J R Oppenheimer Asks: Can Science Provide Better Models for Democracy?

I came across a collection of 1950’s vintage essays by Robert Oppenheimer that’s been lurking quietly unattended in my book collection for who knows how long.

Reading essays by scientifically accomplished people from long ago is always an eye-opener. Bits discovered therein have been leaking into my tweet stream this week.

Here is what I take to be the central theme of the essays in this book:

What can and should society learn from an abstract understanding of the practice of science?

We are interested here not in the content of science, but in its process.

Oppenheimer believed that the answer was bigger than “nothing much”. I do too.

 

===

Somewhere in the usenet archives are a few thoughts of my own on the subject from the early 1990s. To my recollection, it was kicked off by ruminations about a TV news program I had seem, entitled (if memory serves) something like “This Week In Science”.

Leaving aside the implausibility of any television network attempting such a thing today, it must be admitted that the program was a failure, a crashing bore. This is because in any given week *Nothing Happens In Science*. Or, more precisely, if something worthy of note happened in science in a given week, nobody will really know that in twenty years.

Contrast this with the sturm und drang of the more conventional news. Personalities, postures, bombastic claims, indictments, excitements, threats of war, hopes for peace! There’s never any shortage of things to talk about,

Ah but come back those twenty years later, and who has made progress? The scientific landscape is utterly altered, while the political landscape is the same mess, with some of the same people strutting on the stage with the same postures?

So I surmised that there is something in the social nature of scientific inquiry that *makes progress possible* which is absent in the social nature of political pursuits (with economic pursuits perhaps holding an intermediate position). And I expressed a hope that everybody else could pick up those skills.

Which skills would they be? A capacity to collaborate with an opponent. A capacity to refine opinions and even reverse them in the face of evidence. A hunger for more evidence against which to test one’s ideas. A genuine pleasure in testing oneself and one’s beliefs.

Science is an odd combination of cooperation and competition. Science is arranged around truth. Yes, if you find the right truths and promote them right, you’ll do fairly well in your career, but everyone knows (or at least should know) that it’s the truths that matter, not your career.

The rest of society is arranged around winners and losers. And it makes little progress.

Do we model ourselves on the steady progress of science, or on courtroom dramas?

It’s clear how the press processes things. This versus that. Opinions from “both sides”. They can’t help themselves. And this is what the public thinks science is about. Warring camps, multiple non-overlapping clusters of opinion. Like pro-choice vs pro-life. Even the nomenclature used by the camps can never overlap.

So my modest proposal was that people adopt what at that time was known without much complexity as a “skeptical” attitude. To spend as much time trying to let go of your own ideas as to convince others of their validity. To remember that the person easiest for you to fool is yourself, and to guard, vigilantly and constantly, against it. To go out of your way to concede those parts of your opponent’s argument as you can bring yourself to do, even if that’s often met with bad faith.

I hoped for seeing, in my lifetime, increasing the zone of consensus among the general public. That’s worked out well so far, hasn’t it?

===

Here is how Oppenheimer frames the question in his 1947 lecture “Physics in the Contemporary World”

( paywalled at https://doi.org/10.1080/00963402.1948.11460172 ; selected excerpts )

“This is the question of whether there are elements in the way of life of the scientist which need not be restricted to the professional, and which have hope in them for bringing dignity and courage and serenity to other men. Science is not all of the life of reason; it is a part of it. As such, what can it mean to man?”

“In this field quite ordinary men, using what are in the last analysis only the tools which are generally available in our society, manage to unfold for themselves and all others who wish to learn, the rich story of one aspect of the physical world, and of man’s experience. We learnt to throw away those instruments of action and those modes of description which are not appropriate to the reality we are trying to discern, and in this most painful discipline find ourselves modest before the world

“The question which is so much in our mind is whether a comparable experience, a comparable discipline, a comparable community of interest, can in any way be available to mankind at large.”

“Clearly, if we raise at all this question that I have raised, it must be in the hope that there are other areas of human experience that may be discovered or invented or cultivated, and to which the qualities which distinguish scientific life may be congenial and appropriate.”

“In the first instance the work of science is co-operative; a scientist takes his colleagues as judges, competitors and collaborators. That does not mean, of course, that he loves his colleagues; but it gives him a way of living with them which would not be without its use in the contemporary world.”

“Science is novelty and change. When it closes it dies. These qualities constitute a way of life which of course does not make wise men from foolish, or good men from wicked, but which has its beauty and which seems singularly suited to man’s estate on earth.”

“We become fully aware of the need for caution if we look for a moment at what are called the social problems of the day and try to think what one could mean by approaching them in the scientific spirit… In short, almost all the preconditions of scientific activity are missing… All that we have from science in facing such great questions is a memory of our professional life, which makes us somewhat skeptical of other people’s assertions, somewhat critical of enthusiasms so difficult to define and to control.”

Oppenheimer closes with “I have had to leave this essential question unanswered: I am not at all proud of that.”

====

I should point out that these excerpts come from a rather long and meandering essay –  this is the unifying theme, but there is much more of considerable interest, some directly and some rather frustratingly tangentially related.

Though it’s a topic I once thought about a lot, I’m not sure I have much to add except that I’d like to hear others’ opinion about it. To motivate the conversation I’ll quote from another essay in the same volume, The Encouragement of Science (1950):

“We need to recognize the situation as new; we need to come to it with something of the same spirit as the scientist’s when he has conducted an experiment and finds that the results are totally other than those he had anticipated.”

As I see things, the complexity of our collective circumstances has been increasing, and the competence of our collective reasoning and planning has not been keeping pace. In the last few years, to the contrary, it seems to have taken a sharp turn for the worse. I don’t see extant political configurations as capable of rising to the occasion. But this will not make the occasion go away. It’s definitely time for some social creativity. Can looking toward successful institutions, the best moments in scientific history not least among them, at least serve as a source of inspiration?

===

-Michael Tobis (mt)

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50 Responses to J R Oppenheimer Asks: Can Science Provide Better Models for Democracy?

  1. wmconnolley says:

    Your title is “J R Oppenheimer Asks: Can Science Provide Better Models for Democracy?”. And your text includes “Here is what I take to be the central theme of the essays in this book: What can and should society learn from an abstract understanding of the practice of science?”. O’s word which you quote directly are “…bringing dignity and courage and serenity to other men. Science is not all of the life of reason; it is a part of it. As such, what can it mean to man?”

    So I’m curious if O actually does talk about democracy, or society, explicitly. Or if that’s your paraphrase.

  2. John Hartz says:

    Scientists could identify who among a group of candidates are “stable geniuses” and disqualify them from running for office. One stable genius in office per millenia is quite enough thank you very much. 🙂

  3. dpy6629 says:

    “…but everyone knows (or at least should know) that it’s the truths that matter, not your career.” I’d be careful here Michael. There is a lot of evidence that careerism is in fact the problem in modern science along with a rotten reward system that rewards bad science.

    Even more fundamental is the idea that logic and argumentation can arrive at a better approximation to the truth. This is an idea that predates modern science. You must realize that this idea is under attack by post-modernism. Another factor is the descent of the media back to the yellow journalism of the 19th century.

  4. Willard says:

    > You must realize that this idea is under attack by post-modernism.

    No, not really. From Michel’s Discourse & Truth, Problematization of Parrhesia:

    What I wanted to analyze was how the truth-teller’s role was variously problematized in Greek philosophy. And what I wanted to show you was that if Greek philosophy has raised the question of truth from the point of view of the criteria for true statements and sound reasoning, this same Greek philosophy has also raised the problem of truth from the point of view of truth-telling as an activity.

    https://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2017/09/10/portable-pomo/

    ***

    > There is a lot of evidence that careerism is in fact the problem in modern science along with a rotten reward system that rewards bad science.

    Exactly:

    The report also noted that maintenance crews had replaced the faulty sensor two days before the flight and that pilots on the four flights preceding the crash reported incorrect airspeed and altitude information (a passenger likened one of those flights to a “roller coaster ride”). And like with the Lion Air crash, the sensor on the Ethiopian plane may have been damaged causing it to feed erroneous data to the MCAS system.

    On April 29, during Boeing’s annual shareholders meeting in Chicago, CEO Dennis Muilenburg said the incorrect data was a common link in a chain of events that led to both crashes. It’s a link Boeing owns, he said, and one that the software update will fix.

    https://www.cnet.com/news/boeings-737-max-8-all-about-the-aircraft-flight-ban-and-investigations/

  5. Great post. Thought provoking. My reflections …

    Science practices genuine scepticism as argued in this post, which includes a respect for evidence. Governments, even rightwing ones, have setup bodies whose goal is also to respect evidence – such as the EPA in 1970s America – because of a broad consensus about many areas (depoliticized), and policy can flow from evidence (fix acid rain etc.); this we assumed was a protected space where party politics would not interfer (even if policy actions were often too slow and too weak, no one doubted the evidence).

    But we know that ideologues hate being thwarted and will not only ignore evidence, they will attack the messengers. Lysenko was not the first or last to attack science that did not fit with ideology. The Merchants Of Doubt have been at work in USA and elsewhere for a while; they want to undermine confidence in science.

    In the age of the web, this has led to a viral undermining of trust in evidence by some (although this should not be overstated; if a child gets a rare eye infection, most parents will generally prefer to see a specialist, not someone who has been struck off for weird theories).

    There is an organised attack on democracy going in right now, but the solutions required are not simply to try to defend each attack on truth and evidence (that will surely never win!). Polarization has meant the field of consensus has shrunk. But what can we do?

    We should do the obvious things, such as defending institutions that respect evidence that are often under attack; we should directly challenge leading false-sceptics.

    But there is something more fundamental and systemic, which is to innoculate society. The older generation in the UK often talk of the 3 Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) as cornerstones of learning.

    I think it is clear that critical thinking and understanding evidence are crucial too.

  6. I have often thought that we should spend more time talking about how science works, rather than simply promoting supposedly exciting scientific results. As you highlight in the post, science is actually quite a slow process and the advancement is often only really evident in retrospect. I think it would be worthwhile if people better understood the process and also – as Richard highlights above – if there was more critical thinking taking place.

    On the other hand, we do have to be careful of scientism. Science has done an amazing job of uncovering information about the world around us and we probably understand it better than at any time in human history. It has done an awful lot of good, but also an awful lot of harm. We do need to remember that vaules and ideologies are also important and that we wouldn’t want the world to become some kind of technocracy, where all decisions are made on the basis of some kind of scientific analysis.

  7. To answer the question in the title: A clear NO.

    Just wait until scientists would have to solve political problems, rather than scientific problems. In case of scientific problems there is an answer, we are comparing like with like. In case of political problems there is no answer, we are comparing apples and origins.

    Scientists could do a better job than the life long bungler in Chief, but so could truck drivers.

  8. Victor,
    To be fair, I think the suggestion is more that scientific thinking could provide a better model, rather than scientists themselves. Okay, maybe that would then imply that those making democractic decisions are essentially scientists?

  9. mt says:

    William “So I’m curious if O actually does talk about democracy, or society, explicitly.”

    I don’t think he used the word “democracy”, and whether he thought about it or no, probably would have avoided it because he wanted his essay to apply to Soviet society as well as to the west. (McCarthyite suspicions that he was a communist notwithstanding, there’s no evidence in these writings that he was sympathetic to the USSR. Quite the contrary, I’d say.)

    But the existential question central to his thinking was clearly whether and how a nuclear war could be avoided. One could make a case that we have avoided it so far partially because of his efforts to clarify the case against it, which in large part was an opposition to the sort of tribalism that caused the great wars of his time, which of course we are increasingly facing again.

    He explicitly makes the case, for example, that the cultural ecumenism of science is a model for society at large.

    He quotes FDR:

    “Today we are faced with the pre-eminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships – the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together, in the same world, at peace.” – Franklin Roosevelt (1945)

    Our present problems seem rooted in a lack of ecumenism, a stupid failure to see the commonality of our collective fate. So it’s worth revisiting the thoughts of a time that was just beginning to recover from the previous failure of that sort.

    It’s one world. It thrives or fails as one. Science has always thrived best when it is at its most inclusive, and this is one lesson the world seemed to be learning, until the recent decline. And Oppenheimer makes a closely related point:

    “It is natural that serious scientists, knowing of their own experience something of the quality of their profession, should just today be concerned about its possible extension. For it is a time when the destruction and the evil of the past quarter century make men everywhere eager to seek all that con contribute to their intellectual life, some of the order and freedom and purpose which we conceive the great days of the past to have. Of all intellectual activity, science alone has flourished in the last centuries, science alone has turned out to have the kind of universality among men which the times require.”

  10. izen says:

    Science, like sport, relies on authentic results.
    Like sport it can be undermined when it becomes commercialised and commodified, as in medical/pharma research or TV wrestling.

    I recently encountered the word/concept Kayfabe.
    This is the construction (in wrestling) of an emotionally engaging narrative of good versus evil, love and betrayal, success and failure that is used to disguise the staged and scripted moves that are performed in the ring as the ‘fight’.
    The audience (or at least most) know the whole thing is theatre, but are willing to suspend their disbelief for the emotional payoff of involvement in the conflict. Democracy has become susceptible to a similar process. Authenticity is abandoned in favour of a narrative that is simpler and more meaningful than the messy, multiple factored reality that evidence based research, or accurate data would expose.

    Perhaps the ultimate example of kayfabe is religion. there is a complete lack of evidence that there is anything authentic in the story-line of most religions, and often ample evidence that it is wrong at a basic level. (Adam and Eve? Resurrection?!) But the participants are committed to accepting the narrative for the internal emotional and epistemological benefits it confers.

    Much of politics lies somewhere between TV wrestling and religion I suspect.

  11. mt says:

    Victor, the lack of direct applicability of science to matters of value and policy is also explicit in these writings.

    “Perhaps it would be well to emphasize that I am talking neither of wisdom nor of an elite of scientists, but precisely of the kind of work and thought, of action and discipline, that makes up the everyday professional life of the scientist. It is not of any general insight into human affairs that I am talking, It is not the kind of thing we recognize in our greatest statesmen, after long service devoted to practical affairs and to the public interest. It is something very much more homely and robust than that. …

    “Even less would it be right to interpret the question of what there is in the ways of science that might be of general value to mankind in terms of the creation of an elite. The study of physics, and I think my colleagues in the other sciences will let me speak for them too, does not make philosopher kings. It has not, until now, made kings. It almost never makes fit philosophers – so rarely that they must be counted as exceptions. If the professional pursuit of of science makes good scientists, if it makes mean with a certain serenity in their lives, who yield perhaps a little more slowly than others to the natural corruptions of their time, it is doing a great deal, and all that we may rightly ask of it.”

    I am sorry the essays in this volume are not freely available on the internet. I would scan and post the essay which I describe, but for the fact that someone does seem to be claiming copyright (see DOI cited above). The more adventurous among the readership might try the usual workarounds for these matters.

  12. mt says:

    Bertrand Russell briefly reviewed the entire volume. His review is visible here:

    https://newrepublic.com/article/104826/the-mind-robert-oppenheimer

    Quoth Russell:

    ” A policeman may say: “We do not want men who balance hypotheses. We want men of firm and unshakable convictions on the side of the Right. The open mind, forsooth! Can it be a virtue to have an open mind between right and wrong?” This outlook is common, and in a police force perhaps inevitable, but it is not that of men who are successful in scientific investigation. If the authorities insist upon employing only those whose orthodoxy is more impeccable than that of simpler men in the scientific preparation of nuclear weapons, they will do infinite damage to their country by excluding all men of first-rate scientific ability. ”

    and

    “Statesmen, captains of industry, generals, bureaucrats, and clerics can determine what shall be done, but the means of doing it are supplied by science, of which these eminent men understand nothing. The scientist is in the position of a Greek slave in Imperial Rome. He knows that he understands a host of important things which are completely unknown to his masters. This gives him a very painful feeling of isolation in the community. Perhaps in time it will become possible to make some of the fundamental ideas of science intelligible in the course of a cultural education and, conversely, to give more cultural background to the thoughts of scientists. The present system under which some men have the power and others have the knowledge is very dangerous. If it could be amended by a lesser degree of specialization in education, the risk of disaster to civilized ways of life might be much lessened.”

  13. This was attempted long ago as part of the technocracy movement. One of the leaders in this movement was M. King Hubbert, who wrote a Technocracy Study Course in the 1930’s as a doctrine. Hubbert is perhaps more well-known for highlighting the iron laws of finite and non-renewable resource depletion, which have proven true in the case of Peak Oil. Hubbert appeared before at least one congressional hearing during the 1970’s and Carter tried to get a rise out of the public in terms of renewable and nuclear energy strategy, but Reagan essentially squashed interest when he assumed the throne in 1980.

  14. “Science, like sport, relies on authentic results.
    Like sport it can be undermined when it becomes commercialised and commodified, as in medical/pharma research or TV wrestling.”

    The same can be said of politics. Which has improved over the past few centuries, Boris and Donald notwithstanding. Fewer wars, almost no extraterritorial conflicts, etc. One hopes the current lurch to rightist nationalism is a phase, of course.

    Much like temperature swings, politics has traced a secular rise with a sawtooth shape.

  15. Willard says:

    > Authenticity is abandoned in favour of a narrative that is simpler and more meaningful than the messy, multiple factored reality that evidence based research, or accurate data would expose.

    FWIW, this problem has been described a long time ago:

    The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (French: La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir) is a 1979 book by Jean-François Lyotard, in which Lyotard analyzes the notion of knowledge in postmodern society as the end of ‘grand narratives’ or metanarratives, which he considers a quintessential feature of modernity. Lyotard introduced the term ‘postmodernism’, which was previously only used by art critics, into philosophy and social sciences, with the following observation: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives”.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Postmodern_Condition

    Which goes on to prove something about collaborating with one’s opponents.

  16. izen says:

    @-W
    “FWIW, this problem has been described a long time ago:”

    1979 hardly qualifies as a long time ago.
    The idea of applying the scientific method to political governance predates Marx.

    “Scientific socialism is a term coined in 1840 by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his What is Property? to mean a society ruled by a scientific government, i.e. one whose sovereignty rests upon reason, rather than sheer will:

    Thus, in a given society, the authority of man over man is inversely proportional to the stage of intellectual development which that society has reached; and the probable duration of that authority can be calculated from the more or less general desire for a true government, — that is, for a scientific government. And just as the right of force and the right of artifice retreat before the steady advance of justice, and must finally be extinguished in equality, so the sovereignty of the will yields to the sovereignty of the reason, and must at last be lost in scientific socialism.[1]”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_socialism

  17. John Hartz says:

    Seems to me that scientists in may parts of the world ought to be focusing on how to respond to and rebut the ever-increasing number of attacks on science and scientists coming from the extreme right-wing governments, political parties and organizations. Engaging in the restructuring of democracy is best left to political scientists.

  18. Joshua says:

    MT –

    So I surmised that there is something in the social nature of scientific inquiry that *makes progress possible* which is absent in the social nature of political pursuits (with economic pursuits perhaps holding an intermediate position). .

    Despite feeling sometimes like we’ve entered a period of existential crisis, I think that contrast you make between the progress of science and the progress of political pursuits might be a bit broad… what with the notion that the arc of the moral universe is long, but Ii bends toward justice…and all that.

    My feeling is that certain basic human characteristics tend to retard progress on social/political pursuits. For the lack of a better term, I’ll lump them under the category of “tribalism.” Tribalism works largely in opposition to perspective taking, the effect of which is to make collaboration inherently more difficult.

    But the scientific method, as imperfect as it is when implemented by humans with tribalistic tendencies, can work as a counter to tribalism – in part because it builds in a component of perspective taking. So I don’t disagree that science provides a model which, if adapted to social contexts, can advance progress beyond the current rate of progress. In fact, it seems that the scientific method applied to psychology has helped to more clearly outline the causes and effects of tribalism. That may help in the long run.

  19. Willard says:

    > The idea of applying the scientific method to political governance

    I was referring to the idea of distrusting narratives, one being that there is a scientific method, and by implication that it could be applied to governance.

    More than any method, politics need scientists, if only because science has always been political.

  20. Steven Mosher says:

    needs a blockchain

  21. David B. Benson says:

    As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward the lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

    — H.L. Mencken

  22. Joshua says:

    H. L. Menken was an elitist and racist.

    Just sayin’

  23. mt says:

    Oppenheimer speaks endlessly of “man” and “mankind” and “men of science”. It strikes the contemporary English speaker as sexist in the extreme. I still think we should pay attention to his points.

  24. Steven Mosher says:

    said the elitist.

  25. mt says:

    >”Seems to me that scientists in may parts of the world ought to be focusing on how to respond to and rebut the ever-increasing number of attacks on science and scientists coming from the extreme right-wing governments, political parties and organizations. Engaging in the restructuring of democracy is best left to political scientists.”

    The point here is not a formal restructuring of society, I think, and certainly not in advance of a restructuring of the culture. The point is exactly that the culture has been restructured by 1) the hard right and 2) declining institutions, to a condition where there are no reliable forms of information and perspective available to the public with which to motivate anything other than a decline of civilization. I am trying to motivate discussion of whether and how these trends can be reversed.

  26. Joshua says:

    Steven –

    I know you like to make it about me, but whether I’m an elitist or not is independent of whether Mencken was. Here’s just one tasty tidbit on that point:

    Mencken always considered himself a Southerner and from his father he had inherited a strong sympathy for the Confederacy. The Old Confederacy, Mencken felt, was a land “with men of delicate fancy, urbane instinct and aristocratic manner — in brief, superior men. It was there, above all, that some attention was given to the art of living — a certain noble spaciousness was in the ancient southern scheme of things.” …In his words, the Union victory was “a victory of what we now call Babbitts over what used to be called gentlemen.” But Mencken makes this caveat; “I am not arguing here, of course, that the whole Confederate army was composed of gentlemen; on the contrary, it was chiefly made up, like the Federal army, of innocent and unwashed peasants, and not a few of them got into its corps of officers. But the impulse behind it, as everyone knows, was essentially aristocratic, and that aristocratic impulse would have fashioned the Confederacy if the fortunes of war had run the other way.”

    I would say that his beliefs about “unwashed peasants,” and his views on the “lofty ideals” and “aristocratic impulse” of “nobel” slave-holding gentlemen, have some bearing on his views about democracy.

  27. Joshua says:

    mt –

    The point is exactly that the culture has been restructured by 1) the hard right and 2) declining institutions, to a condition where there are no reliable forms of information and perspective available to the public with which to motivate anything other than a decline of civilization.

    By what (preferably scientific) metric do you describe this trend? I can think of many metrics which suggest the opposite, or at least which don’t show that trend.

    That isn’t to day that I don’t see some disturbing indicators, but I don’t know how we might judge if they aren’t just a noise in a signal.

  28. Joshua,
    That’s an interesting question. By many metrics, the world is a better place. However, there are also many reasons to be concerned about the direction in which we seem to be heading. I don’t, though, have a good sense of how you would quantify the latter in some. In some sense, this seems to be one of the issues with the whole climate issue. We have lots of scientific evidence that climate change presents a serious risk. How do you convince people whose lives are mostly quite good, that they should make sacrifices in order to deal with something that, for many people, has not yet really manifested itself (in some obvious way, at least). I guess the same could apply to many other issues. Do people really care about post-truth? Do they really worry about the rise of the alt-right?

  29. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    \However, there are also many reasons to be concerned about the direction in which we seem to be heading. I don’t, though, have a good sense of how you would quantify the latter in some.

    I think a lot about this issue. I think there is a natural human tendency to conflate signal and noise in this domain. If we are going to say that American institutions, as one example, are crumbling – then what are we comparing to? To when Johnson lied us into a war? To when blacks had no civil rights, or women didn’t have the vote, or people had to uniformly hide their sexuality if it didn’t match what was considered the “norm?” Or when Bush led us into a useless and counterproductive war? To when Reagan dismantled a mental health safety net and attacked social services? If were’ comparing to post Bush/Pre-Trump, is that a long enough period of time to describe a signal as compared to a noise?

    I have an impulse to respond emotionally on this issue, and I”m trying to figure out how to be somewhat more deliberate.

    In some sense, this seems to be one of the issues with the whole climate issue. We have lots of scientific evidence that climate change presents a serious risk. How do you convince people whose lives are mostly quite good, that they should make sacrifices in order to deal with something that, for many people, has not yet really manifested itself (in some obvious way, at least). I guess the same could apply to many other issues.

    I think the issue of climate change serves as kind of perfect storm of the forces in play, and it’s perhaps a special case w/r/t the potential of a perhaps unequaled risk, but I do also think that it’s very much subsumed into a larger phenomenon.

    Do people really care about post-truth? Do they really worry about the rise of the alt-right?

    I think that a lot of people don’t think that we’ve changed dramatically w/r/t living in a post-truth world, and don’t see the alt-right as a significant threat (looking beyond a theoretically smaller % that explicitly advocate for a post-truth world, or explicitly embrace the alt-right). I think that in order to address that perspective, we have to carefully determine how we’re going to measure and communicate the arc of change over time. Otherwise, we’re just going to be talking past people – which is not likely, IMO. to generate much progress.

  30. Joshua,
    It seems to me that your noise is actually signal. One reason we’ve progressed is because we’ve learned from, or dealt with, the issues you highlight. People have campaigned for votes for women, for civil rights, against discrimination. One of the reasons the world has got better, is because we’ve done things to make it better.

    Something else I’ve considered at times, and which I tried to get across in this post, is the issue of survivor bias. The world may, by many metrics, be a better place now than it was in the past. That doesn’t mean, though, that many people haven’t suffered in the process of getting to where we are now. I’m reasonably confident that the world will again be a better place in the future than it is now. My preference, though, is that we get to that better place along a path that minimises how much people need to suffer in order to get there (I accept that this may not be an easy path to define).

  31. David B. Benson says:

    For an application of a social science to be practice of politics, see discussions of the very latest research by the French economist Pikety and associates. This strongly suggests that centrist candidates such as Biden are losers whereas so-called extremists are winners.

  32. mt says:

    What about centrist extremists?

  33. mt says:

    via https://twitter.com/Noahpinion/status/1135417327015514113

    “Scientific psychology may destroy the possibility of condicting politics any longer on purely party lines. The voters, educated in the light of the new psychology, will be immune from specious appeals to sentiment and illogical reasoning. They will be competent to support this or that project strictly on its merits, unswayed by rhetoric, unhampered by prejudice”

    ca. 1930, exact source unspecified.

    Evidently, this sort of progress is not automatic.

  34. russellseitz says:

    Willard reminds us that Lyotard,to whom we owe the term ‘Postmodernism’:

    ” analyzes the notion of knowledge in postmodern society as the end of ‘grand narratives’ or metanarratives, which he considers a quintessential feature of modernity.” and that , at the margin , hedefined it as ” incredulity towards metanarratives”.

    What then, are we to make of Latour’s latest compendium of essays on the Anthropocene–

    https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2019/05/toujours-latour.html

  35. Tim McDermott says:

    Twenty years is way too short a period to evaluate political change. In the USA, the baby boomers dominated politics for nearly fifty years (1963 to 2010, the span from the year the civil rights movement began to change things to the passage of ObamaCare).
    I would also offer that progress in the political sphere drive progress scientific norms. In the period cited, medical research has become much more respectful of individual rights, informed consent and such.

  36. russellseitz says:

    Responding to MT’s observation that:
    “Our present problems seem rooted in a lack of ecumenism, a stupid failure to see the commonality of our collective fate… It’s one world. It thrives or fails as one.”

    MC protests that this is the
    “sort of thinking that leads to top-down failed stuff like Kyoto. Trying to co-ordinate a world that thrives or fails as one is too difficult; problems can only be solved by being broken down into smaller pieces.”

    He has a point- the ecumenical whole of AGW is the sum of 7 billion individual parts, anduseful insights can arise from dividing the global sum of greenhouse forcing into your individual share of the air- a little under a million tons, and your share of the global surface- a couple of hectares of land and five of hydrosphere.

    If , as we are constantly exhorted , an individual’s carbon footprint is something worth understanding, as a prelude to management, so are their albedo and emissivity footprints.

  37. mt says:

    For some reason I don’t see this “protest from MC”, but I will address it briefly anyway. It is a top-down problem. Each of us in our daily actions imposes a small cost on an enormous number of people. The cost is small enough that we don’t get requests for redress from each of the people we injure, and similarly we don’t send seven billion invoices for a fraction of a penny to everybody else.

    If the average damage we do to everyone else daily is a hundred-thousandth of a penny, we are doing seven hundred dollars worth of damage and nobody is calling us out on it, because it is not worth a hundred thousandth of a penny for me to send you a bill for that amount.

    The enormity of the damage only appears in the aggregate. Until there is feedback from the aggregate people will not perceive the damage they are doing and will not pay for it.

    The failure of Kyoto and the imminent failure of Paris are due to insufficient commitment to them, not to them being inappropriate instruments. The damage is global, and so we need a global mechanism to aggregate the damage and feed it back to the individual, or else the individual will not act as is appropriate to the scale of the damage they are doing.

  38. wmconnolley says:

    Because RS has omitted the “W” in front of “MC”. You know where to look now, I’m sure.

  39. russellseitz says:

    Apologies to Stoat for the inverted W. I should have used an imverted ^^ instead.

  40. russellseitz says:

    MT:

    “The enormity of the damage only appears in the aggregate. Until there is feedback from the aggregate people will not perceive the damage they are doing and will not pay for it.”

    That enormity is the integral of seven billion iotas, and my point is that they can be rendered more perceptible to individuals if refered to their local share of the commons, because the percieved impacts vary greatly with place.

    Pointing to Miami or Bangladesh , or a fast-counting Hiroshima Meter as ceteris partibus instead discounts the ordinary experience and expectation of most human populations.

  41. mt says:

    I quite dislike the Hiroshima meter; I think it’s quite silly and will convince nobody who needs convincing of anything.

    “That enormity is the integral of seven billion iotas”: nicely said.

    But the other points are actually the real ones. Climate change will damage some places sooner than others, but the aggregate damage will affect us all. I think “rendered more perceptible to individuals if referred to their local share of the commons” is perilous.

    This said, it’s a bit afield of the point I’m flogging here.

    The promise of scientific methodology in social practice was oversold in the last century, but it’s a pity to see it abandoned and forgotten. I like Oppenheimer’s take because it’s very conscious of the difficulties but still proposes we not lose sight of the goal.

  42. mt says:

    Regarding whether there is such a thing as “thinking like a scientist” such that it may be applied to questions where science narrowly defined is mute, I suggest that all economists, by virtue of their profession, implicitly vote yes.

    Then there’s the question of whether they are any good at it…

  43. mt says:

    My next obscure mid-century reading is “The Idea of Progress” by Sidney Pollard (1968). It’s a history of an idea about history, so an odd pursuit to begin with, but I find it covers much the same ground as Oppenheimer does. He traces the idea that things will get better back to Francis Bacon, (Novum Organum, 1620) which would make next year the four hundredth anniversary of progress.

    Specifically the conceptual nexus around the concept of progress has always related the inevitable forward march of science to an inevitable social advance as well. Pascal (1623-1662) is quoted “the entire succession of men, through the whole course of the ages… as one man, always living and incessantly learning”

    By the late 18th century, thinking about human perfectibility became optimistic to the point of triumphalism. Jacob Priestley (1775): “Knowledge, as Lord Bacon observes, being power, the human powers will, in fact, be enlarged; nature, including both its materials and its laws, will be more at our command; men will make their situation in this world abundantly more easy and comfortable; they will probably prolong their existence in it, and will grow daily more happy, each in himself, and more able (and O believe more disposed) to communicate happiness to others. Thus, whatever was the beginning of the word, the end will be glorious and paradisaical beyond what our imaginations can now conceive.”

    William Goddard (1793): “Man is perfectible, or, in other words, susceptible of perpetual improvement. … Nothing can be more unreasonable than to argue from men as we now find them to men as they may hereafter be made.”

    Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de l’Aulne (1750): “The science of government will then become easy, and will cease to be beyond the reach of men endowed with only ordinary good sense.”

    These ideas were at the roots of the fraught and ultimately grotesque French Revolution, but also of the American Revolution, surely the most successful realization of the Enlightenment ideas of the perfectibility of society. Pollard’s Eurocentric focus leaves him examining the 19th century in the light of the excesses of Robespierre and the cataclysms that followed, although he does offer a great deal of respect to the influence of Condorcet on his successors.

    From what I understand so far, the rest of the book traces the waxing and waning of ambitions and expectations of perfectibility of human relations.

    But viewed from the postwar years in America, these sorts of triumphalist claims, the idea of true advances in social organization under the influence of careful thought did not seem outrageous. And it was indeed at that time and place that Martin Luther King felt comfortable quoting Thomas Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister: “The arc of moral history is long, but it bends toward justice.”

    My intellectual lifetime thus spans a period that has gone from enormous optimism (embodied in my 13th year by Montreal’s world’s fair “Expo 67”) to what I see as a contest between a grinding pervasive pessimism, and a shabby reactionary status-quo posing as optimism.

    The spooky and hardly saintly Herman Khan (also a mid-century character) did have a quote I am fond of: “Projecting a persuasive image of a desirable and practical future is extremely important to high morale, to dynamism, to consensus, and in general to help the wheels of society turn smoothly.”

    We just aren’t doing a very good job of that nowadays. I hope that we aren’t forced by our anger and pessimism into an utter disaster. I hope the pendulum can swing back to social optimism soon enough but the damn thing seems stuck.

  44. Joshua says:

    mt –

    I asked before. I’m guessing your lack of answer was delivering an answer of sorts, but in case not.

    My intellectual lifetime thus spans a period that has gone from enormous optimism (embodied in my 13th year by Montreal’s world’s fair “Expo 67”) to what I see as a contest between a grinding pervasive pessimism, and a shabby reactionary status-quo posing as optimism.

    Do you have a scientific analysis of metrics that explain your attitude? Of course, one doesn’t at all need scientific metrics to explain a feeling like optimism or pessimism, but I think it is often a useful exercise to try to place such feelings into a (flawed, no doubt) “objective” framework.

    Again, I look at developments in gay rights, or the metoo movement, or the ACA (in the US, obviously), and wonder about the balance of signal and noise. Of course, there are highly disturbing phenomena and trends, currently; but similarly we could easily point to disturbing phenomena and trends and from back in 1967.

  45. Joshua says:

    Hmmm.now I see you offered the same quote as I did earlier. Maybe you just missed what I wrote (of have entered my name into a blocking macro as others have promised to do 😏)

    https://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2019/05/31/j-r-oppenheimer-asks-can-science-provide-better-models-for-democracy/#comment-157492

  46. mt says:

    Joshua, if your question is whether I have metrics of decline, the answer is that of course I don’t.

    Certainly, us boomer youth had some absurd beliefs, and our elders had some grotesque practices which fed into our absurd beliefs.

    But I have a clear impression that there was a lot more prominence of intelligent conversation. Smart people were on television saying smart things. Big books addressed big topics in non-obsessive, non-crazy ways.

    So I’m going back to reading big picture books published before 1980.

    Perhaps that will help me cut down on Twitter and blogs, though the evidence so far is decidedly mixed.

    It’s not that there are no current books of interest. At my side right now is Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire. And though many sections of the academy loathe him, I am a stubborn enthusiast of Jared Diamond’s. But I do think the quality of discourse has declined, and the emerging polarization on many matters, climate not least among them, is a big part of it.

    That all said, the trend I’m addressing here is the question of the public attitude about the possibility of substantial improvement (not to say “perfectibility”) of society. I don’t see much sign of the optimism of the mid-20th c, an optimism which united the establishment and restive youth.

    And here, Oppenheimer’s quote about the newness of the situation requiring new strategies (he was referring to nuclear warfare; I refer to sustainability of civilization in the anthropocene) resonates with me. But he wrote during an optimistic zeitgeist, a time when the possibility of a trajectory of social improvement was not even a controversial prospect.

    Until recently, the Tory party in Canada was called the “Progressive Conservatives”; the Ontario wing still goes by that name. People believed progress was about something more than technology.

    This vision of progress is strikingly absent today. The right wing thinks things are good enough, and we shouldn’t monkey with it. The left, though calling itself “progressive” rejects the entire idea of progress. The tech sector, while enamoured of what it calls progress, has become vicious and extractive and monopolistic, while pretending to itself that such “disruption” is a positive contribution to the future.

    I’m ironically left a sad optimist, with no place to hang my optimist hat.

  47. Joshua says:

    mt –

    Thanks. I get it now.

    Perhaps that will help me cut down on Twitter and blogs, though the evidence so far is decidedly mixed.

    One thing that I consider is whether the existence of social media degrades discourse in some overall fashion.

    Could be. But I’d also suggest that another possibility is that social media merely lifts the cover off of toxic discourse, or spreads it in a more evenly dispersed fashion – IOW, I am more aware of hostility directed towards my social group or me individually because social media exposes me to more direct antipathy, whereas previously specific minority groups would have been subject to a more highly disproportionate amount of hostility directed towards them individually and as a group.

    Maybe total hostility was no less back in the day, nor was trained interaction any greater, but they was just more concentrated and locally organized? I think of this when people look at greater dem vs. pub antipathy and greater pub vs. dem antipathy and conclude that there is more polarization. In some ways, the sense of greater polarization may be a function of shifting markers if allegiance and hostility?

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