President Richard M. Nixon and the Apollo 13 crew salute U.S. flag during the post-mission ceremonies at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. Source: http://www.nasa.gov/
“Economy, growth, GDP, hardworking people, immigration, balanced and fair”.
These generic terms are almost always used by the most powerful icons that we have today. Politicians. It is interesting (and frustrating) to watch the parade of simplistic ideas discussed Ad nauseam, between people who we perceive as important actors, actors that are playing roles in the same old tired play. We already know the ending. Party A wins marginally against Party B, leaving Party C, D and E to share whatever is left of the vote. The ideas that are presented to solve all our problems seem to consistently depend on very simple solutions that have been neglected by the previous ruling entity. “Of course they were doing it wrong!” the current group of people running the show seem to always be doing it wrong.
When observing the hysteria from a neutral perspective, it becomes abundantly clear why the socioeconomic machine is running itself into the ground. It has been running on fuel that is based on a complicated mixture of fear, xenophobia, ignorance, attachment, arrogance and a multitude of other elements, which have been understood to be useless for an evolved society. It is to be expected that ape like beings struggle to create a world in which everyone can live happily. It is actually very impressive that we have come as far as we have in such a relatively short amount of time. Sometimes we need to give credit where it’s due. Yes, we can pat ourselves on the back for creating a society that has become so complex, we are unable to understand how to operate it anymore. We just can’t keep track of all the different switches that need to be set. Yes, that’s a good analogy. Let’s run with that one.
It looks like we have a gigantic wall, where we need to set thousands of switches to the correct position, while having lost the manual and arguing about whether the first three switches should be set to ‘ON’ or ‘OFF’. We manage to huddle together and elect a few of our fellow apes to decide which way the three switches should be set. The apes selected happen to be the most dominant ones in the group. These apes manage to beat their chest the loudest and thus, are the best candidates to decide how to run the machine. When they finally turn the switches in an arbitrary direction, the machine appears to make a grunting noise and operate worse than before. All the apes now start screaming. When they finally calm down, they decide to solve the problem by doing exactly the same thing again, hoping that whoever beats their chest really hard should be able to solve the problem.
There is no simple solution. It appears that each person in society has chosen a switch to care about. Feminism, immigration, climate change, privacy. All these topics are discussed in public with no real depth of understanding. Audiences are asked to give their ignorant opinion on a topic that they feel represents their most immediate problem. The feeling that their opinion matters allows them to form an illusion of control over a world that is inherently uncontrollable. The amount of time they have spent productively studying the topic looks like it can be counted in the minutes if not seconds. This is not to say that they are bad people, or ignorant in every respect. It just so happens that they are expected to understand and have an opinion about issues that far exceed their practical capabilities. No one can understand national or international issues and their implications without putting in the appropriate legwork.
The issues we are presented with might indeed have an effect on our lives, but that does not mean that we ought to have a strong opinion about them. I am not implying that we should be apathetic to the topic at hand, but it does mean that we need to be humble and recognize that we really are in over our heads on most things. There are very few things that we should have strong opinion about. We should have an opinion about who we love, what we work on, what food to eat and maybe whatever topic we decided to study for a large part of our lives. To give a practical example, consider someone with a PhD in a specific field such as nuclear physics. This person can be expected to have a valid opinion on policy regarding the nuclear program, or how to run a physics lab, or maybe even how the universe could have formed. That being said, this person should not be involved in making decisions that might affect something like improving food safety, or running hospitals more efficiently. Unless they are a very special breed of human, they probably have not done the work needed to understand these issues. Every individual is limited, and it would seem nonsensical to place single individuals to solve problems they will undoubtedly be unable to handle.
Isn’t this exactly how we are running our society? The common person’s opinion should not matter. This is a big statement and many people will take it as a way into communism, fascism or some other -ism. But it should be entirely clear that giving weight to the opinion of anyone ignorant on a particular topic is a bad idea. The question is, how can we run this complex society without involving the democratic process directly? Well, we already do in many ways. There is no clear democratic process that decides that scientific facts are true. Something like man made climate change is not a controversial topic among scientific circles because the evidence has the final say. Our world runs on scientific consensus. The reason your car tires are a certain size, or the value of voltage on your electricity outlet is deemed to be a certain number is not random. These things are based on research done by many people, working together to form a standard that is deemed appropriate. These standards change based on new information, and in this way things improve.
There are of course institutions that are trusted to be the authority on these issues, not because of common people voting, but because of the decisions made by people who are experts in their field. In cases where there is not enough information, something like a voting system might be implemented, but only by members of that institution who are qualified to vote on the topic at hand. These people have no authority in voting for other issues outside what they have been known to understand well.
This way of thinking is disregarded by many because it is viewed as authoritarian (it’s not), or dangerous for the wellbeing of the general population. The interesting thing here is the fact that the vast majority of products and services that allow our civilization to run is managed by these independent institutions. We all rely on and tend to easily accept the authority of non-elected institutions as they run our planes, cars, electronics, medical services and almost all our infrastructure. The problem that people have with these ideas tend to appear when we consider topics that individuals feel like they should have an opinion on. These topics are considered controversial and are constantly rehashed by the media. We already know the names of these issues. Immigration, terrorism, war, taxes, education and so on. Whenever anyone starts a conversation on one of these issues, it is almost guaranteed someone will get upset or precious time will get wasted on verbal diarrhea. It seems like there is no end to the confusing amount of information, fabricated facts, plain lies, white lies, half-truths, appeals to authority, and countless other logical fallacies.
It is however clear that right answers do exist for these issues as well. The problem is that these issues are brought into the public domain where it is assumed that they belong. It is clear that these issues do not belong in the public domain. Why? Because they are issues that cannot be fixed by a simple one-liner on some party’s manifesto. There are ways to address these issues and the public can be involved, but not by voting for some political ideal. Like all other major problems, they need a large group of people to work on the problem and find a solution that causes the least damage and makes the most sense based on the information at hand. Political ideals are very rarely needed. It appears that we forget that we’re supposed to be on the same team. There is no ‘other side of the aisle’. We are all on one side.
The best case that represents many so called ‘controversial’ issues and the underlying mechanism that allows them to cause problems, is given by the famous government sacking of Professor David Nutt. In this case, there was no real controversy.
David Nutt is a British psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist, specializing in the research of drugs that affect the brain and conditions such as addiction, anxiety and sleep. He was appointed as chairman on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in 2008. In 2009 he was dismissed (and many of his colleagues resigned) mainly because the ACMD found evidence that alcohol could be objectively rated worse than most other drugs in terms of harm to the individual and to society as a whole. None of the research that was carried out was found to be scientifically controversial and appeared to align well with what is known about all the substances that were measured. This research can be viewed as the final nail in the coffin for the ‘War on Drugs’ and the completely illogical laws surrounding the sale and consumption of many (legal and illegal) drugs.
The interesting thing about this case is that all of the elements that is supposed to run government, and by extension our society, failed. The evidence provided by the ACMD was not only clear, objective and scientifically accurate. It was also completely relevant to the wider population and directly influenced government policy. It was the perfect test case to see if real change was possible using the normal means of governing. And, as expected, the system of governance failed the test. After that incident, there was no going back. It became clear that even in the best case scenario, when a complex problem can actually be addressed, it won’t be. Simply because fundamentally, the authority is given to a small group of people whom should not have it in the first place.
And by what mechanism do they get this authority? Through the democratic process of course. The case just mentioned should matter to you whatever your opinions on the drugs laws are, because in this case, the failure to take the advice of the ACMD and subsequent sacking of David Nutt is a direct violation of the trust that the public places in the hands of government. Whether or not certain drugs should be legal or illegal is not some inherent subjective question. It is a question that can be quantitatively answered. In this case, the final say on the matter should lie well within the arms of the medical and wider scientific community. Just to emphasize this point, understand that the public, politicians, the prime minister, parents, business people, nuclear physicists and ‘that bloke down the road’ should not be deciding what the legal status of these substances should be. This is true for other topics such as climate change or immigration. It should not be up to the public or government to decide whether climate change is man-made or if increasing immigration is a bad idea (and don’t worry, I am not equating the two problems). The final authority should be placed within independent institutions that are made up of people whom are considered the best among us in their respective field.
There is no point in voting and engaging in a system that fundamentally can’t change. We as a collective shouldn’t expect the government to tackle complex issues such as war, immigration, the economy or anything important because they aren’t trained to do that. They aren’t elected to manage and solve these issues. They are elected to keep things running just well enough to stop chaos on the streets. But we’re evolving and we need to create a world where fear of instability is replaced by confidence in each other and our ability to collectively create a brighter future.