Friday, 27 February 2009

Science, Values, Ideology

Some would say that science is its own ideology, that some have faith in science while others don't. But most scientists equate their profession with little more than gathering and interpreting evidence. Politics is completely different. It is seamed through with values and ideology and the grasping of power. So the social and political sciences are curious beasts.

I suggest that the separation of unbiased scientific empirical evidence from politics could be a significant improvement to democracy.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009


Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner provides interesting insight into how the study of social statistics could effect social policy. Rigorous and independent review of statistical material may prove to be very powerful in improving society and could aid the democratic process. Freaconomics provides examples of the types of studies that an Independent Scientific Commission could carry out.
That said, correlation of statistics doesn't infer cause and effect and it must be made clear that this is a different level of evidence compared to conducting controlled experiments.


Solomon Asch conducted experiments that showed how the opinions of others skewed an individuals judgment. Just because several other people stated a view that was contrary to the subjects own opinion, their confidence declined and they tended to agree. There may be good evolutionary reasons for this: conforming to the group allows many people to work together; always making every decision for yourself consumes time and energy and may increase the risks of making a mistake - a mistake that the many minds of the group would have spotted and avoided.

The conformity instinct can drag us away from the hard evidence, as it did in Asch's experiments and others conducted by Richard Crutchfield. This may be another good reason for an Independent Science Commission as a force capable of balancing our gut reactions with incontrovertible evidence.

Scientific Support for Democracy

The independence of the BBC is sacrosanct and one of its most important attributes. Its independence adds considerably to democracy.

I'd like to see an Independent Science Commission, publicly funded and beyond political bias, charged with getting the evidence and getting to the truth. It should be kept separate from any political party.

Parliament may request that the Independent Science Commission study any particular issue (perhaps triggered by the Interactive Democracy system). The ISC would typically conduct a critical study of the data from previous studies before deciding if further research is required. They would report the evidence in strict scientific terms and without opinion. Reports could be published on the Internet for peer review and public comment.

The ISC should be staffed by experienced and professional scientists and conducted with scientific and statistical rigour. The head of the ISC should be appointed by a cross party parliamentary commission to avoid political bias and may be asked to swear allegiance to the principles of science, much like the police are asked to swear to uphold the law.

The ISC may commission and manage other scientists to conduct studies in specific areas where it hasn't the equipment or staff available to carry out the research itself, but the reports arising from such contracts would be approved and published by the ISC.

Apart from dealing with empirical evidence, statistical analysis would be an important role of the ISC.

Homer's Wisdom

"People can come up with statistics to prove anything... 40% of people know that!"

So which statistics should we trust?... Are there any statistics we can trust?

One of the problems comes from interpreting complex data and simplifying it for public consumption. Another comes from looking for evidence to support our ideas, which may be conscious or sub-conscious confirmation bias. And doesn't research funded by one interested party or another call into doubt the impartiality of that research?

It's not surprising that Homer (and most of the rest of us) distrust science and statistics.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Realisation Utility

Professors Nicholas Barberis and Wei Xiong of Yale and Princeton Universities coined the term "realisation utility" when explaining investor behaviour. Realisation utility encourages investors to hang on to stocks that have sunk -- even when those stocks have dim futures. Here's what they wrote:

"The authors consider an additional experimental condition in which the experimenter liquidates subjects' holdings and then tells them that they are free to reinvest the proceeds in any way they like. If subjects were holding on to their losing stocks because they thought that these stocks would rebound, we would expect them to re-establish their positions in these losing stocks. In fact, subjects do not re-establish these positions."

"Subjects were refusing to sell their losers simply because it would have been painful to do so … subjects were relieved when the experimenter intervened and did it for them."

This is akin to the psychological pain of admitting you were wrong and instead sticking it out instead of changing. It may be a significant factor in politics.
Interactive Democracy can unlock politicians from "unprofitable" behaviour that they may be reluctant to relinquish themselves.
But will the majority get locked into poor behaviour? Will they exhibit "realisation utility"?
Individual voters are under far less pressure than politicians and this may allow them to change their view more easily, allowing timely changes of policy.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Demands for Data

A friend recently mentioned to me that the Australian health service charge a small percentage of the cost of drugs so as to avoid the wastage that may occur with free prescriptions. Are drugs wasted by patients? This could be a useful area of study that could influence policy, especially in light of calls for free prescriptions in England, to match those in Wales.

Academic studies may be just as important to improving society as any form of Democracy. Any majority could demand them through the Interactive Democracy process.

Majorities can be Wrong, Experts can be Wrong!

Many commonly held beliefs form years gone by have been proven to be wrong: "the Earth's flat", "the stars rotate around the earth", "you can catch cholera from bad air". So should we put our faith in experts? Well, the experts of their day all believed in the statements I've just mentioned, so that doesn't help. And the majority of common folk probably believed them too.
So who can we trust?
To my mind the only solution is to base decisions on the best possible information - the best evidence. And to be willing to adapt whenever a decision is proven to be wrong.

Advertising and Truth

In the UK the Advertising Standards Authority is prohibited from investigating complaints about political adverts for fear of unduly influencing democracy. That seems to me to be broadly sensible. But what happens when political parties make claims as fact, which they have no supportive evidence for? Should there be some sort of authority that encourages advertisers to use the word "probably" instead of "definitely" or "he is said to have" instead of "he did". Surely a clarification of what is true (supported by evidence) and what is speculation or supposition would actually enhance the democratic debate!

Friday, 20 February 2009

Brain Washing, Education, Values and Democracy

The worry is that any one organisation could brainwash a section of the population and attain a majority, thereby controlling the country. This may be easier to do with young, malleable minds, and makes me wonder about our system of education. Yet it's clear that participation in a modern education system, including alternative sources like online Master's degrees or vocational programs, are practically required if today's youth want to have comfortable future lives.
As a society, are our values inculcated in us through our education system?
Teaching values seems to me to be essential if we are to teach right from wrong, but then who chooses what is right and what is wrong? Maybe the only way to overcome this is to encourage children to think for themselves and to feel empathy for others. But that in its self is a value shaping statement.

Maybe a different way of looking at it is to itemise what values are required to make Interactive Democracy work:
  • Freedom of thought
  • Freedom of speech
  • Empathy for others
  • Critical respect for the majority decision

Monday, 9 February 2009

Increased Animosity?

Have you seen the signs in pubs that say "No politics or religion please"?

Could it be that Interactive Democracy would increase the animosity in society as debates and arguments become heated? Or would people maintain their decorum, avoid face to face debates, but decide on how to vote based on media coverage of the issues?

I know of no evidence that suggests animosity increases during general elections and suspect this isn't a real problem. Those signs may have more to do with alcohol than arguments.

Friday, 6 February 2009

"How to control a herd of humans"

In New Scientist issue 2694, David Robson outlines some experiments that indicate that the human brain is structured for us to fall in line with the group. This can be activated by marching, dancing and singing in unison and when we make choices that concur with the group, more of the reward chemical, dopamine, is released in the brain.

These experiments may provide some insight into the power Hitler and Mussolini exerted over millions of followers and the importance of the political rally. Perhaps taking a step towards Interactive Democracy, involving many groups and individuals with diverse experiences, reinforces democracy against excessive control by any one leader or party.

Surveilance Society

"The huge rise in surveillance and data collection by the state and other organisations risks undermining the long-standing tradition of privacy and individual freedom which are vital for democracy," said Lord Goodlad of the Constitutional Committee. "There can be no justification for this gradual but incessant creep towards every detail about us being recorded and pored over by the state."
The state is often seen as separate to us 'individuals', but we are the state. Interactive Democracy gives us the opportunity to recast the balance of power between rulers and ruled, and an opportunity to contribute to the debate about the surveillance society.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The Ingredients of Democracy

Majorities sometimes get it wrong! So, what does democracy need so that we get it right? The important ingredients of a working democracy include:
  1. freedom of speech
  2. freedom from intimidation and cohersion
  3. literacy
  4. debate and opposition
  5. information distribution through diverse media
  6. systems to protect factual "truth" and dismiss "lies"
  7. mechanisms to collect evidence
  8. intelligent and skilled political leadership
  9. the motivation to get involved


Majorities aren't always right!
  • "The Earth's flat."
  • "The heavens rotate around the Earth."
  • "Cholera is spread through 'bad' air."
  • "Killing an albatross brings bad luck."
  • "The tomato is the devil's fruit."
  • Nazism
  • Communism
Does this call in to question the whole efficacy of democracy its self?
The term "sheepwalking" was coined by Seth Godin.
"A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves." Edwin R Murrow.