all they have to eat is each other. What would good, smart people do? Take turns?

    Alehkhs said…

    Hey Peter, I thought you might be interested in this:

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21034344/from/ET/

    Hell, yes! A lethal brain-eating amoeba that sneaks in through the nose! Cases expected to increase as the climate warms! Think of the terrorism potential, especially if you tweaked something like this!

    This is going into a story, for background ambience if nothing else. Thank you.

  14. left-wing totalitarian science based society anyone? its the only answer now i think. the scientists have got to rise up from their benches worldwide and save the great unwashed from themselves! put down your pippettes pick up your pistols! death to science denying politicians. up against the wall for creationism, for climate change denial, for pandering to green lobbyist idiots, for neglecting the space programs the world over. We can, after all, build a better bomb than baselines. the scientific revolutionary front is born! long live the SRF!

    sorry ive just come back from a long week in berlin, and re-adapting to bench work is a little dull this morning

  15. Not very satisfying, is it? But then, science is a little like The Matrix’s red pill: all it gives you is the truth. It doesn’t pretend to tell you how to live with it.

    … enter the nonscience: Art, Religion, Politics, individuality, freedom. I definitely don’t want to be an ant in a colony, constantly working at the unified goal. I want to read books, watch TV, laugh when someone trips going up stairs, show off my achievements, shame my failures, all products of the perceived free will.

  16. You know, Peter, it’s interesting you posted this the same day that I was in NYC getting an award for the Seed Science Writing Contest.

    No, I’m not (just) bragging, but I (and AFAIK, the first place winner, but I’ll let his essay speak for him) wrote on how our understanding of things is a model, and like all models, has to be subservient to facts.

    Which is essentially what you ended up saying, I think (though you said it a bit more thoroughly and bluntly than I). Which makes sense, since I was/am still mentally reeling from Blindsight, and that had a lot to do with my POV when I wrote that.

    I guess that means you inspired me, Peter. Though I always expected my muse to not come in the form of a space vampire.

  17. Y’know, I’ve read this 3 times. And I agree with it. Its amusing in spots, but the whole of it scares the shit out of me.

    I guess that’s because it ties to the stuff Peter’s been writing and lead me to research brain function and ‘consciousness’ on my own.

  18. I thought this was interesting reading, but I’m no neuroscientist.

  19. I’ve been seeing commercials on CBC for the Ontario elections while watching hockey. I love how campaigning has become (or maybe always was?) more about trashing your opponent rather than building your own platform. I realize that smear campaigns and battles of credibility and character have always been tactical, but the commercials, it’s ridiculous how uncreative the trashing is.. As a Canadian I take pride in my ability to destroy someone else’s character with a little flair and creativity. Maybe you should run for office Peter.

  20. jason remarked

    Maybe you should run for office Peter.

    I’m going to steal a line from Bill Maher here: “I think that drugs are good and religion is bad. Now go find me a campaign manager.”

    Hell, given that half the Murrican population believes the universe is six thousand years old, you’d have an uphill battle even convincing me that democracy is a good idea…

  21. I can’t recall which username I was using and am too lazy to check.

    Okay, so this post will probably never, ever be read, but I’ve had it stewing in my head for a few months and never quite got it into a coherent form.

    The thing with economics is that it’s the study of incentives, in a nutshell. (Well,that and it’s presently sort of a larval science. Think the blokes who figured the ether was a fantastic explanation for scientific realities. Or farther back, the classical-elements system, or alchemy.)

    Economics, in its present form, is quite lovely at determining how many people and how much machinery to use to make however many widgets to sell at X price for maximal profit, or how much of a tax break to give green corporations so they actually care, and so on.

    Where it falls down at present is in the grand-scale macroeconomics, simply because there’s not yet a model with really solid grounding, although the stuff having to do with much-maligned interest rates is more developed than most. Sure, waving your magic wand and cutting interest rates by two percent isn’t immediately relevant to most, but you can sure as hell bet that it’s relevant to the banks making loans or the investors buying stocks, which, let’s be honest, kinda matter.

    The other place economics falls down and by definition always will is on the grand scale of decision making and ethics and so on. I recall reading a study that determined that abortion was RIDICULOUSLY economically efficient; the mothers most likely to abort are also the mothers whose children are overwhelmingly the most likely to become criminals and generally contribute nothing of use. …Okay, so abortion’s an issue that allows debate, but you can sort of see where I’m pointing, right? Let the economists run things and eventually we’re going to make decisions that are horribly evil by the lights of some or all of the rest of the population, even if they do make the world run a bit smoother.

    Similarly, economics doesn’t really make a statement on the whole environmental issue. If you ask an economist whether the environment should be protected, he’ll probably answer on the basis of his own personal beliefs, because economics ironically doesn’t make non-monetary value judgements. (And even monetarily, the tradeoff between environmental failure -> total economic crash fifty years down the road, and more money expended now -> less catastrophic disaster later is a bit on the complex side.) If you ask him what to do about it so that the megacorps will listen, he might have a few answers.

    I guess what this boils down to is that blaming economists for most of the politicians’ and businessmen’s silly decisions doesn’t float real well. We aid, we abet, we implement, but with relatively few exceptions (hello, Reaganomics! Ugh… it seemed like a good idea at the time), we don’t actually make the choice.

  22. Kevin C. said…

    Okay, so this post will probably never, ever be read, but I’ve had it stewing in my head for a few months and never quite got it into a coherent form.

    Hey. I read it.

    Where it falls down at present is in the grand-scale macroeconomics, simply because there’s not yet a model with really solid grounding, although the stuff having to do with much-maligned interest rates is more developed than most. Sure, waving your magic wand and cutting interest rates by two percent isn’t immediately relevant to most, but you can sure as hell bet that it’s relevant to the banks making loans or the investors buying stocks, which, let’s be honest, kinda matter.

    Maybe the question is, why it matters. AFAICT, it matters mainly because everyone agrees that it does; we’re all playing by the same AD&D rule set. But if everyone basically said, this campaign sucks, let’s go back to the Second Edition before the Fed, then the Fed would by definition become irrelevant. Compare with something like, say, gravity, which stubbornly insists on being relevant no matter how many of us agree that it isn’t.

    The other place economics falls down and by definition always will is on the grand scale of decision making and ethics and so on.

    I’m surprised to see you lump “ethics” in there with something as all-purpose as “decision-making”.

    Let the economists run things and eventually we’re going to make decisions that are horribly evil by the lights of some or all of the rest of the population, even if they do make the world run a bit smoother.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

    OK, being a bit facetious here, and I certainly have my own (relatively inflexible) code of right and wrong, so I’m argueing from the head here, not the gut — but I’ve always been suspicious of this whole right/wrong good/evil thing that people keep citing. They seem to be, in general, little more than shorthand for what the guys who call the shots in a given society condone or condemn. Religious folks will be the first in line to claim that moral absolutes exist, that there is universal good and universal evil, and these folks also tend to elbow their way to the front of the line when it comes to claiming an inside track on what those absolutes are. But even a country run by economists would be hardpressed to out-evil the legacies of the world’s theocracies.

    Similarly, economics doesn’t really make a statement on the whole environmental issue. If you ask an economist whether the environment should be protected, he’ll probably answer on the basis of his own personal beliefs, because economics ironically doesn’t make non-monetary value judgements.

    But various efforts have been made to apply monetary values to environmental issues; the oxygen-generating and water-purifying services of wetlands, for example. It seems to me that economics could make these judgments, if they only made their models a bit (okay, a lot) more realistic. What am I missing?

    I guess what this boils down to is that blaming economists for most of the politicians’ and businessmen’s silly decisions doesn’t float real well. We aid, we abet, we implement, but with relatively few exceptions (hello, Reaganomics! Ugh… it seemed like a good idea at the time), we don’t actually make the choice.

    Fair enough, but I wasn’t blaming the economists; I was blaming the politicians (and, by implication, the businessmen who buy them) for so credulously accepting economic caricatures of reality.

    Of course, those caricatures generally work well enough for them