Scientific Studies

From an online debate on

ThePhiant wrote:

as you probably know, any study or data can be used to prove anybody’s point. bunching a number of study’s together and coming to a conclusion is always subjective. having said that my main point is that generalizations however subject-ive they may be, don’t mean a thing in the real world. Your partner in life or at work is more than likely the opposite of what those studies are telling you. Just because your studies say you are just as good at math as boys, that doesn’t imply that YOU are good at math. In the real world we are dealing with individuals, not statistics. Talk about YOUR experience,

Now wait a minute here. You may have your own views about the value of scientific study, but what you say is simply not true. Studies cannot legitimately be used to support any point of view, and they are certainly not subjective. In fact studies are very carefully designed to be objective, and where this is not possible, this fact is pointed out. A properly presented study includes an estimate of confidence; the authors’ estimate of likelihood that their conclusions are correct. Science includes in its procedures mechanisms for the discovery of error, and acknowledges that some error will always be present. 

And what exactly do you mean by the “real world?” Is your world any more real than that of thousands of dedicated and hard-working scientists (plus, of course, the normal admixture of charlatans, thieves and cheats; a minority in this as in most pursuits)? To say that generalizations mean nothing is wrong; they are valuable evidence, and to simply dismiss them as valueless is a waste of a precious resource, knowledge. Certainly a study incompletely reported can be used to support a point of view contrary to its true meaning, but this is true of any piece of infomation. It is up to the consumer to decide what is good information and what is bad. Go and read the underlying data and make up you own mind.

As for the contention that “your partner in life or at work is more than likely the opposite of what those studies are telling you”: since the precise purpose of studies is estimating likelihoods, by definition you cannot be more likely to contravene the generalization than follow it.

ThePhiant wrote:

Since when is a study’ objective? Do you mean to say that studies are chosen at random. Studies are chosen to prove or disprove something, and the way to go about is to test certain variables that are CHOSEN not objectively but subjectively. Just like the 11 blind men studying an elephant. They can and want to see only what is in front of them, subjectively. Antioxidants were supposed to be a lifesaver, turns out they actually can shorten someone’s life. Which scientist do you believe?

I will respond, not because I hope to persuade you of anything, but because I think it is important to supply the contrary point of view for others who might be reading this.

Scientific studies, in order to claim that designation, must conform to certain criteria. Among them are the requirements that both the initial assumptions and the methodology used are incorporated as part of the report. These results are studied by others, who are free to critique them. 

Yes, many studies are commissioned by interested parties hoping to prove something, but this does not always succeed; many studies go the other way. Yes, this often results in the suppression of those particular studies, and that is unfortunate, but is part and parcel of the capitalist system. I do not believe that there is a significant number of studies that are falsified for financial gain. Scientific hoaxes have certainly happened, but generally in important cases a lot of scrutiny is brought to bear, and it is hard to sustain a lie. There is a great deal of rivalry in science, and there are a great many scientists who are genuinely motivated by a search for verifiable and useful truths. They are constantly checking each others’ work in hopes of finding errors.

So it would seem extreme to simply reject all scientific studies categorically as unreliable. In a previous post you commented that “bunching a number of study’s together and coming to a conclusion is always subjective”, but i would submit that the more studies agree on a subject the more likely they can be relied on. One study might be a good indicator, especially if its methodology passes scrutiny; five studies that show similar results show a strong likelihood of truth.

Let’s face it; studies are like hamburgers and television sets and cars; some are very good and some are very bad. Most are in the acceptable range. Unlike hamburgers and television sets and cars, however, the way they are constructed can be examined by the user because the map is part of the product.

This, as I see it, is the case for the defense of science; no doubt there are other points that would be helpful, but someone else will have to supply them.

ThePhiant wrote:

Unfortunately you are not supplying the contrary point but actually, you are extrapolating my point that science is not as reliable as it pertains to be. Good science, bad science?  Science is only as good as the next study who proves otherwise. Case in point; antioxidants! btw; I have neither hamburgers, nor tv’s nor cars in my life to examine

Well, as I said, I had no ambition to persuade you from your views; I can see that you twist whatever input you receive to feed your preconceptions. If I am correctly understanding your somewhat idiosyncratic way of using words (extrapolating, pertains?) then once again you state the exact opposite of the case. Since scientific studies include estimates of the likelihood of error, scientific studies are in fact pretty much as reliable as they claim to be!

Maybe you are confusing the studies themselves with the way they are used by people who do not necessarily even understand them, and are all too often willing to omit whatever parts do not suit their arguments.

I know it can be confusing when studies show that something that has been previously thought to be useful also has dangers under some circumstances (antioxidants, for instance). That is where clear thought and judgment come in; my own observation is that pretty much everything in life has a medicinal dose and a toxic dose, and it is up to the consumer to determine from the information provided what those doses are.

Making sense of these kinds of complex issues, where conflicting evidence needs to be properly weighed and evaluated, is greatly facilitated by the use of critical thinking skills. Critical thinking was developed for exactly this purpose; to provide a tool for examining controversial questions and coming to the conclusions that are best supported by the available evidence. Critical thinking does not tell you the answer, any more than a good sharp knife makes you a good cook. If the evidence in fact supports your point of view, then you can use critical thinking to establish that fact. As it is, even though you may in fact be correct about some of your conclusions, your ways of arguing them, and your insistence on making statements that are at the very least highly misleading, do more to conceal that possibility than to reveal it.

I think at this point that I have said pretty much everything I have to say on the subject, and for me at least this discussion is reaching its toxic dose!

Taming Technology

As the power of technology grows we face the same ethical dilemma again and again. Each new power that we harness is capable of enormously benefiting mankind. At the same time we are creating the means of our own potential destruction. Which side of the argument you favor depends on whether you believe that basic human nature is selfish or altruistic. It is said that all weapons that have ever been invented have eventually been used, and that there will always be people who will use whatever technologies we invent to harm others. Many are persuaded by these arguments into opposing the creation and use of new technologies. 

I do not agree with this point of view. I agree that there will always be bullies and greedy people in the world, and no doubt crime will continue to be a problem, and different groups will continue to have grudges against each other; these will continue to be challenges no matter how enlightened we become in our social structures. I do not agree that we need necessarily continue to be dominated by our most violent and greedy elements, but rather that by changing our social attitudes towards them we can reduce them to the nuisance they should be rather than the disaster they are. 

In any case the toothpaste is already out of the tube. We have these capabilities, and we are not realistically going to give them up, so we need to figure out how to use them to our advantage and consciously act to minimize their harm. We can examine our technologies and recognize the dangers in their misuse, and actively work to reduce the likelihood of such misuse. For example, with smart phones it is trivial to keep track of a person’s location at all times (and much more besides, but let us consider a simple case.) For the person in question this can be very useful information, and for society in general large aggregations of such information are of great benefit. As a small example traffic systems can be optimized using such location information on a large scale. The problem is that in the wrong hands this information can be used for all kinds of nefarious purposes. I am sure I do not need to cite examples, and in fact it is this perception that makes people ask the question at the top of this piece. 

How, then, given what we know about human nature, can we benefit from this kind of technology without giving up our privacy? I do not believe that this is an insoluble problem, but solving it will require some of that growth we talked about. It is not the technical part that is difficult. Systems can certainly be designed to be very secure, but systems are designed and implemented by people, and these days we find it very hard to trust people. 

The developments in both computer hardware and software over recent years present social challenges that it is vital that we examine, identify and contain. The power we have achieved in these areas have created a two edged sword. On the one hand they are being used increasingly as a method of social control, while on the other hand they have the potential to be of enormous benefit to all of us. I sometimes think the NSA could be of tremendous public benefit if they would only make the information they have about us available to us. They probably have a copy of that email that went missing, and they could sell it back to you. 

There is nothing inherently evil about collecting and storing comprehensive information about people; in fact it is extremely useful. All social systems can be improved by the collection of information. Similarly some kind of electronic voting would be far simpler and more reliable and accurate than the old paper based method. The problem is to devise a workable system. There are a number of technological challenges we face of this nature, and the attribute they share is that they are social systems. We do not question the nature of the air traffic control system, yet one could see it as “the government controlling where and when you fly your plane.” We must accept that the nature of belonging to a group is that in return for the benefits of belonging to the group we agree to give up some of our personal freedom of action. We agree to conform to the rules of the group. A group with no rules has no meaning. Even anarchists do not favor a society without rules. Anarchy means without rulers, not without rules. We have certainly seen graphic demonstrations in recent years of the results of the contrary view. Starting with Reagan in the 1980s we have gone on a rampage of deregulation in banking, savings and loans, airlines and other areas, always with disastrous results. We have seen countries reduced to lawlessness with even more terrible consequences. Can we agree by now that this philosophy has been given a fair trial and has failed miserably?

The question is not should we have rules, it is who should make the rules and who should enforce them.

Privacy and Encryption

If I were to propose a law that would authorize the Post Office to open your letters and packages, observe and record the contents, sell the resulting information to anyone who will pay them for it, and insert their own materials inside (without informing either you nor the recipient) before delivering them, you would rightly think me crazy. Why would we give such power to any organization? Yet this is exactly the situation with the companies that handle our email and other internet activities. They are free to do all of this and more, and they are making truly staggering amounts of money in the process. One of the hallmarks of civilized countries has always been their postal systems, and privacy has always been a feature of such systems. Just because we have invented a faster and more efficient means to send materials to one another does not change the fundamental nature of those messages. They are still private communications and we should have the right to expect that privacy to be respected.

The argument that the nature of the technology makes it impossible to prevent the owners of the wires and routers from being able to do these things is not correct, and even if it were would still not provide a justification for allowing it. There are countless human behaviors that we have collectively decided for various reasons cannot be permitted in a workable society, and many of them rely on harsh penalties to deter people even when it would be impossible to physically restrain them from breaking the law. One might as well say that since people in the privacy of their homes are free to abuse their spouses and we really have no way to change that, it is useless to pass laws against it.

We could relatively easily prevent much of this abuse, by the use of strong encryption. It is true that advances in computing power make it very difficult to devise unbreakable encryption, but this is not needed. What we need is strong enough encryption to make it not worth the time and trouble of trying. It could be made completely transparent to the users. 

The problem is that strong encryption methods are considered items of national security, and their use by ordinary citizens is against the law. This is justified by the perceived need for the government to be able to monitor all communications so as to be able to effectively counter terrorist groups. If strong encryption were generally available these groups could communicate freely unmolested. In truth, though, if they cared enough terrorists could in fact use very effective encryption. In spite of the law, strong encryption is out there, but there is no evidence that terrorists make any effort at all to use it. However national security makes a powerful case in peoples’ minds for keeping the status quo.

Another factor that comes into play is the commonly heard “If you have nothing to hide, why do you care about privacy?” The question that springs to my mind when I hear this is “Do you lock the bathroom door when you are on the toilet?” An activity does not have to be shameful or harmful to the community for me to want to keep it private. In addition it all hinges on what kinds of communications or behavior the authorities are interested in curtailing. Points of view that are quite acceptable, even admirable, today have a way of suddenly becoming  unacceptable with a change in the political scene. In England during the time of the Tudors, the social and legal position of Catholics and Protestants switched places several times with the death of a monarch and the accession of a new one.

It is also argued that this (and many other abuses) are simply a matter of contract law. If you read the fine print, they tell you everything they are going to do, and you agreed to it when you clicked “I have read and agree to the terms of business,” probably by now the most told lie in all of history. However it cannot truthfully be said that users enter willingly into these agreements; they have no reasonable choice. All of the useful services on the internet are for all intents and purposes monopolies. Sure, you can buy a computer that runs on Linux, and use secure browsers and virtual private networks, but then none of the social networks will work properly. This is not by chance; they deliberately make their products compatible only with the mainstream platforms. Also with such a setup you will spend a significant portion of your time just keeping it running, and have to deal with all kinds of difficult installers and drivers. 

We should require the use of strong end to end encryption for all of our dealings on the internet, and establish the clear principle that the function of Internet Service Providers is solely to see that everything is delivered to its proper destination, and looking at the content of the messages should carry harsh penalties.  If this means that Google would only make million rather than billions, the so be it. There is no inherent unfettered right to make money.

Public Health Care

We hear a lot about the cost of health care, when what is actually being described is the price of health care, an altogether different thing. The idea that a fair price is what a willing buyer is prepared to pay to a willing seller assumes that if the seller asks an outrageous price, the buyer is free to walk away. If the seller has the only drug or procedure that will keep the buyer alive, he is not free to walk away. He has to pay whatever price is asked. There is no meaningful competition in the health care industry.

The so-called health care industry is in the business of trafficking in human life. If you do not have the money to pay them to keep you alive, they will let you die. If you are in severe intractable pain and do not have the money to buy their drugs, they will let you suffer in agony. They are permitted to charge whatever the market will bear. What will you pay to stay alive? Everything you have, if necessary.

Even the Medicare system is forbidden by law from negotiating prices with the drug companies. The one organization which is in the position of being able to deal with the drug companies on a relatively level playing field is forbidden to do so. They must accept the “market” price derived from the process of extortion described above.

I am constantly amazed that so many people seem to prefer the notion of privatized health care to a public system. The executives of a publicly traded corporation are obliged by law to act in the way that will best benefit their shareholders at all times. Nothing takes precedence over this. A publicly traded health care corporation is not in business to provide health care; that is a side effect. They are in business to provide as much profit as possible to their shareholders. This means that the person deciding what treatment a patient is going to get is going to make the decision that best benefits the corporation, not the patient. It also means that the extortion is not just a morally reprehensible policy, it is dictated by law.

A publicly operated health care provider, on the other hand, such as is found all over the rest of the industrialized world, exists to provide health care to the patient. Its employees will make the decision that best benefits the patient. 

Which would you prefer? To have your medical decisions made by someone who is paid to deny you care if they can find any reason to do so, or by someone whose job it is to make and keep you healthy? 

Single Housing

A greater proportion of the population is single today than has been the case in the past. In addition there is also a significant number of people who are stuck in relationships they would leave if not for the fact that they cannot afford to live alone. Yet there is very little housing specifically designed for single people, and the commercial world in general does not accommodate them. For instance restaurants frequently offer two for one deals, which is of little use to a single person. Restaurants, with the exception of fast food places are not particularly welcoming to lone diners. Two people sharing expenses can live on less than two individual single people.

Part of the problem is our tendency to try to fit everyone into some version of the standard American lifestyle. We have a very limited choice of types of community (city, small town, country) and within those we are expected to occupy one of a limited number of kinds of dwelling and have a more or less “normal” social life. When we design schemes for housing the homeless the aim is to integrate them into this system, as though it represented not only the very best way of life that has ever been invented but one that must be preserved at all costs, and furthermore should be followed by everyone. Any proposed way of organizing a community that departs radically from this model is considered threatening to the system, and can only be allowed to exist as a separate, usually despised “cult” somewhere out sight. Even such relatively common and benign institutions such as worker owned cooperatives are viewed with suspicion. 

This tendency presents significant challenges to anyone wishing to  explore new approaches to the problem. New approaches almost always require reconsideration of rules and regulation, particularly with regard to zoning and building codes. In such a litigious society as we inhabit, if the neighbors decide that what you are doing looks just too peculiar, there are a thousand ways they can stop a project dead in its tracks.

Nonetheless we have a homeless situation that demands change, and that cannot be ameliorated without the willingness to consider new ideas. We will not successfully house the homeless unless we are willing to come up with a way of living that is attractive to them. They do not “choose” to live on the street because they prefer it, or because it is the best way of life they can imagine, but rather because none of the options offered to them look any better. We offer the kind of help we think they should have, laden with conditions and expectations that we impose unilaterally upon them. This might possibly be effective if we first thoroughly researched the matter and involved the homeless themselves in the design of programs, but we do not. This will never work. You cannot force people into slots they are unwilling to occupy.

We need new models of community based on the idea of cooperation rather than competition, and fully integrated with the community at large. These communities need to be designed to fill the needs of people who do not necessarily subscribe to the values of society at large. They should be made as much as possible self-governing. One could imagine living spaces comprising multiple small suites, each with a bedroom and a small living room suitable for entertaining three or four people, with a private bathroom and a minimal kitchenette, all sharing a larger communal room with a well equipped kitchen. 

Two or three such units could share laundry facilities and other shared resources. In this way many people could be comfortably and efficiently housed in a relatively small space compared with conventional housing which is extremely inefficient and duplicative in its use of space and resources. Increased density will of course impact sewage disposal, but this can be alleviated by the use of composting toilets, which are readily available in several practical designs and only need the political will to allow them. Such communities, though geared mainly for single people, need not exclude couples and families too, which would simply require a different configuration of living spaces, and could also benefit from the sharing of resources.

The “Undeserving” Poor

Homelessness is a “hot topic” right now, and opinions on the subject appear daily in the papers, online discussion groups and in the coffee shop. In any given conversation the two (or more) sides are often really addressing different aspects of a complex problem. To arrive at any agreement we must first know whether we are trying to end homelessness itself, for instance, or to help those currently homeless, or to clean up the streets and feel safer. Each of these problems will suggest a different kind of solution. 

We also have to acknowledge that poverty is a positive feedback loop. In this case positive is not a good thing. It means that the poorer a person gets, the harder it becomes for them to pull themselves out of poverty. Once you are homeless, life becomes increasingly difficult, and the slope is slippery. In this respect our society is unique among organisms (for society is in fact an organism). All other organisms are self-healing. When an organism detects that some part is ailing, it sends more resources to that part to help it get better. If we injure our bodies, blood flow is increased to the injured area. Our society, on the other hand, reacts to ailing members by withholding resources from them. 

The aspect I would like to address here is the issue of what are sometimes called the undeserving poor. There are very few people who would deny that a great many poor people got that way through no fault of their own, and most have no problem with helping these people. Where the disagreement comes is when people see what they see as “their” money being used to help people who, in their estimation, are poor either through some personal failing or through criminal behavior. They even claim that homelessness is a lifestyle choice for some, and that they do not even want to be helped.

Let us deal with this last contention first, as it is relatively simple. First the homeless population has a higher than average incidence of mental illness, which can cause people to express views and preferences that are not in their own self-interest. It is sometimes said that if being crazy didn’t make you homeless, being homeless would make you crazy. These people need a special kind of help, and their views should not be taken as representative of the majority of homeless people.

Others may refuse the kind of help that is offered for a number of quite valid reasons. It may not be the kind of help that is in fact helpful. For instance, food that needs preparation or must be consumed on the spot may not be useful to them at the time it is offered. Shelters have very restrictive rules about when you have to be out in the morning and what time you can get there in the evening, which may not be practicable for them. They may be hard for them to get to and from. There are countless reasons why someone might not be able to accept the particular form of help offered. This does not mean that there is no possible form of help that would be genuinely useful to them, or that they would reject it if offered. 

It is well nigh impossible to truly understand someone’s situation if you have not experienced it. There is a French expression that translates to “to understand all is to forgive all.” If you could truly know what is was to be that person, you would understand why they were where they are. All of us are the products of our genetics and our environment, neither of which was under our control. We talk of people making bad choices, but what does this really mean? We make choices based on our assessment of what will benefit us. If our assessment tools or our concept of what is in fact beneficial to us are faulty, it is because we are basing them on faulty information. Conversely people who have succeeded have almost universally had someone in their life who has given them good guidance.

Furthermore, what are these bad choices, anyway? Often this turns out to be code for drug taking. This carries several questionable assumptions. First of all poor people cannot afford to buy enough drugs to cause them much harm. A truly debilitating drug habit is very expensive. Homeless people take drugs, certainly, but usually only enough to take the edge off their misery. 

So maybe it was a drug habit that impoverished them in the first place. Using this as a reason to blame them for their situation and refuse help is to say that drug habituation is a moral defect that deserves punishment (in this case the punishment of being deprived of shelter and rejected by society.) Yet if drug habituation is a moral defect this would condemn a large percentage of the population, most of whom are habituated to some drug or more than one. We have not been able to identify any society in history that did not use mind altering substances.

If we are to rationalize refusal to help someone who has fallen on hard times, surely the only acceptable reason is that it was some moral defect that brought them to this state. If some force outside their control impoverished them, we can hardly in good conscience refuse help. Neither can we reasonably condemn them for making stupid decisions. Intelligence, or the ability to make wise decisions, is not evenly distributed in the population. Certainly we can learn to make the best of what we are given, but some are just dealt a weak hand in life. Can we therefore blame them for failing in the system?

So, you might ask, is there no such thing as personal responsibility? Are we to forgive everybody any kind of behavior on the grounds that it was just the way they were brought up? I am not making that argument here; it is a complex topic that deserves its own treatment. What I am saying is that first it is not a helpful standard to apply to the choice of whether or not to help the indigent. People qualify for help because they are in need of it; it is that simple. There are no undeserving poor.

Darwin’s Error

If the Golden Rule could be said to be the encapsulation of the fundamental meaning of both Judaism and Christianity, then perhaps we could say that the fundamental meaning of evolution is summed up in Darwin’s phrase “the survival of the fittest.” Over the years it has been trotted out by the perpetrators to explain/excuse such things as colonialism, slavery, the Holocaust, and the modern tendency of large businesses to cannibalize smaller ones, among countless other evils. Parenthetically it has always seemed curious to me that we are apparently helpless in the face of a law of nature when we wish to excuse behavior that would otherwise be morally repugnant, while we will bend every effort to successfully overcome equally intractable laws such as the law of gravity when it is more profitable to do so.

The problem is that survival of the fittest is a misstatement (or rather an overstatement) which when corrected does not in fact support any of the evils mentioned. It is ironic in our test-obsessed world that it is the removal of a “test” that reveals the true meaning. All of the requirements of the theory of evolution are fulfilled in the expression “the survival of the fit.” What a difference this simple modification makes. Now it is no longer necessary for you to die in order to ensure my survival. As long as we are both “fit” then we can both survive. We must also consider the proper meaning of the word “fit.” We tend to think of the modern dominant meaning, which is roughly equivalent to strong or robust. This gives even greater force to the misunderstanding, as it would seem to rationalize the tyranny of the strong over the weak. In Darwin’s time, however, the dominant meaning of the word fit was “appropriate”, as in “a meal fit for a king.”

So now we have a natural law that promises survival of the appropriate, which in no way conflicts with the theory of evolution. How does this change our outlook? For one thing it puts a very big hole in the idea that unfettered competition is the most desirable business model, on the grounds that it gives natural selection the opportunity to determine which businesses survive. If we remove the requirement that the survivors be the fittest, and only require that they be appropriate, then a strong case can be made for cooperation rather than competition as being the most appropriate behavior. 

Minimum Basic Income

A commonly heard argument against the idea of a basic minimum income is that if everyone were given their living without having to work for it, nobody would work and civilization would collapse. Those advancing this argument tend to be members of the ownership class, and no doubt to them it seems reasonable. Why would anyone work if they did not have to for the sake of survival? Fortunately we do not have to speculate. We have a convenient study population who have in fact been given their living (and, in fact, considerably in excess of a basic living, which if the concept were harmful might be presumed to increase the harm.) Moreover we have data going back centuries and across a wide variety of cultures. I am referring to the children of the wealthy classes. 

Do we find that these people tend to sit around and do nothing useful, or pursue lives of dissipation? Some of them, even many, do indeed. Yet virtually all of the discoveries and philosophical theories that led to the Enlightenment, the age of science and the Industrial Revolution were made by people from this class. They were the ones with time and leisure to pursue studies without having to give consideration to earning a living from them. Very few indeed of those who gave their names to systems of measurement (Volt, Ampere, Pascal) or scientific theories (Darwin, Freud) came from the poorer classes. 

The situation is similar with respect to music and the arts. It is much easier to pursue success in these fields when you do not have to work a job after school, and when your parents can afford private lessons and top of the line equipment. My point, though, is not (here at least) to bemoan the unfair advantage the affluent have over everyone else, but rather to illustrate that people in the fortunate position of not having to earn a living do not have a general tendency to sit around and do nothing, and, to the contrary, such people are responsible for most of the advances that have given us, for better or for worse, the world we live in. 

A defender of aristocracies might say that all of this simply indicates the inherent superiority of the upper classes. They made all the great discoveries because they are smarter then the rest of the population. However there is no correlation between wealth and intelligence, and geniuses of all kinds seem to be distributed evenly across the whole population. The plain fact is that enhanced opportunity yields better outcomes.

If some mad experimenter were to secretly take 100 random newborn infants from African refugee camps, and exchange them for 100 random upper middle class American infants, other than perhaps standing out by their skin color each would grow up a more or less typical product of the environment on which they were raised. If even race is not determinative of talent or the ability to lead a useful life, social class or a wealthy background certainly is not.

Neither are natural talent or hard work and application sure roads to success. They certainly help, but the world is full of starving geniuses. The single talent that does enormously enhance the probability of success is the talent for handling money, or what we call business sense. Someone with this particular skill can succeed even without any other skills, but someone lacking it will seldom succeed even if they are otherwise highly skilled.   

The most important factor in determining success in life is opportunity. That opportunity might be the result of having a wealthy family, or it may be some stroke of good fortune, a chance meeting with someone in a position to give a hand up or any of a thousand possible scenarios that might make the difference between success and failure. Someone who does not get such a boost has a much harder time rising up the social scale.

There is every reason to suppose that among the poor and dispossessed of the world are countless Mozarts, Einsteins, Aristotles that will never have the chance even to know their talents, much less use them in the world, and there is every reason to suppose that if everyone in the world had a chance to shine we could usher in a new golden age.

Answers to Frequently Encountered Objections

I have often proposed radical social changes, and I have met with several kinds of objection that do not address the actual proposal and its benefits and shortcomings, but rather give general reasons why such reforms are impractical or undesirable.  These kinds of arguments are not confined to the socio-political sphere. Any new and unfamiliar idea, including revolutionary inventions, are liable to be met with the same kinds of argument. I will use as an example the notion that we should abandon the practice of personal inheritance. Please be clear that in this particular essay I am not arguing the case for this point of view, but rather attempting to show how certain kinds of objection are invalid as a response to the proposal.

It does not solve all the problems. Theodore Roosevelt in 1886 denounced men who mistakenly believed that “at this stage of the world’s progress it is possible to make everyone happy by an immense social revolution.” This is what is known as a straw man argument. He is mischaracterizing the views of his opponents. Of course those interested in social reforms realize that even if they were successful it would not make everyone in the world happy, but that is not a reason to oppose improving the situation. All that the proponents of reform need to show is that sufficient good will come of it to more than counterbalance whatever harm may do, and to make it worth the cost.

Another common objection we often hear is “well, you can devise all the social systems you want but you cannot overcome human nature.” What is usually meant by this is that greed and laziness will always ruin whatever system we come up with, and the implication is that for this reason it is not even worth putting much time into the issue unless we can come up with a way of changing human nature. 

First, the idea that greed is an uncontrollable force is wrong. It is no more uncontrollable that lust and violence, and we have done quite a good job that of corralling those immutable forces by our laws and social structures. That is really the whole point of those institutions in fact. As we settled down into societies we found that certain kinds of behavior cannot be condoned in a civilized society, so we made rules to control those kinds of behaviors. To claim the preeminence of personal freedom to oppose the making of laws, to say “I should be free to make my own choices with being told what to do” is to miss the point. All behaviors forbidden by laws are things people would like to be free to do; if people did not have any desire to do something, there would be no need to forbid it. Greed is socially harmful, just as is violence, and we need to take step to make it socially unacceptable. 

Laziness is another matter. We are told that if you gave people their basic living needs the would not bother to work at all. It is implied that people (especially poor people) are fundamentally lazy. I do not believe this to be true. I believe that people are fundamentally curious, and have a strong desire to better themselves, and make a contribution. In fact one of the most basic human needs is to feel useful. This, in my opinion, is at the root of much that is wrong with our society: young people growing up in poor neighborhoods see no prospect of improvement. They see, correctly, that the game is overwhelmingly stacked against them. The only people like them who seem to have any kind of success are those who make it in show business, sports or crime.  Since most do not have the talent for the first two, many fall into the third path. The remainder live lives of low level hopelessness.

Imagine a world in which everyone had a chance at starting a business. Suppose at a certain age, and having fulfilled certain conditions, we were given a workspace and tools and materials and whatever resources were needed to carry out whatever occupation we decided to pursue. When we started to become profitable, a portion of the profit would go to repay what we had been given. If we were unsuccessful, the tools and materials remaining would go back into the common stock of resources, and the space given to someone else. Under such a system the young would take a very different attitude towards their education. They would see that there was a very real and valid reason to acquire knowledge and skills. 

Human beings are curiosity machines. Observe an infant at play: you will see a study in experimentation and learning. If older students are lackadaisical in school, it can only be because we have somehow managed to eradicate their drive to learn. The only force that can achieve this is a sense of hopelessness. Give children hope and the confidence that their work will be rewarded, and see them blossom. 

And finally, even if the theory of laziness were in some cases true, so what? Suppose a percentage of people are in fact lazy and would prefer to just stay home and play video games. At least they would not need to cheat and steal in order to do so. Right now these same people cost us a fortune in police and the justice system and mass incarceration and emergency health care. It would be far cheaper and less socially destructive to just pay them to stay home.  

Science vs Intuitive Understanding

From an online discussion on

claire ossenbeck wrote:

Every time there is a major earthquake, they come out with some statement that says their clues to understanding have been tossed on the heap and they pretty much have to start anew. Before the North Ridge quake they believed that the faults were not connected to each other. I read this in a science mag. Then after the quake they find that omg, they are connected, quite! Ok, now here am I for years now, an absolute nobody, thinking to myself (purely intuitively) I think that they are connected because it’s just common sense to me and it feels right. It may not have been based on the science of the day, but if science does not understand that which it cannot measure or prove, and is needing to continuously upgrade itself, then where’s the proof that I’m wrong?

Among the many non-experts who thought about earthquakes, and had an intuitive understanding about some aspect of the subject, a certain number thought as you did, and were eventually proved to have been right. However I am sure that there were many who had some other intuitive insight that did not turn out to be right. Which one should we have followed?  Back then, when they had it wrong and you had it right, what would you have had them do?

Should they have said to themselves (and to us) “Claire is quite sure that it is this way, and we should change our views to conform with hers!”? Clearly not, since there are myriad Claires, and they do not all have the same intuitive understanding, yet they are all equally certain.

What they did was what science does: continue to study the matter with as open a mind as they could manage (they are, after all, human, and prone to human weaknesses) and when they accumulated evidence that they were wrong, they changed their views and told us that they had been wrong, and now understood things to work differently than they had thought. Do you ever stop to consider how rare and courageous an act that is, to admit that you have been wrong? Yet that is what science does regularly, as better tests are devised and new theories tested and knowledge is more widely disseminated by communications technology improvements.

I think that perhaps you are under a false impression of what “science” is saying. If you had had the opportunity to talk to a reputable earthquake specialist at the time when the accepted view disagreed with your intuitive sense of what was the truth, he or she would probably have said something like “Well, that is a possibility, and may indeed be true, however the information we have right now seems to indicate otherwise.” Under appropriate circumstances the response might be “Well, what you propose is not impossible, but it has been studied so much with so much agreement that we consider the likelihood very low.” Even then they may turn out to have been mistaken; in almost no case will a reputable and honest scientist claim to know for certain that anything is either definitely right or definitely wrong. However, it is not up to science to prove that you are wrong; if they had to do that for every theory that came along, they would not have time for anything else. If you want to have your theory adopted it is up to you to provide the evidence, not just the assertion, that you are right.

As in all pursuits, there are individual scientists who care more about their ego or reputation than about the truth, but this is not true of science or scientists in general, any more than it is true of doctors or engineers in general, or of medicine or engineering as professions. You are of course quite free to believe that your theory is true and the accepted one false, just as I am sure there were earthquake scientists who also disagreed. Nobody was or is trying to stop you believing that. The difference is that the views of “science” (as opposed to the views of individual scientists) represents the distilled knowledge, tested and verified, of many people who have studied the matter. Even then as we have seen, they can be wrong. However, unlike people whose views rest solely on faith (and are therefore not really interested in evidence), when presented with new information that checks out, science will change its views. 

So if occasionally science comes around to a point of view you already held, you are allowed a smile of satisfaction, and even a modest boast, but at the same time it is always salutary to remember the ideas you had that did not turn out to be supported by the evidence after all.