I learned a fantastic word a few weeks ago. “Apophenia” is commonly understood (according to Wikipedia), as “the human tendency to seek patterns in random information in general.”
When I read the definition of apophenia, I (of course) immediately pictured Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind”, with an office full of newspaper clippings, blackboards full of weird scribbles, and miles of red yarn strung up connecting them all together, stumbling around in his boxers looking all inspired and demented. Upon further reflection, I recognized this same image as the one I had previously assigned to my schema for “human engaged in political thought.”
Here’s my thesis in bulleted list form:
- There’s a lot we (generally decent people) want to do.
- We tend to greatly kids ourselves about the scope of what we actually know how to do.
- Trying out different ways of doing things has real costs.
- We shouldn’t go incurring real costs unless we have some degree of confidence that we’ll get the results we intend.
In more detail….
There’s a lot we (generally decent people) want to do
You like social justice? (I like social justice!) You like people not getting murdered? (Ditto!) Wish everyone could just get a fair goddamned shake in this beautiful/ugly/happy/sad world? (Preaching to the choir!) You wish everyone could live to 123 years of age? (Well, I’d sign on for “could”, but I’m not sure everyone should have to.) You wish 30,000 people didn’t die every year in the U.S. from gunshots? (Me too — I assume we’re both wishing the number were lower, not higher.) You wish no-one was ever hungry enough to be physically ill from it? (Count me in!) You you had telekinetic powers (duh!) Wish human existence didn’t have to include abject misery? (Of course you do, and so do I.)
We tend to kid ourselves about the scope of what we actually know how to do
Apophenia! Scientism! Wishful thinking! …give it a name! Whatever you call it, human beings have an indefatigable ability to believe that we know those things we really want to know (regardless of the reliability/verifiability of that knowledge.)
I’m not sure how to say this without jumping down an epistemological rabbit hole and sounding like a wacky logical positivist, but the kind of knowledge I’m talking about here is that which can be used to make accurate predictions. (The more accurate the predictions, the more powerful the knowledge.) We have incredibly strong “knowledge” about some things (orbital mechanics, nuclear physics, etc..), and we have relatively weak “knowledge” about other subjects (pretty much anything that involves the collective behavior of groups of more than ten people.)
Now, I also happen to “know” that my children are the two most perfect beings in the entire universe, but that knowledge isn’t going to stop world hunger or put any satellites in orbit. It’s an altogether different type of knowledge, expressing an altogether different type of truth. That’s not to say that the this type of knowledge isn’t important in its own way, but it’s not important in regards to my ability to predict the behavior of the physical world.
Anyway, back to that relatively “weak” knowledge about the behavior of groups of more than ten people. Our knowledge-building to date has left us at the point where we just don’t know much of anything about how large groups of people will behave (let alone how to make them behave the way we want.) That’s not an indictment of science or the scientific method, it’s just an acknowledgement of the fact that this is a really difficult subject.
The current state of affairs is that trying to use public policy to control large-scale social phenomena is roughly equivalent to trying to control the details of next-year’s hurricane season by strategically herding butterflies for the six months leading up to it. (We know that each flap of a butterfly’s wings has a cascading effect that will influence the path of a hurricane, but that’s about all we know.)
The NYC soft-drink ban is a good example of this. Some researchers did some interesting research on individuals’ behavior when confronted with several different options for portion sizes. These results were inappropriately extrapolated to serve as the basis for a proposed policy banning certain types of beverages over a certain size, with the stated intent of reducing obesity. The problem, of course, was in inappropriately extrapolating research about what individuals in a laboratory setting did from what a population of millions in an almost completely un-controlled environment would do. You can find wonks arguing both sides of what the outcome would be (anything from NYC’ers finally fitting into their skinny jeans to soda-pop speakeasies and tommy-gun-wielding Coca-Cola distributors), but the most accurate assessment is a good old fashioned: “we don’t know what would happen if we banned soft-drinks bigger than 16 ounces.”
Unfortunately, “I don’t know” are the three words that the human brain seems most predisposed to avoid at any cost. The problem comes when we start replacing “this is our best guess as to the result, and we don’t even have a way to estimate our confidence in our prediction” with “this is gonna work!”
You probably snicker at the crazy shit that people believed in the middle ages, right? Trepanation as a cure for epilepsy? Mercury as a cure for anything? (Other than a lack of mercury poisoning, that is.) How quaint! How hilarious! How positively primitive of them!
Imagine how silly we’ll look in a few hundred years with our utterly demented notions that we can make people smarter with high-stakes testing, or that we can decrease gun violence by outlawing arbitrary groupings of cosmetic features on firearms, etc…
Imagine how hard they’ll be laughing when they read us describing something like the NYC soft drink regulation as an “experiment”, whose results are measured in obesity rates.
Trying out new ways of doing things has real costs
This applies to obvious “let’s go build some widgets” endeavors, but also to less obvious regulatory activity. Want to ban soft-drinks greater than sixteen ounces in size? You’re going to have to spend money enforcing the ban. Soft-drink manufacturer’s are going to have to disrupt their supply chains. Consumers wanting 17 ounces of soda, will end up paying for two sets of packaging. Etc…
Everything that the government does has to be paid for by the governed, and the more government “does”, the more the governed have to pay.
We shouldn’t go incurring real costs unless we have some degree of confidence that we’ll get the results we intend.
Whether you’re running a government, or managing your household budget, you have finite resources with which to achieve multiple objectives. You prioritize; you allocate; you strive for efficiency. Once you’ve covered the existential necessities, you find yourself deciding how to spend that last $10. Do you rent an extra movie that week? Do you spend it on lottery tickets? Do you put it in savings?
Here’s what you don’t do: you don’t take that last $10 and use it to buy sack of magic beans because you heard somewhere that magic beans will add ten years to your life. And that’s what the vast majority of public policy is, magic beans. That is, we have about as much reason to believe that banning certain types of beverage of a certain size will decrease obesity as the medieval barbers had to believe that “bleeding” a patient would restore his/her health by starving the angry vampire that was living in their stomach.
Anyway, that’s why I’m generally in favor of “small (minimal) government”, but not just because I’m a gigantic asshole. It’s not because I’m a selfish prick who wants to keep my 99% all to myself. It’s not because I think that government has no business caring about anything other than protecting my interests. And it’s not because I think government is inherently defective in the first place (though I have my suspicions.)
The reason I’m “small government” is because I don’t think my government’s efforts at insert-policy-objective-here are qualitatively better informed than a bunch of witch-doctors running around decapitating chickens in hopes of appeasing the hurricane god and assuring a tranquil storm season, and I’m not OK with idea that everyone should be forced to ante-up when the witch-doctors want someone to pay for three million chickens.
And Some Good News: We’re going to know a lot more in just an other generation than we do now. Big data, bleeding-edge regression-analysis-type-maths, behavioral/hedonic economics, and exponential growth in computational power are already on the edge of giving us a whole new paradigm for knowledge-building in the social sciences. In another few decades, we’ll actually be able to perform regression analyses that succeed in filtering out the insane complexities of large-scale social constructs and we’ll probably be a lot closer to having knowledge with the sort of predictive power I discussed above.
Of course, having that kind of knowledge/power raises a whole other can of worms related to the if/how/when it should be used, but that’s definitely another question.
(Also, my kids got into some toilet-related humor tonight, so I should have a more interesting post on that soon.)
UPDATE: Adam Singer posted about this entry on his blog, Grey Politics. He graciously described this post as well written and easy to digest, so his judgment is probably not to be trusted. Adam also replied in the comments section of this post below.