Thursday, July 27, 2006

Science is a Social Problem

Are evolutionary theory, genetic engineering, stem cell research and the mindset behind them hurting society more than helping? How would we know?

The real problem referred to in my title is a bit more fuzzy than the one suggested in that first paragraph. The problem is that scientific thinking is displacing moral reasoning and ethical judgement.. Slavish adherence to science pollutes social policy, and thinking about our own behavior. We only care about the most efficient means to a given end, rather than thinking about the end in question. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum's character in Jurassic Park, "You were so busy trying to figure out if you could do something, you never stopped to ask if you should." (He was talking about cloning dinosaurs, but the sentiment applies in lots of other cases.)

Of course the scientific worldview has been enormously beneficial in many ways. Neat and simple "scientific" explanations of things help us feel like we understand the world. This is psychologicallly comforting, even if our unsderstanding is really an illusion. The inventions we've developed out of a scientific understanding of the world have been the the basis for huge imporvements in the human condition over the past few centuries.

All is not well in the modern, scientific world. I'll spare you the usual blather about nuclear bombs and concentration camps. Of course those things are bad! Another problem of the scientific world view deserves our attention. The problem is dehumanization. Do we really want to be thought of in terms of our reporductive cells or as bundles of biological urges. Do we want our social value to be measured by our fitness to reproduce (shades of Nazism and euthanasia)? I hope not!

 Let us work to keep science in its place: Helping us to understand and perhaps mainuplate the relationships between natural phenomena. Let's restrict rationality to its proper role in helping us find the best way to achieve goals that arise from other values.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Why Nature is Not Our Friend

Ever wondered if homosexuality is natural? What about cities, tattoos, or stay at home husbands? Of coure the thing most people worry about these days is, drum roll please, genetic engineering. Is it natural to mess with the genetic material that makes plants and animals what they are?

There are actually two problems that crop up when we think about what's natural. First, we start to use nature as measure of how things ought to be. Second, we try to explain social behavior, poverty, wealth, even human personalities as if they were mainly products of the natural world. Let me explain...

Go against nature in this regard and are not a man. Of course, you may be a woman, so you will be called a diesel dyke if you steps too far out of bounds.

It gets even worse. We tend to think of nature as having special/magical/supernatural properties. So, natural cures and natural foods are good. We "need" a spiritual connection with the natural world. Some people think plants and animals have a special "life force" that science cannot duplicate. (I think I'm right about this.)

The bottom line: What does this cost us, if anything? Well, whenever science suggests that natural cures and supplements are not better, but we buy them anyway, we waste money. The synthetic compounds are sometimes cheaper, or maybe not, but they actuall tend to work. And how many people are actually harmed each year by natural cures? And what are the social costs when we condemn "unnatural" behaviors like homosexuality and a woman taking care of her husband or boyfriend? However, the costs are diffuse and hard to understand; the benefits are concrete and clear.

We keep thinking so highly of natural things and the natural world for a couple of reasons. Some entrepreneurs are making tons of money selling "superior" natural products. People feel good about their eforts to fight unnatural things like homosexuality and genetic engineering. People feel they understand the world better when they can easily put things into the categories of "unnatural" and "natural" so we keep doing this.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Is it all about biology?

Is what all about biology? Is everything about people and, therefore about society, really explainable in terms of biology or genetics? That's the question of the day.

The basic idea is this: Everything we do reflects a biological urge to eat, protect our children, avoid danger, or reproduce. Because society is really the sum of everything people do, society is really formed and guided by the same biological forces.

I'll leave the dissertation on the complexities of human society for someone who needs a dissertation topic. The real point of this post is to tell you about the origins of biological thinking, the costs of this sort of thinking, and the benefits. Look for this pattern to be repeated when I blog about religion, science, morals, economics, social order, individualism, and nature.

Fixation on biology as the cause of everything comes from three sources. First, we all have an inherent need to simplify things. Simple, biological or genetic explanations do seem to work in many cases. Second, science is replacing religion/magic/superstittion as a general way of explaining the world. Anything genetic or biological that sounds plausible tends to be taken seriously. Thirdly, there really is abundant evidence that genetics and random biological variations in the brain influence much of our behavior.

So, what does all this biological thinking cost us anyway? Focusing on biology and genetics costs us in three ways:

1. Dehumanization - We suspect that other people really  exist to serve our reproductive needs and we treat them this way. Using people for money and sex is tolerated becuase its "natural"; crime and adultery increase. Reason and planning are replaced with biolgical urges. Why do women strut around in fashion shows? To display their fitness to reproduce. (Real explanation from some TV show!) Why do people like to watch contortionists like those amazing Chinese acrobats? To see body parts (presumable penises and vaginas) that are not ordinarily on display. (Again, that's a real explanation.)

2. Misguided social policy - Working on a simple genetic or biological solution to a problem wastes money and time!

3. Opportunity costs - We could be spending our time and money on policies that have a firmer scientific foundation.

Finally, consider who benefits from the simplistic biological view of human behavior. The drug companies benefit by selling us pills to fix our problems. Need energy, more sleep,  less stress? Take a pill and everything will be better. Or, take lots of pills. Don't worry, the drug companies will make more! Also, scientists and doctors feel more important because they are "in control" of the biological means to fix what's wrong with us.

Simplistic biological thinking has a huge psychological benefit. People also feel better because they have an explanation for the way things are. They feel that they understand things and can control them. Religious explanations for things serve the same purpose. People hate to get sick and die because of some mindless and random event; they feel better if their suffering seems to be part of a divine plan to help humanity.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Some Sources of Social Pollution

Social pollution could come from anywhere. Our schools, churches, television shows, radio shows, newspapers, friends, and coworkers are all potential sources of bad ideas. I guess you already knew that, or at least suspected it!

I want to spend the next few weeks opining about one funamental cause of social pollution: the tendency to simplistically focus on one aspect of the world as a source of ideas about how society works or how it should work. OK, that's really two things.


We can oversimplify our thinking about society in eight general ways. I'll try to keep this interesting :-)

Nature often gets used as a model for what's good and bad, what should be done, what shouldn't be done, or why things are a  certain way. Geography explains why the US is rich and Uzbekistan is poor.A male homemaker is going against the natural order of things. We should only eat natural things.

Science provides a solid, factual foundation for building societies, designing social policies, and for defining how our relationships should work. We try to find moral principles in scientific research, then we try to apply those principles. Auschwitz was a rational place, but it was not a reasonable place. (paraphrased from a forgotten source.)

Biology/Genetics - No, they are not the same, or even pretty much the same. We think that everything in human behavior boils down to biology or genetics. Everything we do is really aimed at reproducing successfully. Revolutions start because males want access to the resources they need to attract females.

Religion often introduces bias into our thinking about society. God decides who is rich and who is poor. Life is a veil of tears. My set of religious principles should govern society. My interpretation of Christianity/Judaism/Islam should guide society and screw you if you disagree.

Morality often leads us astray. This is really the same problem as we get with religion. A grandiose vision of how society could work biases our thinking. we may insist on rigidly enforcing a moral code without regard to the suffering the code causes.

Economic thinking pollutes our minds in many ways. We think everything comes down to money. Some sociologists assert that the society's economic system determines all other aspects of that society.

Individualism gets us into big trouble sometimes. We think that people do what they want to do. We think of our own little selves as the most important thing in society, so we have no need to be concerned about anything else.

Stay tuned for details on each of those eight problem areas. Why are they problems? What is the truth? What are the consequences for us and for society?

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

How to Fight Social Pollution

Here we go again. The world is full of ideas on global claimate change, immigration, education, alternative energy, poverty, mankind's place in the natural order, blah, blah, blah. Those who follow my blogs know about my interest in fighting ideas that are counterfactual, illogical, or destructive of widely-held human values.

The time before last, I posted a checklist that you could use to test ideas. I assumed that the world needed a set of objective criteria to evaluate ideas.  (Yeah, I know the checklist isn't truly objective because you have to make judgement calls about some things. Don't get all fancy on me!)

I just had a few new thoughts on social pollution, thoughts that should be added to any checklist. Here are four questions you may want to consider:

1. Do the assumptions behind this idea make sense, meaning that they are factual and/or logical?

2. Who will benefit from this idea? (An obvious follow-up question: Who bears the costs of this idea?)

3. Are the people who benefit/will benefit pay the costs are passing the costs to others?

4. Has the problem really been identified, in a concrete way? If the "problem" is that some behavior goes agains God or nature, then the idea is probably nonsense. (A real problem statement is something like "Teen suicide has been increasing for the past four years. We need to do ____________ to reverse this terrible trend.")

I think these four questions could also apply to philosophical ideas like marriage, retirement, self-determination, and democracy. We may not like the results. But, we need to do these sorts of exercises to develop better ideas!

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

A Social Pollution Checklist

Maybe complexity is the main reason we don't try harder to evaluate ideas about social policy, economic policy, crime, the war on terror, global climate change, and other issues.  The issues themselves are also hard to understand. Deciding what we think about the ideas we encounter can be awfully complicated.

Yet, our unwillingness to confront this complexity causes all sorts of social problems. The biggest problem is the production of social pollution. You should know from previous posts that fighting social pollution is a pet cause of mine. But detecting social pollution can be a complicated affair. There must be a simpler way to detect social pollution. Well, maybe...

Here is an 12-question checklist to whip out whenever you read about or hear about some new idea to make society better:

1. Do any of the assumptions behind this idea seem wrong? (Maybe this is only question worth asking. If the assumptions behind some proposed law, policy, or piece of legislation can't hold up then the idea is probably bovine feces.)

2. Do any of the assumptions contradict the facts? (Perhaps this question is also essential?)

3. Will the idea undermine any of the top 10 human values: family, health and fitness, self esteem, self-reliance, freedom, justice, knowledge, learning, honesty, relationships?

4. Are any facts being misused? (You might also ask yourself if there are any missing facts that are relevant to making a decision about this idea.You could also ask if technical terms, like "theory" or "ecology" are being used correctly.)

5. Does the idea still make sense in light of what you've learned from answering the first four questions? (If YES, keep going. If NO, you may as well stop because things will only get worse!)

6.  Is there a cause-effect relationship between the "problem" and the consequences that sparked the idea in question?

7. Is it hard to see how the idea will fix the problem?

8. Are you wondering what the problem is?

9. Is the idea based on research conducted by unnamed experts?

10. Is the solution based on speculation/guesses/something somebody read in the Bible? (A good idea for society will not be based on such lazy thinking!)

11. Are you wondering why the idea would help with the problem?

12. Is the idea being sold based on fear of anything?

This is just a draft of my Social Pollution Checklist. Feel free to offer comments! Try it out and tell me what you think.

Here's a scoring suggestion: The more YES answers, the worse the idea. If the idea gets 6 or more YES answers, or a YES answer to questions one and two, the idea is social pollution!

The checklist is meant for practical ideas like an immigration reform plan or a specific energy policy. It could be used to audit the partly-baked ideas thrown at us by politicians and talk-show hosts. If you really feel introspective you could use the checklist on philosophical ideas, like marriage and retirement.

(Legal footnote: In the unlikely event that you want to use this checklist for commerical purposes, bear in mind that everything I publish is copyrighted. Contact me for information regarding commercial reuse of my work.) 

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Just the Facts

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Do the facts support our ideas about crime, poverty, immigration, environmental problems, corruption in business, and other things that keep appearing in the news? Are today's laws and policies based on facts?

When an idea is based on no facts, misinterpreted facts, or misused scientific concepts it is probably social pollution. Even if the idea seems likely to have positive consequences for society, it is still social pollutrion if the people who created the idea didn't bother to get their facts straight.

Yes, I know legislation and social policy is mostly based on a combination of ideology (We want society to be this way!) and backroom deal-making. I'm hoping we can put the squeeze on politicians' nutty ideas by testing their ideas against the facts. And while we scrutinize politicians we ought to give some attention to activists' ideas about society and our own ideas. We ought to ask just a few simple but powerful questions about ideas:

1. Are any of the "facts" wrong? Somebody claims that homosexuality is "unnatural" but you've read about a genetic predisposition to homosexuality.

2. Are any terms used incorrectly? To some people a family ideally consists of a married man and woman, and a couple of kids (or maybe the kids are still in the near future). Is this the only reasonable definition of a family, or does it just represent one view of the "correct" family structure?

3. What facts have been left out? For example, what percentage of American families consist of a married man and woman with children (or plans ot have children)?

4. Is there really a trend here? Is the "traditional" family structure really threatened now. as opposed to in the nation's past?

So, next time you are asked to consider some policy, social program, or ballot initiative pause and think about those 4 questions. Society would improve in so many ways if people followed this not-so-complicated advice. (The real challenge here is not getting people to answer these questions, its to get them to divoce their answers from political and religious biases about how society ought to work.)

Next time:  A social pollution checklist will tie together the ideas I presented in this post and some others.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Assumptions Can Be Bad

Assumptions can be a real problem when they relate to social policy, ballot initiatives, activism efforts, and legislation. Are the assumptions behind welfare reform, immigration reform, flag burning bans, anti-poverty measures, and drug policy based on sound assumptions. These are the sorts of issues that call for asking some tough questions about our assumptions.

So, what assumptions are problems? I'm glad you asked me! I've made a list of some common assumptions about society or human behavior. Sometimes these assumptions are justified, but other time they aren't.

1. We know where to intervene in a system (like a local economy) to make positive changes.

2. People do what they want to do - see #3..

3. People are willing and able to change their behavior in a particular direction - don't discount the effects of peer pressure, habit, and fear of change.

4. Lack of money is the problem (EX: our nation's schools).

5. Lack of motivation is the problem

6. The risks will be managed appropriately by competent people.

7. We understand the potential negative consequences of this decision.

8. People are rational.

9. We understand the real costs and benefits of this proposed action.

Hmm, I wonder how much time and money gets wasted because somebody ignored the need to examine their assumptions before proposing some new idea. (Yes, I know that most legislation and policy is not created through a rational process.)

This suggests a new mission for some free thinking sorts who have some time on their hands. Somebody, perhaps me, needs to "out" the bad assumptions behind ideas proposed by activists, politicians, and talk show hosts. In fact, this could be a good project for a nonprofit organization.

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Logic Can Save the World

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No, I haven't been watching too much Star Trek. Logic is something that we need more of in social policy, economic policy, elections, foreign policy, education, voting, and personal decisions of all sorts.

(Note to you psychologists: I know that decision making is not really a rational activity. I'm choosing to politely ignore that fact.)

What would happen if policies were based more firmly on logical thinking about what to do in order to achieve a given objective? Wouldn't our social programs, policies, and legislation be better if their logic was rigorously audited by someone? One can hope that shame would force politicians to try harder. One would hope our newfound desire for logical rigor would open a door for logical, humanist legislators, activists, and (maybe?) high-level civil servants.

Maybe, if things worked out that way people wouldn't be able to "sell" the rest of us on policies, programs, and legislation that fail multiple tests of logic. Society would be spared the massive waste of time and money that illogical social polcies, programs, and legislation lead to. And consider the other things that we could be doing instead of fighting gay marriage (which God opposes, of course) or other feel-good things that have little or no social value. 

Consider some of the ways we as a society can be led astray:

1. By appeals to emotion - The terrorists are coming to kill our women and children.

2. Appeals to authority - God hates the idea of gay marriage.

3. Cause-Effect (Errors in Identifying) - As skirts get shorter, sex crimes increase so short skirts must make men go crazy!

4. Ad hominem attacks - Rush Limbaugh is a fat windbag.

Yep, we fall prey to these sorts of errors and others, both as society and as individuals making decisions about our own lives. No, I don't agree with the second or third idea!

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Values and Society

Do our social policies and economic policies really support our values? Do spending priorities in Congress really reflect our values. When someone in Congress or, God help us, on talk radio proposes some social program or piece of legislation we might wonder what values will be supported or undermined?

Sometimes we like to think about what society should be like. Liberals, leftists, progressives, and conservatives all like to opine about how society should work. That's okay. People should just keep common human values in mind as they fantasize about how things ought to be.

What values should be kept in mind? Hmm, that's a good question. It really depends on the issue under consideration.  Some values will be more relevant to some issues than to others. I'll just offer this list of the top ten human values from a 2000 Roper poll: family, health/fitness, self-esteem, self-reliance, honesty, freedom, justice, relationships, knowledge, learning. We could debate what constitutes justice, or a family.

There ought to be a written guide to how those ten values can be supported or undermined by various sorts of programs and policies. There would also be advice on dealing with questions like "What's the difference between freedom and license?"
and "What definition of 'family' should we use?" The guide would contain guidance on predicting the first-order and econd-order consequences of a policy or program or law. First-order consequences? What?

Well, a Constitutional amendment to ban flag burning would reduce our freedom a little. That's a first-order consequence of the amendment. Reduced freedom may lead to flag burning protests. People are likely to lie about their involvement with or support of those flag burnings. Dishonesty is a second-order consequence.

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