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Democracy Doesn’t Work

[Fair warning: this is on the longish side. Links below lead to headings]

Free Speech | Informed, independent voters | Voting | Minority protections | Representation | Conclusions

Democracy is comatose when governments can go to war against the will of large majorities. Choosing to die for a cause is the most fundamental decision people can make, and in a democracy that decision is supposed to be in their hands. Yet governments made war in Iraq against every indication of what their citizens wanted, including in the US (where the majority at that point was small). It’s time to admit that our democracies may still be lying there, but they’re not doing much.

There are many other examples of governments ignoring majorities. In the US, poll after poll shows that most people want a medical payment system in line with the rest of the developed world, yet a little bit of advertising at election time seems to be enough to prevent us from getting it. Poll after poll shows that people the world over want sustainable environmental policies, but those policies aren’t implemented even when they cost less. The simple reason is always that some vested interest prefers otherwise. This is understandable, but it is not democratic.

Diffuse sources can be as anti-democratic as the more easily identifiable point sources. A striking recent example was the election in Iraq. There was talk of how the Sunni minority, at about 37% percent of the population according to the CIA, would deal with being outvoted by the more numerous Shia (approx. 40%), and what role the Kurds would play, who are about 20%. The exact figures don’t matter. Give or take ten percent, if you like. Meanwhile, there was almost no talk about the likely effect of–or on–a huge 60% majority. After years of war and dictatorship, women are between 55% and 65% of the adult population. Two thirds of the citizens were written off, not just by the Iraqis but also by the supposedly democratic West, which ignored this problem. When two thirds of the people are invisible, that is not democracy. It is a charade.

Recognizing how far we are from democracy leads to a series of questions. First, is it worth worrying about? Maybe some other form of government would serve us better, and poor old democracy should join all the other failed experiments on the ash heap of history. Then, if it is worth saving, how can that be done? What led to the coma to begin with, and what needs to be done differently?

The first question is easy because a few thousand years of recorded history give a clear answer. As Churchill famously said, democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the other ones that have been tried. It’d be nice, however, if we didn’t simply have to make the best of a bad job, i. e. government. There has to be a better way to find the right direction than to stumble through every wrong one first.

Science, which yanked us out of the center of the universe and into the company of apes, is helpful here as well. There is some actual evidence that many heads are better than one. In a simple experiment, people guessed the number of beans in a jar. Very rarely did any single person get it right, but the average of all the guesses was surprisingly close to the truth. “Market” experiments, where people invest (bet, really) on the outcome of anything from wars to elections to the price of turnips also tend, in the aggregate, to predict what actually happens. (James Surowiecki wrote a book, The Wisdom of Crowds (2004), on the evidence for the idea and its implications.)

That outcome feels counterintuitive, because the behavior of mobs has given the intelligence of the many-headed a bad name. The crucial difference is that certain conditions must be met for the wisdom of crowds to manifest itself. The people participating in the experiment must act independently of each other, and they must all have access to the same, reasonably complete, information. These two simple conditions are enough to explain why current “democracies” really aren’t.

Independence is the first problem. Every person on Earth will say they ignore ads, that they can make up their own minds about the news, and that it’s absurdly easy to distinguish between reality and TV. And yet, when all the shouting has died down, the politicians with the biggest advertising budgets are almost always the ones elected. Whatever we may be capable of individually, when we’re all together, you can tell us anything.

So the first requirement of a democracy is that you can’t tell the people anything. You must tell them the truth.

(I know, I know. Wait a minute. Hear me out.)

Free Speech

Requiring truth raises a whole rat’s nest of issues, starting with the deeply philosophical one of what is truth. However, absolute truth is not essential. What I’m talking about is facts, and so, within reasonably broad limits, the situation is not hopeless. It is feasible to tabulate how closely statements match actual facts. It’s also possible to find out how well-informed the consumers of given news outlets are. It’s been done. The 2003 PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll(pdf file) showed, for instance, that 67% of the people who watched Fox News believed that Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda were in cahoots. This would be like a cabal between the Mafia and the people who blow up abortion clinics. It’s not impossible. Few things are impossible. But the standard of proof for the highly unlikely is higher, not lower. There needs to be some hard evidence before wild ideas are broadcast. If a news program broadcasts wild ideas based on entertainment value rather than evidence, that should be enough to lose one’s license to use the public airwaves (or internet backbone or space program).

News organizations aren’t the only culprits. Politicians have made names for themselves as liars, and what the appropriate penalty is for them, I’m not sure. Making ten retractions to the same audiences for every lie? Duct-taping their mouths shut for a while? Maybe they need a three strikes policy: three definite falsehoods, and they’re barred from holding office. Ignorance is no excuse. After all, if they, of all people, don’t know the facts, how are they supposed to run the country?

Talk of lost licenses and offices leads directly to free speech issues. There’s irony in the way unregulated free speech ends in gluts of BS from the highest bidder that drowns out free speech. The same is true of unregulated anything. Stock markets may be the core of capitalism, but they are among the most tightly regulated activities in the world in order to prevent the demise of free markets. Free speech won’t stay free for long without some regulation, which is recognized in the obvious exception that it does not cover yelling false alarms of “Fire!” in a crowded theater. However, technology has swamped the puny regulations that worked in the past. A tidal wave of political advertising drowns out any discussion. Gluts of spam have made mail, phone, and the web barely usable. We’re told we have to put up with this for the sake of free speech.

What nonsense.

Free speech itself is worth dying for, and it’s even worth some inconvenience. Agreed. But this has nothing to do with free speech. The purpose of free speech is to protect freedom of thought, not the freedom to make a buck by any means possible. As a matter of fact, the latter comes awfully close to the fire-in-a-crowded-theater misuse, which is why there are such things as truth in advertising laws and punishments for fraudulent claims. There is no such thing as commercial free speech, nor should there be. Speech whose purpose is to get something out of you, be it money or a vote, needs to be subject to consumer protections. The restrictions on speech designed to get your money could be looser than those on talk designed to get your vote–what’s money, after all, compared to the life of the republic?–but both of them have to avoid obvious lies. We need to catch up to the technology here.

Of course, nobody whose profit or job depends on pretending to the truth willingly admits to selling lies. However, when their noses are pushed into their messes, the usual plea is that they’re only doing what people want. This may or may not be true, but it is still no excuse. There are always people to buy all the heroin you can sell, but that doesn’t make it a good thing to push. Pedophiles will pay for kids to abuse, but that doesn’t mean they should be provided. If something does no harm, by all means, sell it. But lies in the body politic are killing democracy, so it doesn’t matter whether people like lies or not. Lies cause at least as much harm as yelling fire in a crowded theater. They simply cannot be allowed.

That said, let me rush to stress that I am not, NOT, saying that the interpretation of facts should be controlled in any way. It’s up to Fox News if they want to say, “There is no evidence of a connection, and we think that means we have double the worry, since there are two independent groups instead of one.” Anyone can have any opinions they want. They just can’t make up any facts they want.

One advantage of regulations is that everyone has to abide by them. Fox couldn’t provide rollicking good yarns that pull profit away from, say, CNN which then has to provide something even more rollicking. The same would go for website A and website B. Anyone who writes or talks about politics should be constrained to make sure of their facts before disseminating them, just as the same is true of commercial products or stock prices.

There is legitimate fear of free speech regulations because they could be abused to limit speech we care about. Since regulations are a can of worms, it is customary to say at this point that it is up to the voter to take responsibility, to be analytical, and to become informed. That would be great. It would also be nice if charitable contributions could stretch far enough to prevent poverty, provide good educations, and fund medical care. It would be good if corporations took social responsibility and didn’t pollute. Many people’s lives would be simpler if married people were faithful. Lots of things would be good. Basing social policy on hopeful noises about human nature, however, is a recipe for disaster. Communism tried to rely on altruism, and look what happened.

It is better to recognize the danger of abuse and to build prevention of abuse into the regulations, than it is to lose the very free speech we care about in the din of greed.

I may, of course, be laying myself open to the objection that I’m making the same mistake. I’ve taken account of the human tendency to collar the conversation, regardless of having anything to say, but what about boredom? People are supposed to be bored silly by facts. Actually, I doubt that. We all care deeply about things that affect our lives. People are bored by misdirection, obfuscation, manipulation, and everything else that requires excess energy to cut through crap. But all the important things in politics are easy to understand–or can be. It is easy to present the crucial facts about health insurance, war, pollution, and even computer-based markets versus floor-trading. However, there are very powerful interests who would rather not, so we have idiotic “he said, she said” journalism and head-bobbing pundits who say these things are beyond ordinary folk. I don’t think so.

Informed Voters, Independent Voters

The architects of democracy operated in the 1700s and 1800s, at a time when the threats to the vote were mainly at the back end. The dangers were ballot-stuffing, votes from dead people, and dishonest counts. The architects didn’t worry too much about manipulation of voters rather than of the vote because they didn’t need to. Times change. Propaganda became a high art very recently.

The fact is, if voters are to have reasonably complete information–not too little, and not so much that they’re swamped–some large changes in standard operating procedure are needed. (At least, large changes to how things work in the USA.)

The first point is that political advertising is not a form of information, at least not as currently practiced. Its purpose is to drown independent judgment in repetition. I know that this has no effect on you, or me, or anyone we know. And yet its effectiveness at manipulating the vote is so good that the first priority of politicians is to throw all the money they have at it.

Vote manipulation of any kind, whether front- or back-loaded, is a sure way to prevent the wisdom of crowds from manifesting itself. It has to be reduced to a level that is not incompatible with thought, which is not impossible. Sociologists and psychologists know how to measure comprehension and bias. My guess would bethat political campaigns should run no longer than six weeks, and ads within that time should be limited to some small number of minutes per 24 hours. Enough already, is the phrase that comes to mind.

Reducing advertising might solve an array of problems in addition to voter bamboozlement. Campaign finance should be less of an issue. If fundraising ceases to be the point of politics, corruption of the legislative process is less likely. Political advertising is a keystone in the arch that props up quite a few of the problems in modern democracies.

Politicians might object that such a straitjacket would leave them no way to spread the word about themselves, but I doubt it. People would pay attention to real debates. Debates have everything: tension, possible drama, and information to boot. There’s also face-to-face campaigning. Voter information booklets are highly useful, and could be expanded to include electronic formats, podcasts, and, for all I know, direct transfer to surgically attached phones. It doesn’t matter what form the information comes in, so long as it is information and not manipulation.

An informed electorate depends on one last point, and it is the biggest of all. The voters have to be capable of being informed. Common sense is the really essential ingredient, but it does help the process of getting the word out if voters are literate and numerate. Just imagine the whole world, including the female half of it, able to read and write and knowing where to get real information about politicians. It would be a different world, wouldn’t it? That’s how far away we are from full-fledged democracies.

Voting

Once the informed and independent voter reaches the polls, the voting process itself is not as simple as it seems. Counting the votes is the most tediously straightforward part of democracy, and yet it has sprouted enough issues to bring the whole thing down. The issues include: plurality versus majority rule, and how majorities are tallied; direct versus electoral college voting; how to register voters, where polling should take place, and how to guard against voter fraud; how to draw voting districts; and who should vote.

The actual business of filling in secret ballots, secure ballot boxes, and accurate counts are parts of the process that we know how to do at this point, although recently there have been some curious irregularities with electronic voting machines in the US. (The simplest solution to the latter problem is a proper paper trail. The solution is so obvious, forgetting to implement it seems downright peculiar.)

The more difficult problem is tallying the votes. I don’t mean the physical process of counting them, but how they are added together. It seems straightforward that the candidate with the most votes wins, but it’s not. This was brought home to Americans vividly in the 2000 election. If the majority who opposed Bush had been voting in unison, it would have been called a landslide victory. Instead, a minority candidate won because what we really have is plurality rule, not majority rule. (If we had majority rule, there would never have been an iffy situation for the Supreme Court to decide.)

If you do the math, plurality voting is the worst way of reflecting the will of the voters. There is some argument about what’s best, but none that plurality is the worst. It stands to reason, of course. If there are more than two choices–and there always are since None of the Above is implicitly present even with only two candidates–plurality voting facilitates the election of a minority candidate.

Instant runoff and approval voting are the other two main methods of determining a winner. Instant runoff allows voters to rank candidates. Rounds of elimination of candidates with the fewest first place votes finally leave two contenders, and one emerges the winner. The fundamental problem here is related to the one in plurality voting. In the latter, voter preferences for everyone except their first choice are lost. Instant runoff, however, loses sight of preferences for eliminated candidates. This is less of a problem than losing sight of all but one, but it can still be a problem. (See this example for details, or go to Science News, Nov 2, 2002, Are we using the worst voting procedure? by E. Klarreich, for a more in depth discussion.)

Approval voting gets around the instant runoff paradox described in the example, but at the price of favoring “consensus” candidates, which could also be called “least common denominator” candidates. In the approval method, voters rank candidates according to how much they approve of them, so to speak. Each rank carries its own weight, and the “heaviest” candidate wins. The result is that someone who is everyone’s second choice will win if votes for first choices are more or less evenly split.

Having seen approval voting at work in an academic department, and having seen just how mediocre a candidate can be elected that way, I’m not a big fan of the method, even though it sounds, in theory, like a rational approach. Instant runoff voting is less likely to elect a mediocre candidate (since he or she would not get many first choices and would be eliminated early on). It also has the advantage of being easy to understand, and hence less subject to voter error. Possibly what’s needed is a hybrid system in close cases, which are the ones that cause all the problems.

The important point is that there is nothing sacrosanct about any particular method. Nor is there anything sacrosanct about breaking ties, which is the focus of some theories of voting. A democracy is not about breaking ties. It’s about reflecting the will of the voters. The best method to that end is what we should be using.

Direct election versus electoral college-type procedures can lead to very different results based on the same votes, just as the voting methods themselves do. Initially, that was the whole point. The aforementioned architects of democracy were sure that the undiluted voice of the people would be an inarticulate grunt, and that a layer of more intelligent people should buffer the ignorance of the masses. Most democracies have gone to direct voting, and the US is one of the last holdouts of the antique system. The reason for this isn’t really because anyone here believes voters are too stupid to elect a president. It’s the same reason for all the other anti-democratic admixtures in democracies: powerful vested interests prefer it this way. And if they didn’t have it this way, they wouldn’t stay powerful for very long.

How to vote is not a hard question, but it keeps being muddied by people who would prefer to reduce the number of voters. The answer, of course, is voting should be as easy as possible. The current system of marching off to a physical booth and standing in line is based on 18th century technology (and the landed gentry’s ability to take half the day to vote). At this point, assuming there was genuine interest in universal suffrage, voter registration could take place at post offices, driver’s license bureaus, by mail, phone, or web. Voting itself could take place by mail, or, assuming all the security and fraud issues are worked out, electronically. These methods have been tried in various places and work perfectly well, with no more, and possibly with less, error and fraud than the traditional system. Without a secure postal service, there may be a need for a booth-and-box system, but otherwise our inconvenient, time-consuming, and boneheaded process seems designed mainly to exclude voters.

When the politicians select the voters, rather than the other way around, gerrymandering is at work. In that form of vote manipulation, a voting district is carefully carved out to contain a majority of the kind of voters that the carving politician or party needs. This is no less a manipulation of the vote than any other kind of cheating. The original idea was to allow people who form a natural unit to vote conveniently. For instance, residents of town A vote there even if they live in a valley which is closer, as the crow flies, to town B. There’s nothing wrong with the original idea, and with modern statistics, mathematics, and mapping methods, voter convenience could be accommodated in an otherwise geometrically compact area.

There is, finally, argument about who should vote. This is no longer about which groups are qualified. That question was decided decades ago, after it was discovered that citizens included not only blacks, Jews, and poor people–they included women too (!). The big question now is whether the vote should be limited to the willing, or should include everyone. Is voting a civic duty that citizens can be called upon to perform, or is it something best left to personal inclination? I tend toward the civic duty side of the argument, but then I tend to vote at every opportunity, so I’m biased. If the largest number of informed, independent voters gives the best answer, the pool of voters should be as large as possible. But if the pool then includes totally bored slackers, maybe this is not so good. It’s a difficult question.

Minority Protections

The problem of minorities is a structural weakness in democracies. Majority rule is the whole point of democracies, so they’ll necessarily be less than ideal for minorities. The solution isn’t to say, “Get used to it,” because minorities have legitimate needs that cannot be ignored. A dictatorship of the majority is still a dictatorship

Part of the purpose of bicameral legislatures is to protect minority interests. In the US, the way the Senate is elected artificially increases the power of the least populous states. At the turn of the 1800s when the system took shape, the important minority was farmers. Farmers remain a minority and they remain important, but they are far from the only minority group whose rights need protection. Ignored minorities are endangering democracies, or preventing their birth, all over the globe. Sectarian, tribal, ethnic, and racial strife are endemic at this point. By facilitating gradual change, democracies are supposed to prevent the need for violent overthrow, but their inability to accommodate minorities is leading to predictable results. Democracies must get better at respecting minorities or they really will become failed experiments on the ash heap of history.

The first line of protection for less-powerful citizens is judicial. Solid–and enforced–bills of rights and freedoms, and both punishment and prevention of all discrimination go a long way toward avoiding problems to begin with. Autonomous regions might be part of the solution in some cases. However, the point here is what can the democratic process itself do to help the situation, and that is much less obvious.

The most promising idea I have heard is Lani Guinier’s one of “proportionate interest representation.” Hendrik Hertzberg explains it on the fairvote.org site: “It’s really a modified at-large system. In a citywide election for five council seats, say, each voter would have five votes, which she could distribute among the five candidates any way she likes. If a fifth of the voters opted to “cumulate,” or plump, all their votes for one candidate, they would be able to elect one of the five. Blacks could do this if they chose to, but so could any cohesive group of sufficient size. This system is emphatically not racially based: it allows voters to organize themselves on whatever basis they wish. It has actually been tried in a few jurisdictions — including the proverbially American city of Peoria, Illinois — and has had notable success in all of them.”

Cumulative voting differs from approval voting in that voters express how much of a given rank they want to give to a specific choice. They don’t just vote for, say, three out of the five candidates and then have their choices weighted for them by the counting method. They can give A three votes, and B and C one each, or they can give A and B each two votes, and C one.

Cumulative voting together with instant runoff choices would make for an interesting ballot. Too interesting, some might say. However, since the will of the voters is the heart of democracy, this is not the place to cut corners. Voter information and optimal visual design of ballots can solve this problem, which is, really, no harder than tracking sports scores. The process shouldn’t be any harder than it has to be, but neither should it be so simple that democracy itself disappears.

Representation

The evidence suggests to me that the whole idea of political representatives is another structural weakness of democracies. I haven’t seen this idea mentioned before, so maybe my thoughts on the subject are loopy (or even loopier than usual), but consider the facts.

Voting, in a democracy, is not supposed to be the only expression of the will of the people. The basic idea is that they elect representatives, who then represent their interests while carrying out the day to day chores of keeping society running smoothly. Politicians do worry about what their constituents think, but mainly with a view to being re-elected, which is not the same thing. That is most clear when re-election and representation conflict, in which case most politicians would rather keep their jobs than do them. In other words, they’re just like you and me, doing what they need to do to get by, and representing themselves.

It’s silly on the face of it to think that most people in government would ignore their own needs, when most people outside government certainly don’t. Instead of bemoaning this fact, or wasting energy talking up better behavior, government needs to be designed on the premise that the people in it are human beings. The solution is to harness self-interest, not to fight it.

However, although it’s clear that calling “representatives” on the carpet every few years is not working, better alternatives are less clear. The opposite extreme to representation is government by direct vote, where everything is decided by plebiscites. That would break down in days. Information is essential for crowds (or individuals) to have any wisdom at all, and there is no way a quorum of citizens could take the time to know enough to make sensible decisions. Government is a full time job.

The core problem is interest. Government is a basically boring, administrative job, more like housework, if it is done right, than it is like ruling the world. It consists of trying to prevent messes and cleaning up other people’s when prevention failed. People who aren’t in government, and many who are, have better things to do than worry about other people’s problems. Once those problems grow bad, they just want them to go away. That is not the same as solving them.

So, two criteria emerge. One is that citizens can’t do the job of government themselves, and that therefore some form of oversight is necessary. Two is that the oversight has to take as little time and energy as possible.

Energy, in the sense of the amount of attention people are willing to give, is a big limiting factor in democracies. Citizen oversight is essential, but it won’t happen unless it’s easy to do. In this connection, it’s important that it is easier to focus on what’s wrong than what’s right. Pain draws attention. People are quicker to vote against things rather than for them, and to listen to negative ads rather than nice ones. So, on the principle of harnessing motivations rather than fighting them, the attention-getting potential of annoyance could be used to stop emerging problems. Instead of elections for candidates or initiatives, we should have votes of no confidence against failures.

In other words, citiziens wouldn’t elect leaders. They would unelect them. I don’t know if a system of unelections has already been tried somewhere, and if there are good ways to implement it. One possibility is to have no-confidence votes as a constant cudgel in the background, the way parliaments do. I could see a rolling system, which would dovetail with a convenient from-home voting process. An accumulation of legitimate complaints against either politicians or laws would lead to the calling of an unelection against them. No doubt, there would be enough of these things to warrant a regularly scheduled ballot, and the current crop of culprits with sufficient complaints against them would appear on the next one.

A recall could get rid of unsatisfactory politicians, but it says nothing about how to find officeholders in the first place. How to find competent people is the big question much wiser heads than mine have been unable to answer. Democracies answer the riddle by saying the question is unnecessary. Common sense is all we need, so the current method of selecting officeholders basically asks for volunteers on the assumption that anyone can run a government. The current state of the world suggests that the assumption is flawed.

The volunteers, once they’ve stepped forward, are then expected to campaign. That is an overlooked problem in itself. Campaigning is all right for Miss or Mr. Congeniality, but the requirements for a good campaigner and the requirements for a good administrator are just about mutually exclusive. What we need in government is the sort of person willing to worry about the effect of accounting rules on inventory. Boring? Yes, until depleted vaccine inventories result in an uncontrollable measles epidemic and brain-damage for your child. What we need are boringly competent administrators. What we want–and what we vote for– are people who feel like friends. Is it any wonder that government isn’t working too well?

So, somehow, the selection process has to be compatible with tedious competence. However, a dignified procedure to appoint the best qualified would result in nothing but the hegemony of the best-connected. Maybe the solution is to continue to rely on volunteers, but to narrow the pool to those who have more than a mosquito’s chance in a hurricane of actually handling the job. The proven way to see what people can handle is their track record. So maybe the volunteers should be limited to people with a couple of decades as excellent administrators(as determined by their subordinates and their clients), whether what they administered was MegaCorp Inc. or the church bazaar.

Having a potential pool of officeholders still doesn’t tell us how to select the one to do the job. There is no easy answer that avoids overburdening voters and cronyism, both at once. I’d like to suggest a wild idea that might be worth trying only because it hasn’t already been tried and failed many times over. How about using a simple lottery to pick one person out of the pool?

Don’t laugh. It might work. There aren’t many systems with randomly chosen leaders, but one example is Tibetan Buddhism. The supreme leader is chosen by a priest based on visions of reincarnation. From the standpoint of a non-believer, they choose someone at random and then educate him to the task from a tender age. Out of fourteen Dalai Lamas, two, the Fifth and the current one, have been outstanding. Neither democracies nor monarchies can boast a 14% success rate, and dictatorships aren’t even on the map. Maybe we should give randomness a try. The officeholders could always be unelected if they didn’t work out. Just a thought.

Conclusions

There are many things working against current democracies. Some of them are corruptions, such as attempts to limit who can vote or the use of political office to protect the officeholder. But some of them are structural problems. They are an intrinsic part of democracy and need to be explicitly compensated or the whole system can succumb. The big structural weaknesses are that voter attention is finite, that minority interests are ignored, and that representatives represent mainly themselves.

Some of the cures are easy. Sensible voting and tallying systems could be implemented tomorrow. They’d throw many current politicians out of office, so they won’t be, but the point is, they could be. Achieving a literate and numerate electorate is also not difficult in any real sense of the word. It’s just expensive. On the other hand, restructuring the selection process for officeholders, and working out the best combination of rewards and restraints, would require much research and experimentation to arrive at an effective solution.

So, are we depressingly far away from democracy? Yes. But, as the saying goes, “scientific studies show” that democracy would work well if we actually implemented it. The closer we’ve been to the ideal in the past, the more satisfied people have been with their governments, so the track record supports the theory.

The good news is that nobody can say democracy has failed. It can’t have done, because we haven’t tried it yet.

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When is a drug not a drug?

Slightly changed from an LA Times letter to the Editor of the Sunday Magazine, regarding an article by Matthew Heller, Healthy, Wealthy, but Wise? The article concerned the controversy about regulation of ephedra and ephedrine, which speed up metabolism, and therefore help weight loss, as well as cause heart problems and even death in some people. I was an ethnobotany (Special Concentrations) major as an undergrad, have a naturopathic doctor’s degree, and a PhD in botany, so herbs and drugs are subjects I feel very strongly about. Hence the rant.

The hoopla over weight loss drugs is just the beginning. There are tens–hundreds–of potentially dangerous things people can take for their “health.” Go into any health food store and take a look at the products that “support vitality.” The flyers, although not the labels, suggest anything from bigger and better Viagra substitutes to cures for old age. The only reason there isn’t more of a problem is that most of them don’t work. If even one of them was as effective as ephedrine for what it claims to do, the National Guard would have to be called out to contain the stampede.

Supplements are called that because they’re supposed to be benign, like food, rather than dangerous, like drugs. Disregarding for now whether such a neat division is real, some natural products are harmless and some aren’t. Dosage is the critical issue. Coffee is natural and rather benign, but a teaspoon of pure alkaloid caffeine would kill you. The milky juice in the central stem of lettuce contains compounds similar to opiates, but salads don’t have the same effect as heroin, and even the most fanatical just-say-no campaigner has never refused a plate of greens.

Ephedrine is no different. A little bit, such as in a tea made of ephedra, is no worse (and maybe no better) than a cup of coffee. However, it is utter bilge to call the pure alkaloid harmless. A statement like that can only be rendered true with a lot of fine print about not exceeding recommended dosages.

If we were all rational, all the time, none of this would be a problem. Labels would never make big promises, and would clearly list the maximum dose and possible side effects. Consumers would never look for hope in a bottle. But even in a perfect world, well-intentioned ignorance could still cause problems. Kava, for instance, is an excellent tranquilizer and generally harmless, yet it turns out to cause liver damage in a few people. This is analogous to the bad effect of aspirin on a few children, and could be dealt with the same way, by providing clear information. However, some people feel that a total ban is the right response.

The appropriate response is a thorny issue. It would be nice to find a middle ground between requiring prescriptions for lettuce and allowing the sale of an herbal Viagra that causes parts to fall off. The Germans have dealt with this issue by demanding proof of safety, but not of effectiveness, which means that people who would like to pay for pink sugar pills, can do so. That is perhaps as it should be.

Who decides on the regulations is also problematic. Science would like to, but it has its own brand of ignorance. In the 1950s, for instance, the official position ridiculed people who took vitamins. After decades of evidence on the benefits of vitamins, including such things as the recent discovery that vitamin B6 helps prevent spina bifida, officialdom takes a different line. Given their track record, I’m not at all sure that the AMA or the FDA deserves to have a lock on what is defined as good or healthy.

Difficult as these issues are, they’d become easier if we could get our minds around a few simple facts. Drugs are drugs, whether packaged by Nature or Merck. Low-dosage drug delivery, whether as camomile tea or coca leaves, isn’t the same as high dosage, whether it’s alkaloids or antibiotics. If we grasp that, a more rational approach becomes possible to the whole issue of drugs, whether legal and illegal, herbal or pharmaceutical, and safe or unsafe.


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You can’t believe in evolution

[This is a re-posting of an earlier post, with the comments turned on this time. Unfortunately, current events--read: "Kansas" [Oct24, 2005: good grief, and now Dover!]–keep making it relevant. It’s amazing that almost a century after the Scopes monkey trial, we STILL have to argue about this nonsense.]

Evolution is said to be one dogma among many, nothing more than part of the orthodoxy known as science. Other beliefs are just as valid, and they deserve equal time because anything less is unfair.

There is only one thing wrong with this viewpoint. Evolution is not a belief. Even though nobody is ever going to see birds evolving from dinosaurs, evolution does not rest on the same sort of faith as, say, belief in an afterlife. You might as well say you believe in stars or electrons because you, personally, have never seen great flaming balls of gas or infinitesimal blips zipping by. Switching on a lamp or a computer doesn’t feel like an act of faith. (Well, maybe just a little bit, in the case of computers.) The physical world isn’t something to believe in. It’s just there. Likewise, believing in science would be like believing in a yardstick. It’s just a way of studying that world.

Science is defined by a method, and that method explicitly involves only measurable objects and testable predictions whose results can be independently verified. That means science doesn’t work on anything that can’t be measured and verified. It does *not* mean that everything immeasurable is unimportant. Quite the contrary, since love, joy, hate, hope, beauty, and God are all beyond measurement. Science doesn’t have the tools to tell us anything about them.

What science can tell us about is the physical world, and it is so effective in its own limited range that it’s given us vast power. This has a whole slew of unscientific consequences. Humans, as a matter of observable fact, adore power, so science has acquired a mantle of god-like authority that doesn’t remotely fit. Scientists, who are human beings in their spare time, tend to like the authority and all the perks that go with it, and they’ve certainly come up with their own share of stupid orthodoxies. But that has nothing to do with science itself. Science is not, and by its nature cannot be, a belief system any more than carpentry could be.

So where does that leave evolution? It’s called the Theory of Evolution, and in order to understand what that means one has to understand how scientists use language. Truth is immeasurable, so science can’t find truth. It doesn’t try to. It talks only about the likelihood that a given result will be observed again.

All scientific conclusions are probability statements: an observation is repeated a number of times and, say, nine times out of ten the results confirm a given idea, so . . . the idea is thrown out. A ninety percent chance of being right is not good enough. The probability of being right has to be nineteen out of twenty in the biological sciences. It has to approach ninety nine out of a hundred in the physical sciences. Imagine applying those standards in your personal life.

In science, that’s just the beginning. The hypothesis, which is an expensive word for educated guess, is merely said to be confirmed once it passes that bar. These guesses are dignified with the name of “theory” when they have been confirmed so many times there is no real chance they won’t continue being confirmed. They are called “laws” when that certainty becomes crushing, but even laws are probability statements. The law of gravity is a probability statement with an extraordinarily low chance of not working.

Against that backdrop, evolution is called a theory because there are so many facts in its favor. It’s a parallel case to our understanding of stars and electrons. We have no personal experience of any of them, but scientists who have studied the facts have come up with coherent explanations that pan out. Evolution can explain practical things, such as how bacteria develop antibiotic resistance and why measles epidemics run in cycles, and it can provide mind-altering insights such as that insects and mammals have the same basic body plan, except the plan is back to front.

None of the other ideas for explaining the patterns of life rests on any facts that contradict evolution. The theory of intelligent design (and “theory” is used here in its common meaning) has not been able to show the existence of intelligence in the design, using scientific methods. Creationists can’t show that creation occurred. If the scientific method is not used, the result is not science.

People who argue against evolution can, and do, fit some of the facts into their theories, but they have to ignore all the facts that disagree, which is about as far from the scientific method as you can get. They have no measurable observations and no testable, independently verifiable predictions.

Intelligent design and creationism, by those or any other names, are not competing scientific theories. They are simply theories. They may deserve equal time, but only with their equals in the realm of ideas. Discussing intelligent design in a class on evolution is like considering theories on good government when building a rocket ship.

At the heart of the problem lies confusion about science and religion. Both may have authority and try to explain the world, but the worlds they’re trying to explain are different, the way they explain things is different, and their authority rests on different foundations. Science is not, *and cannot be*, in conflict with religion because they address fundamentally different questions. Facts can certainly contradict specific scriptures, because God’s stenographers do suffer the occasional hiccup, but that doesn’t mean science can suddenly answer cosmic questions about the reason for our existence, or that religion becomes a good way to cure AIDS.

Using religion, or anything else for that matter, to argue against facts is a hopeless endeavor. You can’t argue with facts any more than you can believe in them. And evolution is as close to a fact as biology gets. In Bill Bryson’s inimitable words, denying evolution proves conclusively that the danger for those who try it is not that they may be descended from apes but that they may be overtaken by them.


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We’re All Gay

We’re not literally all gay, of course, because if we were, there wouldn’t be a problem. The problem is that we’re all different. Or is it?

Homosexuality has gone from unspeakable crime, to merely unspeakable, to downright speakable. The more familiar we grow with it, the harder it is to see gays as monsters. This is causing much concern in some quarters.

Ironically, Aids*, which kills people, had a lot to do with turning gays into people, for those who hadn’t noticed before. Aids was ignored in the early days, except among the “Christian” Taleban, who hoped it would become God’s Final Solution for perverts. Instead, Aids showed gays to be people who die, like us. People who grieve, like us. People who care for those they love, like us, and who want to be with them in their final hours, so very much like us.

Aids turned out to be, indeed, God’s Final Solution, in that it made us recognize our common humanity and begin the long process of learning to live together in peace.

However, that was one bridge too far for some people. We had, in recent memory, accepted Jews, which worked out surprisingly well. Except for a decided improvement in the quality of sandwich meats, there was no discernible difference to society. So that was all right. Then came the concept of treating blacks as equals. We swallowed hard, and figured out other ways of keeping our distance, but at least we could talk the talk on that one.

Then things started to get messy. Women began claiming they belonged to the same species. That hits us right where we live, in our love lives and in our families. Even talking the talk proved to be too much, but human beings are very adaptable. We got around the problem by saying it had been dealt with years ago, and it wasn’t an issue any more. Surprisingly enough, in a world where rape is barely worth a mention in the back section of the paper, and where women are still considered partial people when it comes to pay, this worked.

The frozen limit, however, has now been reached. Homosexuals are saying they have rights, and not just a few small rights, but the same ones as everyone else. This can’t be allowed. Where will it all end, if the natural order of things is so completely ignored? People will start marrying dogs, and civilization will crumble.

The world is now divided into those who find that point of view laughable (of whom I’m obviously one), and those who cannot understand how anyone can be blind to the opening of the floodgates of evil. There is no one in the middle. You either see it, or you don’t, like the drawing which can be either a vase or two profiles, but which it is impossible to see as both at once.

Leaving for another screed the concept that gays are evil, the question is whether exclusion can work at all. The general idea is that exclusion will solve something. Things will be better with the undesirables removed. The idea behind excluding gays is that they are “unnatural,” with the subtext that the person making the judgment is, of course, “natural.” In other words, it’s an us versus them argument, in which “we” are better than “them,” who are excluded.

Let’s grant for the moment that excluding gays makes the remaining group better. It will soon become evident that it is not yet perfect. It could be even better. If the problem is “them” preventing “us” from achieving a smoothly functioning group, then we have to exclude the new troublemakers. Let’s say this new set are people who vote conservative, and obviously cause all the trouble in the world. There are some minor problems due to antiquated customs involving secret ballots, but with an improved Patriot Act, we manage to identify the blighters and get rid of them. The relief is immense. But it’s soon obvious that there is still room for improvement. Problematic relationships continue to crop up. The new troublemakers are those who are taller than average and have a snooty way of looking over the tops of our heads. They are cast into outer darkness. And so it goes until the group is homogeneous enough to exchange organs without tissue typing. Then the people wearing black socks start looking askance at the misfits wearing white socks.

I cannot think of one single historical example where exclusion of “troublemakers” did not follow that pattern. The undesirables might be anything: female, Jewish, black, Asian, witches, or people from outside a gated community. Usually sooner rather than later, the ingroup finds that some of its members are more equal than others. No group that I ever heard of managed to exclude enough people to feel satisfied.

Exclusion fails on a personal level as well as the social one. Whichever difference is grounds for exclusion, it must also be stamped out, or at least hidden, within ourselves. No human being is purely one thing or another. We all have many facets, and any one of them may turn out to be less than “cool.” Life under the hope that exclusion can solve any problems becomes a matter of constantly looking over one’s shoulder, waiting to be “found out” . . . and hoping that the Final Solution will lead at last to peace. Unfortunately, reapplication of a failed solution has never resulted in success.

The problem isn’t differences; it’s the way they’re handled. The problem isn’t living our way; it’s letting other people live their way.

Inclusive societies have their own problems. You have to put up with people with purple hair, or people holding hands, or whatever. For that, though, other people have to put up with you. You get to live your life without looking over your shoulder. Oddly enough, the peace that is imagined to lie on the other side of the Final Solution turns out to be right here, without the tedious necessity of doing all that housecleaning first.

So it may be worth remembering what the argument is really about, while controversies swirl around gay rights. Or anyone else’s rights, for that matter, right down to poor thirteen year-olds who are wards of the State. These things don’t merely affect gays, or any other subgroup of the month. They affect how we feel about each other and about ourselves. They affect the feel of our whole society and whether we choose to live in fear or in acceptance. It’s not somebody else’s problem when someone else’s rights are denied. It’s yours and mine. We must either all be accepted, or nobody will be.

[*I’m going with the British convention for common acronyms. I’m tired of all those capital letters screaming at me.}


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