There are three foundations in how we think that are at the root of our modern day prosperity: Good science, good laws, and good education for all. These intertwine, but the better they all are, the better our day-to-day challenges will be met, and the better our communities will function, now and in the future.
This essay was inspired by a disturbing 19 Oct 13 Economist article, Trouble at the lab, which describes at length a surprising way that good science is now under threat. It is under threat because the publishers of science articles are not being vigilant enough about checking the experiments that support the conclusions published in their articles. This is bad because if the science isn’t good, then the decisions that are based on the science won’t be good either.
This may not be as heart-string-tugging as feeding the poor, but it’s just as important, and if it’s not corrected a lot of poor won’t get fed, and the others are just as important for feeding the poor too.
The Three Foundations
Good science, good laws, good education. These are the foundations for progress, for improving everyone’s lot in life.
Good science tells us what the harsh realities are of the physical world we live in. The more science we know the more we know about what is physically possible and impossible. (In this usage “possible” also includes thinking in terms of cost-benefit.) The more we know about what is possible the more we can be efficient and effective in fulfilling our deepest wants and dreams. Conversely, when our science understanding isn’t good we waste time and effort trying to do things that can’t be done, or we waste time and effort by not using tools and techniques that could be discovered, but haven’t. Both kinds of missed opportunities slow progress and waste resources.
Good laws allow the experimenting that must be done to both discover new science and discover how to make the best use of it. These two are different projects and equally important. Both take a lot of effort, and a lot of that effort is going to look like waste until a workable result appears. Think of Thomas Edison’s famous dictum: “Genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” When laws have a special interest agenda, when they aren’t promoting an equal playing field for exploring ideas and letting lots of people partake in the exploring, they are slowing progress as much as bad science does.
Good education is important because the community decides what is progress. The community is making choices on what is important to spend time and attention on, and making choices as to which laws should get passed and enforced. If the community doesn’t have the education to make good choices, good choices won’t be made. What we will get instead are good “from the heart” choices… the kind that work well in the Neolithic Village environment, not in a prosperous, diverse, globalized, modern environment.
This is why we have universal public education. We have it because it was recognized early in the Industrial Age that widespread education brought value to the community. The modern form got its start in Prussia in 1763 and its value was quickly recognized in other industrializing societies, such as colonial America. Again, the important part of this is that everyone gains value when everyone is well educated. These days this doesn’t seem to be as clear to many members of the community as it has been in the past.
o Bad science means money badly spent — Science is used to predict the physical future. Where the science is bad, things designed using that science will be bad too.
oo Bad medicine — Biology is one of the big frontiers in science of the 2010’s. One of the big uses for biological research is designing more effective medicines and medical devices. If the experiments being done to demonstrate effectiveness and safety are done in slapdash ways, and little effort is spent on trying to reproduce the results so the slapdashness can be identified, we will have slapdash medicine and devices on our shelves. And that’s just the first round of trouble. The second round of trouble is that people of the community won’t be able to tell the difference between biological real science and biological pseudo-science. Health care is an emotional topic. Even in the best of times it’s hard to keep “from the heart” thinking from being the decision maker on health issues. If the science side has to be taken with a heaping grain of salt because of unreliable experimentation…
oo Mixing religion into science — Religion is based on feel-good thinking. It’s tempting to mix it into science so you can have feel-good science. Sadly, harsh reality and feel-good don’t mix so easily, so the more feel-good that is mixed into science the less useful it becomes as a predictor of harsh reality. Creationism doesn’t help unravel the implications of DNA sequencing. Oh… and mixing politics into science is just as bad for just the same reasons. What should mix with science is cost-benefit thinking — let’s spend first on those projects that look like they will bring big benefits.
o Laws based on emotion — Most laws are based on emotion. They are proposed and passed because there is a disagreement within the community on how to do something — some people feel strongly that [X] is OK, while others feel strongly that it is not. Emotion is OK, but we need to recognize that it is also expensive — sometimes very expensive. I’m thinking War on Drugs as I say this. That said, it is wise to keep in mind that emotion and harsh reality often mix poorly. Again, I’m thinking War on Drugs. What follows are some other ways that emotion, poor universal education, and law making mix poorly.
oo Ignorance favors taking cheap shots — If the community doesn’t know any better, it’s a constant temptation for the leaders to work a personal agenda into their decision making. Democracy works reliably when it is in the context of informed democracy — when the community members understand the issues and have the education to understand the difference between good and bad solutions to the issues.
oo special interest lobbying — Lobbyists gain influence when the community is not paying attention. If the community is paying attention and understands what’s at stake a lobbyist becomes just another guy at the politician’s doorstep. Once again, emotion plus ignorance can powerfully feed silly law making. Here I’m thinking of the crazy-quilt farm subsidies in the US and around the world.
oo Gaming the system — Being able to game a system is a powerful opiate. If I think laws are giving me something for nothing, it’s hard for me to vote against them. Here, more than in any other area, good education for all is vital. If people are well educated they can see the costs of system gaming. Then even when they are a target beneficiary they can be more cool-headed in their choices of supporting a law or not.
oo Scars of panic law making — Hasty law making, laws made while people are deeply angry or scared by something, usually produces seriously expensive law choices, and the expense will go on for many decades. The law is a scar rather than a cure. Putting up some resistance to this is the biggest virtue of the US “checks and balances” governing systems. We need to become even more mindful of this phenomenon and design law making with even more resistance to it, or easier recovery from it.
o Education means better laws and better science — People make laws; people do science; people work with fruits of both science and law making to create our lifestyles. This is why educating everyone well is so important. If you can’t work well with these fruits you’re being wasteful. If you can’t tell the difference between good and bad fruits, you’re wasting yourself and the community’s resources. If most of the community can’t tell the difference, the waste will be big time.
oo Compare South Korea and Haiti — Following the Korean War in the 1950’s South Korea and the Haiti were both impoverished places. In the decades since then South Korea has moved from deeply impoverished to a fully developed nation. Haiti has remained deeply impoverished — it was and still is the cow’s tail in the Western Hemisphere. The difference? One is that the people of South Korea knew how important education was and consistently devoted lots and lots of resource to doing it, and learning to do it better and better. In addition to increasing material prosperity this also let the Korean government peacefully evolve from dictatorship into democracy — their law making got better.
Good science, good law making and good education for all are the roots of modern prosperity. These are intertwined, they support each other… or they fall apart together. For this reason it is important to sustaining our modern culture that we be vigilant and dedicated in supporting all three. We must do them well now, and we must work hard on doing them even better in the future.