Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The trouble with science

Science has revolutionized life since at least the age of exploration, through the industrial revolution, and to an unprecedented degree in the 20th century. Science generally, and physics in particular, got a vast boost in credibility and in government funding following the ability of physicists to develop weapons of unprecedented power in the Manhattan Project. Scientists and their engineering brethren also developed modern electronics, sent men and machines into the cosmos, and much else that would have seemed like miracles and prophecy in prior centuries. Sciences such as psychology and evolutionary theories of behavior have at least potentially revolutionaized our understanding of ourselves. Now we have a large number of self-styled "social sciences" that attempt to understand social behavior and societies through scientific methods. Instead of priests prophecying and invoking miraculous thunderbolts through mumbo-jumbo, our modern scientific priesthood helps create real technology and tells us what to think about social systems and political options by what seems to most people (and even to most scientists outside the particular specialty in question) equally mystical mumbo-jumbo.

This scientific elite is supposed to be all quite different from the priesthoods of old because it is supposed to adhere to scientific methods rather than superstition and dogma. The scientific method developed from several sources, but one that is particularly interesting is the law of evidence in medieval and Renaissance Continental Europe. In English law, issues of fact were (and are) determined by a jury and the law of evidence is all about the general biases of juries and thus what lawyers are and are not allowed to present as evidence to them -- the basic rule to overcome juror bias being that the relevance and integrity of the information must outweigh its potential to prejudice the jurors. But in the neo-Roman law that dominated the Continent from the Late Middle Ages to this day, juries were rare and judges determined issues of fact as well as law. Thus there developed in Continental law elaborate doctrines about how judges were supposed to weigh factual evidence.

Many Renaissance and Baroque era scientists, such as Galileo, Liebniz, and Pascal, had legal training and this Continental law of evidence was reflected in their methods. Most other early scientists had been exposed to law-derived doctrines simply by attending universities many of whose doctrines derived from the original universities which were essentially law schools. Soon, however, the scientific community was independently evolving its own cultural norms from this starting point. The ideal was to seek the truth. Experiment became the sine quo non of scientific credibility, along with mathmetical rigor and important applications in navigation, engineering, and medicine. Scientific funding came from a variety of sources; when governments funded scientists they were expected to solve important problems such as those raised by navigation of the seas, not merely to theorize. After the Englightenment governments started to separate themselves from the social dogmas of their day -- religions -- by making secularizing government and allowing freedom of religion.

Today a wide variety of important political issues are dominated by ideas from scienitific communities (or at least communities that style themselves as scientific): economists, climate scientists, and many others. But there is no separation of science from government. Like the state-sponsored religions of yore, most modern scientists derive both their education and their ongoing livelihood from government funding of the theories with which they are taught and on which they work.

The old state-sponsored religions, and the resulting ideas about politics and society, were funded by governments. Not surprisingly, as such governments took over religion it became sacreligious to criticize the importance of government generally and often specific governmental institutions in particular. Under the nationalizers of dogma such as Henry VIII, who nationalized the lands and priests of the Catholic Church in England, "render under Caeasar" became more important than "render under God." Despite the advantages of better funding these state-sponsored sects have been in decline ever since governments stopped otherwise suppressing their competitors. The state sponsored churches mostly taught uncritical worship of authority whereas their private competitors added much more spiritual value to their adherent's lives.

The simplest science is physics. In some sense all other sciences are just a variety of complex models of what happens when various kinds of complex physical systems interact. Physics itself is the simple core of science. Thus physics has been hailed as the "hardest" of the "hard sciences" -- sciences where evidence trumps bias and the truth always outs sooner or later, usually sooner, despite the biases of the individuals or institutions involved. Hard scientists will often admit that the use of the scientific method in "soft sciences" such as economics and other intersubjective areas can be problematic and subject to great bias. If any science can rise above self-serving biases and efficiently search for the truth, it should be physics.

But the recent history of physics casts some rather disturbing shadows on the integrity of even this hardest of sciences. Lee Smolin in The Trouble with Physics lays out a picture of an unprecedented group of geniuses, the string theorists, who have wasted the last twenty years, largely at taxpayer's expense, basically producing nothing except a vast number of highly obscure but, in certain senses, quite elegant theories. The number of possible string theories is so vast that string theory can, like "intelligent design," explain anything -- it is unfalsifiable. It is "not even wrong," to take Wolfgang Pauli's phrase about an earlier unfalsifiable theory of his era. String theory's main rivals over the last two decades are not much better. Theoretical physics for the last twenty years has mostly not been science at all, but rather has been a large group of geniuses working on their own cabalistic variety of sudoku puzzles at taxpayer expense in the name of science.

If this is the state of physics -- if even the hardest of sciences can be taken over by a thousand-strong cabal of geniuses who produce nothing of value except wonderful-sounding untestable theories whose main success has been in garnering their community more of our tax dollars -- what hope do we have that government-funded climate scientists, economists, and others purporting to do science in areas far more complex or subjective than physics are actually producing relatively unbiased truths? If we took a poll of theoretical physicists, they might well have (up until quite recently) reached a remarkable degree of "consensus" on the truth of string theory -- just as global warming scientists have reached a "consensus" on global warming and (it is implied) on the various bits of the speculative nonsense surrounding global warming. Does such consensus mean us lay people should automatically believe this consensus of experts? Or should we demand more? Shouldn't we rather, when deciding on which theories or predictions of climate science or economics to believe, act like a Continental judge or a common-law jury and demand to actually see the evidence and weigh it for ourselves? Shouldn't we demand to hear from the defense as well as from the prosecution? Experiment, multiple points of view, and critical analysis are, after all, the real scientific method -- as opposed to the ancient religious method of uncritically trusting a single hierarchy of experts.

Today's ideas about politics and society -- "scientific theories" if you agree with them, "dogmas" if you don't -- are funded by the very governmental entities that stand to benefit from increased government power. Just as it was taboo under Henry VIII to "deny" the authority of either Christ or the King, it has now become taboo in many of these modern intellectual communities to "deny" a variety of scientific theories that are now supposed to be "beyond debate," not just things like the basic idea of global warming caused at least in part by anthropogenic carbon dioxide(which this author finds sound and quite probable, but nevertheless believes should remain like all true scientific theories open to further inquiry and debate) but also the variety of extreme speculations that have grown up around it (regarding the severity of storms, projections of droughts, floods, etc., most of which are pseudoscientific nonsense).

I'm hardly the only person who recognizes this problem with science. Indeed, the opinion expressed above is quite mild compared to an increasing number of conservatives who are coming to reject big chunks of good science along with the bad -- not just the many florid speculations surrounding global warming, but global warming itself, evolution, and other products of the expert priesthood that threaten long-established (and often, ironically, highly evolved) beliefs. Conservatives, and more than a few libertarians, feel that modern science is becoming increasingly dominated by government funding and thus becoming dominated by the interests of government in gaining more dominance over our lives. With opposing ideas increasingly unable to access to this research and education funding themselves, the easiest way for those opposed to increasing state power to effectuate their beliefs is to reject the theories of the scientific communities that promote this power.

This, and not sheer cave-man irrationality, is why many conservatives are increasingly throwing out the baby with the bathwater and rejecting science generally. Both trends -- the increased government dominance over science and the increasing rejection of science generally by those who oppose increased government controls which scientists increasingly promote -- are disturbing and dangerous. Science, once a method of weighing evidence that called for the opinions of both prosecution and defense, is increangly being dominated by the prosecution.

We need a return to science with a diversity of funding and thus a diversity of biases. This is much more important to the health of science than the absolute level of funding of science. Reducing government funding of science would thus increase the quality of science -- by making the biases of scientific communities more balanced and thus more likely to cancel each other out, just as the biases of the defense generally cancel out the biases of the prosecution. Where government does fund science, it should demand strict compliance to the basic evidentiary principles of science, such as falsifiability. All government-funded theorists should be required to design experiments that can be conducted relatively inexpensively and in the near future, that would strongly tend to verify or falsify their proposed theories. More speculative theories -- such as those that rely on unobserved or worse, unobservable entities -- simply should not be funded by governments. There are a wide variety of private entities that are happy to fund such speculations; this variety of funding sources is more important to reducing bias the further one gets away from strictly controlled experiment. Any time government funds science we should ask, does the utility of the potential discoveries and the integrity of the scientific methods being used -- their ability to find the truth even in the face of high institutional bias -- outweigh the potential for the funding by one dominant source to prejudice the opinions of the fund recipients?

Science has benefited our lives in incalculable ways for many centuries. Increasingly we inform our political decisions with the discoveries and theories of science. As sciences ranging from climatology to economics play an increasing role modern politics, this task of building a wall of separation between government and science -- or at least not allowing states to sponsor particular scientific theories at the expense of others with comparable weights of evidence, and not allowing states to fund some biased speculations at the expense of others -- is one of our most important and urgent tasks. If we are to remain living in democracies we voters must learn once again to weigh some of the evidence for ourselves, even if this means we gain our understanding through the lossy communications of popularizers. It does not work to trust a theory, no matter how scientific it may sound, based on a "consensus" or "lack of debate" among experts who mostly derive their funding from a single biased source. We democratic jurors must demand to hear from the defense -- really from a variety of parties whose biases largely cancel each other out -- rather than from just the prosection. We must redesign our scientific institutions to minimize the biases that come from a single dominant source of funding if we are to achieve good solutions to our important problems -- solutions that are not dominated by the biases of that dominant entity.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The nature of suicide terrorism

Here is a good book review of Robert A. Pape's Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Pape has done extensive research on suicide bombers and concluded that the main motivation is not poverty or religion but nationalism. (Note that Pape and I are using "nation" to refer to supra-tribal ethnic groups which share at least a common language and common political ambition to run its own government, not necessarily to existing or historical states). Pape shows that suicide terrorism springs from perceived or actual occupations of one national group by a different and democratically governed one: Sri Lanka and India of Tamil regions (the Tamil Tigers), perceived Western proxy governments of Sunni Arab countries (Al Qaeda), a Shiite government allied to the U.S. invaders of Sunni areas in Iraq (Sunni insurgency), Israel of the Palestinian occupied territories (Hamas), etc. The strategic logic (as I liberally interpret Pape's theory) is that the suicide bombers credibly signal policymakers in democratic governments that the the national group cares far more about the conflict than the occupiers do -- and therefore are willing to sacrifice far more and make life far more difficult for occupiers. Pape points out that (at the time of writing of the book) the most suicide bombers came not from Al Quaeda or any other arguably religious terrorist group, but from the Marxist-Leninist (and thus atheist) Tamil Tigers. It can of course be argued that Marxism itself is a kind of religion, but at least Paper debunks the shallow idea that afterlife promises a la the "seventy virgins" are a necessary motivation for suicidal terrorism. I'd add that suicide terrorism grows from cultures that de-emphasize individualism -- thus the lack of, for example, ethnically European suicide bombers, but the historical existence of Middle Eastern and Japanese suicide fighters which Pape describes. We individualists have not been able to understand suicide bombers; they just seemed inexplicably crazy. Pape's analysis is an excellent antidote to this ignorance.

The movie "Jesus Camp" shows a fundamentalist Christain group trying to inculcate in their children the idea that Christians should also be willing to make extreme sacrifices in the cause of Christian crusade against Islam. If the West insists on occupying non-individualist national groups (for example most of the nations subscribing to Islam or Marxism), something like this indeed probably is necessary to be successful. But Christianity, with its emphasis on the individual soul, and the rest of the Western tradition is far too individualist for this (and for other reasons, which far outweigh the terrorist problem, this is a very good thing).

The lesson for Western foreign policy? (1) don't occupy non-individualist regions -- the costs will be far more expensive then we can imagine -- although you'd think we would have already learned this from the Vietnam and current Iraqi experiences; and (2) if you already are in such an occupation, the basic choices of remaining or leaving are both very expensive -- the former because it continues to motivate extreme nationalist ire, and the latter because it encourages national groups elsewhere by showing that suicide terrorism succeeds in its objectives. It's like paying off a kidnapper, which frees the current hostages but makes future kidnappings more likely. Withdrawing from occupation removes a current source of ire but shows national groups elsewhere that suicide terrorism is the best way to achieve the objectives of otherwise powerless nationalities.

This Hobson's choice reinforces why a decision to occupy is so expensive in the first place. We are no longer in a situation in which it's our literate and culturally unified armed forces against their illiterate and culturally and politically divided tribe, as during the era of colonization. Instead it's our literate and unified nations against their literate and unified nations, the only big differences being our mere superiority on a traditional battlefield and their much higher motivation and collectivism, and thus their much higher willingness to sacrifice individuals for the cause of the large national group. Occupation of national regions that have not yet been thoroughly Westernized (or are not otherwise individualistic) is no longer a politically viable use of force in our world. If we wish to convert collectivist nations to Western democracy, individualism, Christianity, or whatever else we'd like to teach them, our best strategy is to just use our dominant Western economy and media to be, as Reagan put it, a "Shining City on a Hill". That's how we brought down the Marxist and nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Focus on defending our own freedoms instead of trying to impose them, set a good example, and let the collectivists peacefully come to realize the advantages of individualism.