The Uncle of Science

The King and the CrookHow do you make a tired and aging political system supple and flexible enough to adapt to a changing world? A recent Wired Magazine article offers this:

[M]ost scientific change isn’t abrupt and dramatic; revolutions are rare. Instead, the epiphanies of modern science tend to be subtle and obscure and often come from researchers safely ensconced on the inside. “These aren’t Einstein figures, working from the outside,” [Kevin] Dunbar says. “These are the guys with big NIH grants.”

While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit — researchers solve problems by themselves — Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings, those weekly sessions in which people publicly present their data. Interestingly, the most important element of the lab meeting wasn’t the presentation — it was the debate that followed. Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they’d previously ignored. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude; a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work.

But not every lab meeting was equally effective. Dunbar tells the story of two labs that both ran into the same experimental problem: The proteins they were trying to measure were sticking to a filter, making it impossible to analyze the data. “One of the labs was full of people from different backgrounds,” Dunbar says. “They had biochemists and molecular biologists and geneticists and students in medical school.” The other lab, in contrast, was made up of E. coli experts. “They knew more about E. coli than anyone else, but that was what they knew,” he says. Dunbar watched how each of these labs dealt with their protein problem. The E. coli group took a brute-force approach, spending several weeks methodically testing various fixes. “It was extremely inefficient,” Dunbar says. “They eventually solved it, but they wasted a lot of valuable time.”

The diverse lab, in contrast, mulled the problem at a group meeting. None of the scientists were protein experts, so they began a wide-ranging discussion of possible solutions. At first, the conversation seemed rather useless. But then, as the chemists traded ideas with the biologists and the biologists bounced ideas off the med students, potential answers began to emerge. “After another 10 minutes of talking, the protein problem was solved,” Dunbar says. “They made it look easy.”

When Dunbar reviewed the transcripts of the meeting, he found that the intellectual mix generated a distinct type of interaction in which the scientists were forced to rely on metaphors and analogies to express themselves. (That’s because, unlike the E. coli group, the second lab lacked a specialized language that everyone could understand.) These abstractions proved essential for problem-solving, as they encouraged the scientists to reconsider their assumptions. Having to explain the problem to someone else forced them to think, if only for a moment, like an intellectual on the margins, filled with self-skepticism.

This is why other people are so helpful: They shock us out of our cognitive box. “I saw this happen all the time,” Dunbar says. “A scientist would be trying to describe their approach, and they’d be getting a little defensive, and then they’d get this quizzical look on their face. It was like they’d finally understood what was important.”

What turned out to be so important, of course, was the unexpected result, the experimental error that felt like a failure. The answer had been there all along — it was just obscured by the imperfect theory, rendered invisible by our small-minded brain. It’s not until we talk to a colleague or translate our idea into an analogy that we glimpse the meaning in our mistake.

The moral of the story is that injecting diverse viewpoints into a human system is a key ingredient of making it more flexible and supple. However, there has to be a balance: there are five basic mechanisms that a human system uses to adapt to changing conditions (following Howard Bloom’s system from his book Global Brain):

  • Diversity generators produce new potential adaptions.
  • Conformity enforcers impose enough uniformity so that successful adaptions can be spread.
  • Inner judges pass judgment on adaptions.
  • Resource shifters take power away from failed adaptions and give it (disproportionately) to successful adaptions.
  • Intergroup tournaments test a system’s adaptions against other systems.

Within these five mechanisms, the most important balance any human system must strike is the balance between diversity generation and conformity enforcement. Too much diversity will cause a system to fissure and split while too little diversity will drastically reduce a system’s power to adapt. If conformity is enforced too tightly, adaptation becomes sluggish and falls behind. If lax conformity enforcement lets a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend to such an extreme that it produces system-wide incoherence, adaption becomes disjointed and unfocused.

Conformity enforcement usually defeats diversity generation for several reasons. Humans usually prefer a quail in the hand to two in the bush since, as prospect theory suggests, fear of loss (loss aversion) is a more powerful emotion than the desire for gain. Most humans, especially as they grow older, prefer power assured through the predictable enforcement of conformity to the uncertain flow of power from diversity generation. Time-tested adaptions that worked in the past are preferred to untested innovations with an uncertain outcome.

Things are unlikely to end in eternal peace for the enforced conformity of the status quo however. The choice is not whether change comes or not. The choice is small and manageable change versus large and unmanageable change. Suppressed diversity tends to generate internal pressure which can violently explode at inconvenient moments. Prolonged internal stasis tends to succumb to the pressure of external change suddenly and catastrophically.

Since any human system is innately biased towards conformity enforcement, the weight of resuscitating a dormant political system falls on reinvigorating diversity generation, not re-energized conformity enforcement. While, down the road, successful adaption will need a vigorous system of conformity enforcement, reinvigorated diversity generation must come first.

There are three adaption processes running in parallel within a human system: hardware, firmware, and software. The hardware process evolves biologically. Unfortunately, however, hardware adaption takes a very long time. For timely human adaptability, you must turn to firmware and software. Firmware is the intersection between hardware (meat) and software (ideas). Part changes slowly (hardware-like) while part can change quite rapidly (software-like). In contrast, software is completely mental, subject only to the constraints of the hardware and firmware it operates on. This means that it can change quite rapidly and, due to this inherent adaptability, it is in the software process that diversity generation must be encouraged.

James Burnham suggested in The Machiavellians that the most important software diversity generation takes place within a political system’s elite. The general encouragement of software diversity generation, therefore, has to focus on encouraging software diversity generation among elites. Burnham, drawing on Vilfredo Pareto, detailed the primary way this is accomplished:

13. There occur periodically very rapid shifts in the composition and structure of elites: that is, social revolution.

Pareto called this phenomenon “the circulation of elites”. Reinvigorating software diversity generation is a matter of reinvigorating the circulation of elites. Several specific methods have been used to accomplish this in the past. Here’s a few:

The traditional and most reliable method is death. Due to the high mortality rates that prevailed throughout human history, one member of an elite was rapidly replaced by another through death by natural causes, ensuring a circulation of bodies if not of software. However, longer lifespans in the twentieth century have dulled its edge. Since some remain impatient for nature to take its course, they accelerate the circulation. Murder removes members of an elite on human timelines. Uncle Joe used mass murder to circulate the Old Bolsheviks out and newer cadres in. He was working on a new round of elite circulation when his selected victims circulated him out first.

A second method is election. This circulates members of an elite based on some external measurement like passing a series of exams, a lot of money, the number of votes a member received, or, the perennial favorite, personal virtue. Burnham outlines the ideal:

If, in the selection of members of the elite, there existed a condition of perfect free competition, so that each individual could, without any obstacle, rise just as high in the social scale as his talents and ambition permitted, the elite could be presumed to include, at every moment and in the right order, just those persons best fitted for membership in it. Under such circumstances—which Pareto seems to imagine after the analogy of the theoretical free market of classical economics, or the biological arena of the struggle for survival—society would remain dynamic and strong, automatically correcting its own weaknesses.

Unfortunately, such organizations usually crumble under the weight of confirmation bias:

There are always obstacles…that interfere with the free circulation of individuals up and down the social scale. Specific principles of selection, different in different societies, affect the composition of the elite so that it no longer includes all those persons best fitted for social rule.

Those doing the electing tend to favor others that share their beliefs (unspoken or not) and relatives or friends. The Tribal imperative (using David Rondfeldt’s Tribe-Institution-Market-Network framework) overwhelms the Institutional imperative. While this may, from time to time, result in a situation where at least some of the elite had “just those persons best fitted for membership in it”, usually election will eventually produce an ossified elite.

A third method is crisis. This is the main driver of the present United States Government, a political system that, if it is driven by anything, is driven by the occasional occurrence of natural and man-made disasters. The system is so decrepit that crisis or the perception of crisis is the only force that can move it even a little. It takes a mighty crisis to work a mighty change. Crisis puts stress on a system and forces it to make attempts, successful or not, to adapt. Crisis can also forcibly circulate an elite by grinding down or even destroying one set of elites and opening the way for another set.

A fourth method is drawing on randomness. Random mutation is the primary generator of adaption in biological organisms. Nassim Nicholas Taleb extends this to claim that most of human adaptation is due to the serendipity of random luck (encouraged by trial and error). It may be, as Taleb argues, that human adaptability derives from the ability to take randomly generated adaptions and rapidly propagate them to others though some selected degree of conformity enforcement. Taleb’s principles for a “black swan proof world” are focused on accentuating the positives and minimizing the negatives of randomness.

Several ways to harness randomness for software diversity generation and the circulation of elites have been used throughout history. In politics, modern political systems described as democracies differ from ancient or medieval democracies in that they make little use of sortition:

Sortition, also known as allotment, is an equal-chance method of selection by some form of lottery such as drawing colored pebbles from a bag. It is used particularly to allot decision makers. In ancient Athenian Democracy, sortition was the primary method for appointing officials, a system that was thought to be one of the principal characteristics of democracy.

Many ancient and medieval democracies mixed election with sortition. In Venice, the doge was selected with such a mixture:

Thirty members of the Great Council, chosen by lot, were reduced by lot to nine; the nine chose forty and the forty were reduced by lot to twelve, who chose twenty-five. The twenty-five were reduced by lot to nine and the nine elected forty-five. Then the forty-five were once more reduced by lot to eleven, and the eleven finally chose the forty-one who actually elected the doge.

Use of sortition may be one useful method to inject software diversity generation into modern political systems. In many countries (and ancient Athens), sortition is commonly used to select juries which make decisions on various political and legal questions. This method could be applied to bodies such as legislatures, corporate boards, faculty selection committees, or promotion boards, selecting mebers through the full or partial application of sortition. An element of randomness would be injected into who does and who doesn’t make it into a political elite. You might get good members. You might get bad members. The only guaranteed outcome is that you will get different people.

3 thoughts on “The Uncle of Science”

  1. Do we not veer toward Scientism here? Don’t we, in using scientific processes or metaphors. rather overestimate the depth of the meaning Science as regards higher human existence and affairs? Are we really sure that what wired describes here is really a “scientific process” in the best sense of the term and not just some academic posuers falttering themselves? But even if I exaggerate here, is the empirical method, at least in the sense that is is used by Science, really that applicable to political, social and cultural life? To put it another way, is there really any science involved in “Political Science” at all? It all sounds suspiciously like the claims of the so called “scientific socialists”.

    To take Science as truth is to severely limit the definition of truth–a quite limited ontology as it were; science has been stripped of a true metaphysics and therefore stripped of true meaning in the broader human sense; that is why it works as well as it does in its limited domain. And perhaps more important here, much of scientific advance has not really taken place in the conditions of modern academia. Modern “science” today often appears more obsessed with careersim rather than scientific method or discovery. Our committees of modern academics perhaps are not so much pursuing science as posturing as such to collect rents.

    But back to you opening quote from Wired, is that assertion about scientific advance really true historically?
    Perhaps you should back and re-read Thomas Kuhn. The radical change in science sweeps away much of that “incremental” work.

    I suspect that what wired is really talking about is technology and its development from science, not science itself. This seems to be what remains “after the revolution”.

    One gets the point about “diversity of opinions”, but it would seem to me that the lack this is hardly what holds us back. We have more than enough “diversity”. Perhaps that is just the problem. What we seem to lack is high cultural,moral and intellectual standards. These we seem to have abandoned in the name of “innovation” and “self expression”.

    In fact what is not obsolete is our “political system” but rather those hustles, elsewhere know as “policies”, that have been thrust on us by the Left and acquiesced to by “moderate” opportunists and water carriers for the Left, and even then this is less a matter of them being “obsolete” than it is a matter of them becoming so exposed for what they truely are that even the average voter can no longer stomach them.

    The solution may be a return to the vision of the founders; it may not be one of finding a “modern and scientific” solution–this maybe how we got to this pickle in the first place.

  2. The diverse lab, in contrast, mulled the problem at a group meeting. None of the scientists were protein experts, so they began a wide-ranging discussion of possible solutions. At first, the conversation seemed rather useless. But then, as the chemists traded ideas with the biologists and the biologists bounced ideas off the med students, potential answers began to emerge. “After another 10 minutes of talking, the protein problem was solved,” Dunbar says. “They made it look easy.”

    I just read a biography of Max Perutz who started the Molecular Biology Laboratory at Cambridge during World War II. He began as a rather lowly refugee fellow and gradually became the leader of a brilliant group, in part by establishing a tradition of a common lunch room and frequent small meetings where members of the lab discussed their current research. Several visiting scholars in later years tried to duplicate the casual atmosphere and the common room setting but were never able to do so. Max was very humble and did not even have the equivalent of tenure until his Nobel Prize was awarded. He and his wife lived in an tiny flat, then a tiny house and he rode a bicycle to the lab every day.

    Six or seven Nobel Prizes came from the lab during his tenure.

  3. 1)The article seems to focus mainly on discussions in formal meetings. But informal interactions can play the same role, as in Michael Kennedy’s example.

    2)The point about the importance of intellectual diversity doesn’t apply only to science, but also in business, military organizations, government, etc

    3)Organization design has a strong influence here. A strictly functional organization (engineering, sales, marketing, manufacturing, etc) tends to isolate people–even people of fairly high management levels–in an environment where they usually talk only to people of their own function/background/skill set.

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