Science and democracy share the feature that they are error correction systems. The former is about correcting errors to our knowledge of the physical world. The latter to our choice of rulers and their policies. With science on the rare occasion when we have two theories competing to explain the same phenomena we can rule one out through a "crucial experiment" (for more on crucial experiments, see here). With democracy, when candidates compete to win elections they put forward policies and if the one who wins, and has the power to actually enact their policies fails to meet our expectations, an election is an opportunity to correct our mistake and try out another candidate.
But in neither case - science or democracy - can we ensure that the theory we have or the candidate we vote for - cannot possibly fail. And we must expect them to fail in ways we can not have foreseen.
“Until the average person is well-educated and well-informed, you will always have a dysfunctional political system. I agree that free high-quality education for all would be costly to implement, but rich economies can afford it. In fact, I think they can't afford not to do it.” - Google Programmer François Chollet (@fchollet), Twitter, 4 Feb 2018
If the average person was educated and informed to a standard that François Chollet approved that would not guarantee that, by his lights, the government was not “terribly dysfunctional” (that it was made up of terrible people or that it never got anything done (See note 1 below)) or even that the system itself was was “dysfunctional” if by that we meant something like: incapable in principle of enabling the worst people - by our personal standards - of being elected. Or perhaps it means something deeper: that there is corruption that makes the democracy rotten to the core. But then well educated, well informed people are still liable to fall into error and nothing can guarantee they cannot be deceived. Indeed here lurks an irony, but it's true: the more well educated you are about a thing, the more blind you can be to the most common errors. You might simply be "used to" making the same mistake over and again. Expertise can sometimes be a liability - even and perhaps especially - in your domain of expertise. The reason is you cannot often think as creatively because you think of all the criticisms. That's what makes you an expert, after all! So you think of all the criticisms against the idea that you are wrong - because you know them. Isn't that strange? It's like an expert Korean linguist who is teaching someone the Korean word for (say) computer (which, as it turns out, is "computer" with a Korean accent ("keompyuteo"). And say the (ignorant!) person they teach comes to them one day and says "I heard from a Korean and they said that's not the only word. There in another word and it's "gaesangi" they insist. But the expert knows they're correct - there's one word only and they consult with some native Korean speakers who agree and besides, they're the expert after all. So they return to the learner and insist "You're mistaken - there is one word. I've researched this. You can trust me. And I've checked - with other native speakers." But experts can be mistaken and in this case the learner just happened to overhear some older North Koreans speaking and using that word...which is indeed an older word in North Korean for "computer" and not well known by South Koreans. So as it turns out the ignorant, less educated person knew the truth. There was more than one word in Korean for computer in existence and no amount of checking with the typical South Korean expert would have fixed that. More education doesn't mean you won't make mistakes that those with less education will not make. We are all equally fallible. There is always an infinite amount we do not know and we must expect others know things we do not. Even (perhaps especially) the "less well" educated and "less well" informed. No system of education can ensure errors of this kind become less frequent. No democratic system can ensure that, for example, terrible rulers might not get elected. So even if President Trump really is/was a terrible mistake, no democratic system which is to say no democratic institution could have prevented his election in principle if he was a legally qualified candidate.
Of course at the extremes that exact criticism is made: he is not legally qualified. But those accusations seem to be just par for the Presidential election course in the United States now. Obama was not born in the United States, or Hillary Clinton was actually a criminal who should have been in gaol and so on. If the institutions investigate and you regard them as having worked in those cases then it is a poor, ad-hoc explanation that says they only ever fail, are corrupt and evidence of a broken or "dysfunctional" system when applied to the candidates and parties you do not support.
Now this may seem a bizarre diversion, but bear with me. The average person probably doesn’t think much about the intricacies of how science generates the knowledge that it does. That’s a rarefied kind of interest of concern only to philosophers of science and some scientists. Then again, so far as “interests” go, there is no "average person" - there’s few academic interests all average people share. Does the average person enjoy learning maths or engaging in deeply refined literary criticism or history lessons or do they want to have a deep understanding of civics and constitutional law? Hint: ask a school-aged student to find out. But the average person is indeed interested in knowledge of all sorts - it may be academic knowledge of a subject of interest to them or some project they are working on (both these often wrongly dismissively referred to as a "hobbies") or it can be knowledge of their own lives, those of their friends and family and how to do their job well and better and other day to day things. The average person has concerns and interests - perhaps not shared by philosophers of science in Sydney, or google programmers in Silicon Valley, say.
It’s not really of great importance, though it may be of some use to the average person to learn that the process that is science is in large part defined by the creation of hard to vary explanations of the physical world that can be tested against physical reality. These “tests” are known as experiments - but they are not the only way we have of criticising scientific explanations. It is just that explanations of the physical world that can be tested against physical reality - by experiments - are precisely the scientific ones. The experiment should be able to be performed in practise, which is to say we should posses an explanation of how the experiment can be conducted by us.
Some versions of string theory that postulate entities that can only be resolved with the energy of a particle accelerator the diameter of the galaxy would be an example of a possible explanation of the physical world that is, in my view, not scientific. Although there is some kind of test possible “in principle” the lack of an “in practise” explanation of how to build such a device given the possible transformations people can actually make in order to test the theory should remove it from serious contention as a way forward in making progress in physical science (as useful as the mathematical techniques discovered from explorations of string theory have been in mathematics.)
Sometimes this process of science generates theories that are false. Indeed this is rather the rule and not the exception. We should expect that the vast majority of scientific theories will turn out to be false. This is simply a claim that the scientific enterprise is unbounded: we will always be able to improve upon any explanation we do discover. And any improvement will show how flawed the unimproved version was and why.
The “average person” might think that science is an engine for generating truths about the world that, once the authority of science in the form of some professorial scientist has deigned to profess that truth that we can trust such claims to stand as “scientific truth”. But science is very much a catalogue of errors. As David Deutsch has said - it would have been much preferred if scientific theories were called scientific misconceptions from the start.
Science, for example, at various times has produced theories such as “spontaneous generation” as an attempt to explain how non-living matter can become living. Some of the earliest theories in chemistry included the “phlogiston” idea where this substance inhabited all matter and it was this that was combustible. Earthquakes, volcanoes, moving continents and other eruptions of the Earth were explained as evidence the planet was expanding. And for centuries it was believed that an instantaneous-acting gravitational force existed between all masses in the universe and that this explained the motion of objects from orbiting planets to falling apples. And these are just some of the more prominent examples from just biology, chemistry, geology and physics. Astronomy is a catalogue of bold conjectures about the nature of the cosmos being utterly decimated by the light of observation. Literally. And we are all familiar with supposedly rock solid medical and nutritional advice seemingly turning on a dime to advice the precise opposite of what we were once taught (cf: eat more carbohydrates and less protein (becomes) eat more protein and less carbohydrates).
So is this system of producing explanations in science flawed? Why should it consistently throw up utter falsehoods? Why won’t it simply provide us with the final correct answer? Of course there is no such answer. Only better and better answers. Approximations of increasing fidelity, reach and depth. So although any given explanation must be expected to be flawed, the system itself cannot be blamed for those flaws. This process where a creative scientist tries to solve a problem with what is known by producing a new theory is roughly the way knowledge generation in all domains works. An idea is guessed and then anyone interested attempts to refute that guess by careful criticism. The criticism might be how the idea is false, or ugly or not so useful compared to some other. But if the criticisms all fail, and the new idea accomplishes everything any competing idea does - and perhaps more (and more elegantly) - the idea survives to earn the moniker “The explanation of…”.
The system must be expected to produce utter falsehood. Indeed it is required to. If science is about generating beautiful explanations, then for each beautiful explanation that becomes “The Scientific explanation of…” defeated rivals will lay in its wake. The decimation of opponents - typically though experiment - is a constant in science. It reveals how what we once thought was correct actually always was utterly false and flawed. And how blind we were not to see. But we are fallible and it is no sin to keep on making these mistakes. That is our nature. We are fallible. Our fallibility is tied intimately to our creativity - that feature of us that strives to make bold conjectures - majestic guesses - in an attempt to improve our lot and what we know. But that process is an undirected one for we cannot know in which direction the ultimate ontological truth about reality lays. We set out from our island of what is known and sail into the unknown, hoping to find a better place. If we fail, we can always find our way back, but there is no guarantee we will land somewhere better. That is our nature. Science cannot provide sure answers - it can only provide the conditions under which those answers can possibly arise.
Now all of that, if absorbed, might make someone somewhat better informed about the process of science and some of its history. And they might learn a little about epistemology besides. But would that do anything to sway them in an election? Precisely what kind of information could make the average person “well informed” enough such that the system was not broken? Should it be about who should be elected?
The process that is democracy is in large part defined by the conditions under which the successes and failure of the rulers of a society can be tested against the expectations of an electorate such that are those expectations not met, the rulers can be removed without violence. The ultimate expression of such “tests” are known as elections - but of course they are not the only way of criticising elected rulers. Rulers are criticised every single day - the media and much of the electorate is obsessed by it. It is just that elections are the means by which rulers who fail to meet the expectations of the electorate - which is to say by some measure of comparing the politicians stated policies to what was actually achieved by them - is a democratic process. Democracy is, or should be seen as, a system whereby we trial some leader (on the basis of their stated policy) and should this leader fail to meet our expectations then we can remove that leader through a process that allows us to install some other leader with different policies should we so choose.
Now people are all very different. We are fallible and have different values, different knowledge and different circumstances. This kaleidoscope of differences ensures that we cannot possibly agree all the time on every topic. Some people are more or less knowledgeable about this or that thing and that different knowledge will come to bear when it comes to making decisions about whether this course or that might best suit their own interests or interests they care about. And this, it must be said, is a wonderful thing. It means that there will always be wildly divergent ideas about how to proceed in life. Each of us as rulers of our own lives guess, trial and correct courses we take, amending our paths and trying to plot out a better course. Often, many of us, fail terribly. We are fallible. We lack the knowledge to know what to do next.
Sam Harris and Russell Brand had a conversation recently on Russell’s podcast radio show called “Under the Skin”. That two hour conversation was an impressive display of just how far apart and what entirely different “language games” two people could play while somehow keeping the conversational ball in the air. At times they really weren’t even playing the same game the disagreement was so great. So while there seemed to be little common ground at any point on almost any issue of substance (except that there exists mysteries in the world and human beings are important), both nevertheless found an opportunity at the 1h 50 min mark to find a point of enthusiastic agreement:
Harris: “Democracy seems impressively broken to me and capitalism seems impressively broken to me…except the alternatives seem worse…this is Churchill, right?”
But why? Why does Sam think this? One need only listen to the Waking Up podcast to get a taste. Donald Trump’s election is a clear sign of a broken system, in Sam’s eyes. Though Sam would have been no fan of Hillary Clinton either and so perhaps the “broken system” is evidenced by the dearth of choice on offer as though the choices on offer were particularly abhorrent. What is remarkable about this is how Harris notices - mere minutes after making the claim that capitalism is broken - that today we live in a wonderful age that seems to keep getting better where only 10% of people are in extreme poverty while a mere 150 years ago those numbers were flipped. Now why is this? Is it the spread of socialism or is it free trade (capitalism). What makes the difference?
But Sam is very worried. He agrees, he says, at the end of that podcast, with some experts that we are basically in a new "Cuban Missile Crisis" but no one has noticed. That now is particularly dangerous. America is at a particularly unstable epoch - irrationality rules, fake news has proliferate, the experts have been shown to be wrong time and again and there is mistrust all around. Congress and the Senate seem incapable of passing legislation (Again, see note 1). There is deadlock. All of this: a sign of a broken system.
Sam's idea that our systems are broken is a common underlying thought of our times. It is shared by many in Europe where Brexit too is seen as evidence of a terribly broken system. These “populist” uprisings. People voting against their own economic interests. The system is broken. The outcomes are unjust and unfair - especially for the least powerful. Those people have been deceived by corrupt double-speakers. Political charlatans interested only in lining their own pockets and those of the powerful corporations. The system is broken.
But when did it break? In the case of the American system: Did it break sometime during Obama’s term? Did it break at the moment Trump was elected? Perhaps when he won the nomination? What exactly is broken, except the expectations of those who do not agree with the outcome of these elections and referendums?
Let us remind outselves of François Chollet (@fchollet) Tweet in full:
“Until the average person is well-educated and well-informed, you will always have a dysfunctional political system. I agree that free high-quality education for all would be costly to implement, but rich economies can afford it. In fact, I think they can't afford not to do it.”
Let us observe (before we return to this shortly) how wondrous is the claim something can be simultaneously "free" and "costly". This is a tactic employed by those who believe government is the best provider of some service - especially something like education. What is meant here is: the education is "free" to the user and "costly" to the taxpayer. (It's not quite like this, of course - because many of us were indeed taxpayers when we were users - so we paid). "Free" and "costly" means: the government extracts taxes so that for some the system is (apparently) free while for everyone else it is costly. That is what is meant by "free" yet "costly". And is why I argue that this entails (logically implies, assuming the preceding holds) that "we need government funded institutions to ensure people vote the right way."
The process works like this: the taxpayer has money extracted from them under penalty of force by the government who then allocates some of that to educational institutions. They don't do this without conditions. After all, if there were no conditions anyone at all could claim they were an educational institution and demand money from the government. So governments require "standards" are met in those institutions they fund. Meeting "standards" requires a comparison between the content the institutions provide and a set of criteria designed by government. So "standards" shape content - which is to to say the curriculum. In reality it's far more prescriptive: standards are the curriculum and also how the curriculum is taught and assessed. Standards - conditions for funding - are extremely restrictive and inspections occur and schools and other educational institutions closed if government requirements for what is taught are not met. And some of that content must include things like: particular interpretations of history, how economic systems and commerce should operate, what the normative response to social and environmental issues is, how a legal system should be set up, the place of religion in society and the proper role and function of government and so on and on. This is a terrible conflict of interest. If the purpose of education is to help young people foster and explore their own creativity and become better critical thinkers, this cannot happen when the government is mandating standards. As governments must do, else how can they possibly decide between the many institutions competing for funding so that education can be provided "free" to students? Hence any simultaneously "free" and "costly" system of education must amount to a government funded system of indoctrination. A system which, in part, has at its core an objective of helping to influence how people view the government and, therefore in democracies, how they choose to vote.
Returning to the Tweet under discussion. That view - popular in some circles - suggests that the outcome of an election is an indication of the “functionality” of the system itself. Which is to say if the outcome is bad, then the system that produced it must be faulty. But that would be rather like arguing that the production of a demonstrably faulty theory is a demonstration that the process of science itself is faulty. But as we have seen: science is in the business of producing faulty theories only to be replaced by better (though we must expect ultimately faulty) theories.
Now you may or may not think that Donald Trump is a great thing for America. But let us go with the most some of the more common positions preferred by his opponents: Donald Trump is a terrible president. He is altogether unsuitable for the position.
Does that mean the system in America is broken? No it can merely mean Donald Trump is terrible, people elected someone who does not deserve to be there (so they made an error) and he needs to go. Happily the system is perfectly designed to solve that problem. What happens is that there is an election every four years in America and a terrible president can be removed. That is what happens. And so far in the history of America that process has occurred without violence except where presidents have been assassinated.
So the system works. What is the alternative?
Now maybe you think: but no! Trump is corrupt and is not entitled to be there and never was. People were hoodwinked by a liar. Now of course accusing politicians of lying is hardly the uncovering of some deep truth. But can't people who voted for Trump decide for themselves?
"But no! They cannot." perhaps the retort may come, "They are incapable. They are too poorly educated. The average person is not well-educated and not well informed. So that is why a charlatan can be elected."
But that cannot be so. People are better informed than ever before. And they have always been fallible and gullible. Those things are constants - but information is now more easily accessed and people can choose among sources and choose criteria for judging those sources.
Back to @fchollet's tweet. What would “free high quality education for all” really entail? Well firstly - it cannot be “free”.
There is no such thing as "free" except, perhaps, the air.
Free of course here, as it always does in these cases, is a euphemism for “taxpayer funded”. Teachers do not work for free. And government funded education is necessarily indoctrination. He who pays the piper calls the tune, after all. North Korea provides “free high-quality education for all”. They really do. Education and learning are not at all identical as I say here. Some North Korean children are excellent at mathematics and some other subjects and of course they can recite all sorts of “facts” about what it is “right” to think when it comes to the government. The system works! It's not broken. It is doing exactly what the government want it to do. And the system is a terrible travesty and tragedy.
What can it mean for a system in a free (in the philosophical, libertarian sense) and open society to provide a high quality education?
Firstly - again - it cannot possibly be free. Whatever a child wants to learn - they should be able to. And that might include - no school at all. It might include doing little more than attending the local park each day with their ipad and their friends. Accessing the internet they have access to more knowledge than anyone has, ever. And if they have a loving set of parents and friends and other wise adults around they can have conversations to correct any errors they might encounter in their learning travels. Children do indeed love to do this (only forced school manages to switch off this natural love of learning). But ipads aren’t free. Or maybe they would like to go and have swimming lessons instead, or piano lessons or Korean language lessons or, or or…whatever the case those lessons won’t typically be free. They cannot be. People become experts at things at high cost to themselves and so they are entitled to sell their services. They shouldn’t be forced to provide their services for free. And likewise nor should the rest of us be required to pay for someone else’s children to have swimming lessons. Maybe we can barely afford to pay for our own child’s swimming lessons - or whatever.
So “free high quality education for all” cannot be free. That makes zero sense.
High quality will mean children must pursue their own interests and therefore will necessarily form very different views about the world and have wildly different preferences, such as for things like who to vote for in elections.
And as “for all” - we don’t want everyone to do the same thing, let alone be forced to. Especially children. The future is in the other direction entirely. Some small number of students might choose to pursue a traditional course of study of the kind François Chollet might approve.
As Popper writes in “The Open Society” (you can find the whole context here at: www.theopensociety.net/2017/12/what-democratic-institutions-may-be-expected-to-do/ thanks to Peter Monnerjahn @PeterMonnerjahn
“The idea that this problem can be tackled, in turn, by an institutional eugenic and educational control is, I believe, mistaken; some reasons for my belief will be given below.) It is quite wrong to blame democracy for the political shortcomings of a democratic state.”
(The problem in question of which Popper speaks is “dissatisfaction with “democratic institutions because they find that these do not necessarily prevent a state or a policy from falling short of some moral standards or of some political demands which may be urgent as well as admirable.”)
And I agree. When the state or policy falls short, it cannot be that ever more education of the people is needed in order to fix the democratic institutions (the system). The system of democracy - like the system of science - cannot prevent flaws and faults and “falling shorts”.
And with respect to education, anyway, the “average person” is now more educated and well informed than ever before at any point in history. The “average person” was once an illiterate person who even if they could read had access to almost zero books and the current goings on of the day. Now the average person can read. They have access to news and the views of their family and friends dispersed throughout the world and - amazingly - the views of some of the best thinkers on the planet - instantly. Some look only at the Instagram and Facebook feeds of young popstars or celebrities famous for being famous, sure. But even the most banal of those people comment on the days news and inform their followers of trends. The “average person” is an amazingly knowledgable, creative nexus of opinion and contradiction and fallibility and knowledge.
If you actually listened to them, you just may find they’ve thought things through. They’ve got reasons. Yes, they might have been mistaken. And the reasons they had were flawed. And they voted based on a mistake.
But when has this never been the case? And how could it possibly be otherwise?
(1) The idea that when a bicameral legislature such as exists in the United States (The Congress and the Senate) or in Australia (The House of Representatives and the Senate) or the United Kingdom (The Commons and the Lords) are at loggerheads and no legislation is being passed is a bad thing is, typically, false. Government is a powerful, dangerous and (at it’s most mundane) simply annoying institution that intrudes into lives and livelihoods. The less it does to interfere, the better. So it is *good* when government, in its best moods, reduces its own powers and lessens the intrusions it makes. But this is rarely the case. Mostly it is legislating to make regulations and ban this or that thing or prevent this or that thing from occurring or being tried and taking money from these people to give to those people and so on and on. The best it can do is pass laws eliminating regulations and reducing taxes. But the second best thing it can do is, as a broad rule: nothing. So when there is a “deadlock” don’t despair. Realise that is government *working* - the two houses working together to prevent the overall government from doing more to hurt people and intrude into their lives. That system is the one that has survived meta-government trials over millenia. It works better than alternatives that have been tried. And when it’s “not working” it’s working.