questions

The US american Edge Foundation, Inc.,

was established in 1988 as an outgrowth of a group known as The Reality Club. Its informal membership includes of some of the most interesting minds in the world.

The mandate of Edge Foundation is to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society.

The motivation for founding Edge Foundation was invigorated by the insight that:

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

Furthermore:

America now is the intellectual seedbed for Europe and Asia. This trend started with the prewar emigration of Albert Einstein and other European scientists and was further fueled by the post- Sputnik boom in scientific education in our universities. The emergence of the third culture introduces new modes of intellectual discourse and reaffirms the preeminence of America in the realm of important ideas. Throughout history, intellectual life has been marked by the fact that only a small number of people have done the serious thinking for everybody else.

Thus “At the end of every year, John Brockman, a literary agent and the publisher of Edge.org, a Web site devoted to science, poses a question to leading scientists, writers and futurists” called “The Edge Annual Question — 2008″.

This years question was:

WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT? WHY?

It was answered by 165 individuals. Looking at the names it seems that among the anwering intellectuals there were about 15 women and none of chinese descent.

I found this all highly inspiring it made me think of what I have changed my mind about, which was not to write my own answer on what have you changed your mind about.

I have been born to a place which -rather recently- had to endure a lot of societal conflicts and changes. And unfortunately these conflicts and changes were often very violent. This fact made me maybe more susceptible to think about how changes (and hopefully to the good) could be made without violence. I don’t think there is an easy recipe, but that on the other hand this doesnt imply not to try out recipes – if they do not look very harmful after a good portion of thinking. But of course this could go wrong.

Here is a draft resulting from a line of thoughts which originated basically in school, where I was taking – next to math – an emphasis class (Leistungskurs) in “social science” (I admit that my choice was partially due to the fact that there was no physics emphasis class offered at my school (a bavarian all girls school) and that the art teachers gave me the worst marks I ever got) .

“social science” included the discussion of political science, in particular ideas of political philosophers, the foundations of democratic systems etc. and a bit of sociology. I do not want to go too much into detail, but what I found in particular interesting was the sensitivity to rather subtle organisatorial differences such as between Representative democracy, Direct democracy, voting systems, control of power (legislativ, executive, jurisdiction) a.s.o. A big topic in school was to compare the current german democratic system (which borrowed a lot from the US american system) with the democratic system of the Weimarer Republic and the reasons for its failure, which seemed to had been in part due to organisatorial (mis-)conceptions.

Another interesting point was the societal origin of politicians (which doesnt mirror the societal mixture of Germany) and moreover the possible implications of the psychological processes which are involved with raising to political power within a democratic system. A politician has to be stress resistant, stable or at least emanating stability, resistant to intrigues and other debris of human interaction and be able to make fast decisions, which can have vast implications, a politician has to be responsible … In short: a certain breed of a human. This implies that an average of politicians would very probably act quite differently then an average of the overall population, which has its advantages and disadvantages. However the concrete ways politicians choose in their political daily life are often vastly informed by consultants and lobbyists.

And here we go. It makes sense to have consultants, last not least – a politician just doesnt have the time to dig through all the details, which are often needed for a political desicion. However the choice of consultants seems to be a rather obscure thing and as explained above not necessarily very representative. This is an obvious violation of the idea of democracy.

What can one do about this? Well direct democracy would be a possibility, but as I outlined above this may be a huge organisatorial change (and effort) with unseen consequences. There are certainly many other possibilities to soften this violation of the idea of democracy. And the proposition I am now going to make is hopefully not new and may be already partially realized and I just dont know about it. It is actually a – in my eyes – rather practical proposition. It is not easy to realize but on the other hand not impossible to realize.

It can be seen as a tool for collaboration and democratic control, in principle such a tool can have very good implications on societies, just as wikipedia. I imagine a global online platform, where global experts vote on the right answers to much needed questions and were the outcome of a vote shall function as an advice to political leaders. What are experts? I imagine the faculty of universities should be experts enough. This excludes many good thinkers and artists but taking only university members makes the authentification and organization easier. Last not least the system of universities spans a global net with a rather (emphasis on: rather) high neutrality towards cultural and gender sensibilities, a huge expertise and access to local administrations. And I think meanwhile all universities should be online (?). The voting to the questions could be weighted by subjects. Local questions could be advised by local universities. The number of votes for global questions could be adjusted in accordance to UN proportions. The voting itself could be made very direct (like that in important questions all faculty members should vote). The process of setting up voting issues and their evaluation could be made very transparent. However the voting itself should be made confidental, the encryption and transmission should be done by the wittiest mathematicians in order to protect the voting scientist. So yes this needs a lot of effort….and finally money. But it is not impossible. It may saveguard politicians if they have to make really tacky desicions, which are facing or will face manhood soon. It could empower the UN to enforce desicions against local warlords.

I definitely do not have the money and the patience and influence to set such a thing up. I reserved a domain name for the platform, called consciencement.org in similarity to the word parliament containing the latin roots: with science mind and reminding of the words concise and conscieusement. just a proposal. could accelerate things.

so i hope some day someone who knows enough of the influential elite will come by this blog and pick up on the idea. Or even better tell me that it already exists!!

Where I was born? I was born in Berlin-West, in a district, which has a long military tradition and which hosts a real fortress from the 16th century (here some images of the fortress.)

5 Responses to “questions”

  1. Bee Says:

    Hi Nad:

    Thanks for the pointer. This is a very interesting post, and I share many of your views. Incidentally, I am about to write a post on a very related subject. I agree with you that the choice of consultants is a potential threat for democracy and opens a door to lobbyism. I am not sure though I like your suggestion that experts vote on scientific questions. Science doesn’t work by majority vote, it never has, and I don’t think it every will. In cases where experts haven’t reached a sufficient agreement, I’d say make the system foolproof enough to be prepared for different possible outcomes, and include the possibility to incorporate further knowledge. That however is not presently realized in our systems, in fact, they have way too much inertia. I personally strongly believe in the power of the scientific method, I am reasonably sure it would prove very useful also in political and social aspects, and people would come to realize that once it was tried. Why do people take aspirin instead of transferring their pain via voodoo ritual into small dolls? Because aspirin works. Why should they listen to scientists who have an education in organizational design, politics or sociology? Because it works. Best,

    B

  2. Bee Says:

    PS: check your template with MS internet explorer, something doesn’t quite work.

  3. nad Says:

    Bee’s reply was made in connection to a comment by me on a post on backreaction

    Hi Bee

    thanks for posting a comment to this post. may be I havent expressed myself
    clearly enough, but I never wanted to claim that science should work by a majority
    vote. You are right – science doesnt work by majority vote, moreover the question of HOW to vote is also not easy (see my remarks and also my comment regarding the sensitivity towards voting systems).

    It is clear that on issues, where there is a common agreement, it is
    not necessary to vote. (On the other hand IF people would vote on lets say wether
    1*1=1 and if one reduces the experts round to mathematicians then lets say at
    least 70% would vote for true due to their inherent loyality towards mathematics. (Huh?))

    But joking aside – there are scientifc issues where this is not so clear. Look at the climate change debate. The whole debate took basically already place in the eighties. However at that time it was mostly seen as an ideological issue…and as a matter of fact some political leaders still think it is.

    The fact that most of the world has now accepted (?) that climate change is a scientific fact is mostly due to the massive number of scientists, who contributed to the scientific statements of the IPCC – I call this a majority vote.

    In problematic issues politicians and the public are often bombarded with a multitude of scientific opinions. OF COURSE this is part of the scientific debate, but often they are mistaken as eternal truths or worse: as a sign that scientists may not know what they are saying. In particular within these bombardement by lobbiists and media it is often just not clear how many scientists think one way or the other. But the politicians have to make a desicion.

    So concluding – with my suggestion above I was definitely not meaning that the truth should be found via majority voting. May be instead of “vote” I should have better used the word “poll”. The poll or voting on the platform is intended to display – in a transparent way – how strong the INTERMEDIATE scientific consensus about an issue is. It doesnt imply that it is eternal truth (on the contrary with the poll one could fix a road map on when to vote again and on how to prepare for changes). It is intended as a guideline by experts.

    Hope that makes things clearer. ?

    nad

    p.s. thanks for the comment about the MS explorer I will try to find someone who uses it in order to check what is awkward about the template. Is it very bad? It may be due to the fact that MS explorer has problems with transparent images?

  4. Bee Says:

    Hi Nad,

    Thanks for the clarification. I guess we are roughly talking about the same anyhow. There is

    a) the question how to establish that a scientific question (natural sciences + humanistics) has a broad acceptance in the scientific community (since I don’t think consensus is realistic in most cases, for this the communities are too large, and scientists are often ‘proud’ to be outsiders (how can one be an outsider in a group of outsiders?)). In my experience most scientists are reasonable people and if one leaves out the very frontiers of research, there is in most cases a well founded basis that little scientists sensible disagree with (in contrast to how it is unfortunately often presented in the media). I the case of climate change I agree with your sense that ‘scientifically’ there was already an agreement in the 80ies, that is also my impression (a fact though that many people in the US don’t seem to be aware of, they talk about reusing plastic bags and switching off lights when leaving the room as if they’d just invented the wheel – sorry if that sounds arrogant, but I guess you know what I mean.). This however holds also true in other cases, one that I personally find upsetting is the myth of how the ‘invisible hand’ will allegedly direct our society towards the best possible state (which was known not to be the case at least 100 years ago, has been proved wrong repeatedly, isn’t doubted by any serious scientists, but still politicians distribute that nonsense). But then there is

    b) the question how one includes this knowledge into the political system. That was the question I was mostly concerned with in my ‘On the Edge’ post (and some others). I don’t think this should be done because politicians maybe sometimes are so nice as to listen to some scientists, or because some scientists (usually very mildly mannered I’d say) get concerned or upset enough to make themselves heard. It should be built into the very basis of the political system that decisions ought to be made according to the best scientific information and understanding available. And then there is

    c) the question what are actually political ‘decisions’ that people ought to vote on according to their personal opinions and values. I think one should disentangle these political decisions about where we want to go (e.g. safe energy) from the questions that fall into the realm of the scientific method, e.g. how do we get best where we want to go. In Canada one can interestingly see some pre-versions of what I mean: i.e. there is a political decision made on what is to be achieved (CO2 goals). When it comes to the question how to achieve that they export several proposals on how to direct people’s behaviour (e.g. taxes, laws, combinations of both etc) to an organization which ‘tests’ the outcome and they get an experts opinion. This I believe can be done much more efficiently if there was more support for such research. Also, I think it is essential that one sets up the whole system such that it can be readjusted if things don’t turn out as expected (feedback control).

    Sadly nothing of what I’ve just said is actually new – it’s been subject of research for at least some decades… (see keywords adaptive management, organizational development etc). It’s about time we incorporate this knowledge into the organization of our societies.

    Have a nice weekend,

    B.

    PS: MS IE cuts off the header, so one can’t read the title of your blog, and the top link bar (home about …) hangs in front of the text while scrolling. I vaguely suspect some elements of the site might just be missing but it’s hard to tell.

  5. Bee Says:

    ‘safe energy’ —> ‘save energy’.

Leave a Reply


comments in german, french and russian will be translated into english.
you can use LaTeX in your math comments, by using the [latex] shortcode:
[latex] E = m c^2 [/latex]