Treat new laws like experiments

Some years ago, when I first read Carl Sagans’s The Demon-Haunted World, I encountered a notion that stuck in my mind and has grown more prominent as the years have passed.  This is the idea that laws, as made in a democracy, are a form of experiment, but that they are carried out without any of the sensible objective measures and controls that make scientific experiments so useful.  I think this is clearly true, and I think we should all try to petition our legislators to approach laws in this scientific fashion.

Many—perhaps most—new laws are proposed to prevent, or correct, or create some specific situation…presumably altering something that isn’t quite the way we want it to be.  Unfortunately, the way laws are proposed and assessed is through public debate—at best.  As civil and criminal courtrooms demonstrate, when an important matter is addressed mainly through debate, the outcome isn’t necessarily that the best or truest idea is chosen, but that those who are most skilled at rhetoric and manipulation rule the day.  This is not a much more reliable way to make good decisions than by holding a jousting match.  It’s not good in court, and it’s worse in the halls of legislature, where the quality of discourse is often even lower than one often finds among courtroom lawyers (“If the glove does not fit, you must acquit,” is at least mildly clever, as opposed to the appalling spectacle of an elected legislator in the Federal Government bringing a snowball into the Capitol Building as evidence against climate change).

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, with every proposed new bill, the proposer had to articulate what problem was to be addressed by the legislation, and what result was being sought.  Then, in the subsequent discussions, legislators could better focus their inquiries, bringing existing information to bear, including the outcomes of prior, similar legislation.  Also—and here is a key point—each bill could contain specific language detailing by what means its relative success of failure would be measured, how that data would be collected, at what frequency it would be evaluated, and at what point—if ever—the measure would have been found to fail.  We know that most measures, if measured, would fail, based on the experience of science, in which the vast majority hypotheses end up disproven, even when proposed by the best and brightest minds in the world.  How much more likely is it that ideas proposed by the likes of our legislators are going to be shown to be ineffective?

Of course, the real world—the laboratory where each new law would be tested—is a messy place, with innumerable confounding variables, correlations which have nothing to do with causation, unreliable data, and so on.  So, we wouldn’t necessarily want to hold legislative outcome checks to quite the same standards of rigor as those to which we hold particle physics.  But simply requiring each new bill to contain a statement of hoped-for outcomes, of measures by which it would be considered to have succeeded or failed, and a required time of review, could produce better laws, influenced from the beginning by more information and logic than rhetoric.  Even if no definitive answer was available at the time of a planned review, that review might still inspire new ideas about how better to measure outcomes, and perhaps even ways to tweak a law to make its outcome more clearly beneficial.  Most importantly, it would be much easier to recognize and discard the failures.

Of course, to initiate such a policy of lawmaking would require something even more sweeping than a Constitutional amendment.  It would require that we elect representatives capable of bringing a scientific mindset to matters of fact.  This, in turn, would require a voting population with the ability to judge among and select such individuals, rather than the charlatans and hucksters they tend to elect.  This in turn would require both a change in the educational style of the country and a cultural shift in which we give greater precedence to logic and reason, rather than our usual approaches to life, which are only more sophisticated than those of chimpanzees in that they are more complicated, but which are not necessarily any more rational.*

It’s a tall order, I know.  But the possible improvements in our laws, in the way public policy is carried out, and in the general health and well-being of the nation would be potentially vast.

They would also be much more measurable.

*See last week’s post on teaching probability and statistics, for instance.

Odds are we should teach probability and statistics


Among the many educational reforms that I think we ought to enact in the United States, and probably throughout the world, one of the most useful would be to begin teaching all students about probability and statistics.  These should be taught at a far younger age than that at which most people begin to learn them—those that ever do.  Most of us don’t get any exposure to the concepts until we go to university, if we do even there.  My own first real, deep exposure to probability and statistics took place when I was in medical school…and I had a significant scientific background even before then.

Why should we encourage young people to learn about such seemingly esoteric matters?  Precisely because they seem so esoteric to us.  Statistics are quoted with tremendous frequency in the popular press, in advertising, and in social media of all sorts, but the general public’s understanding of them is poor.  This appears to be an innate human weakness, not merely a failure of education.  We learn basic arithmetic with relative ease, and even the fundamentals of Newtonian physics don’t seem too unnatural when compared with most people’s intuitions about the matter.  Yet in the events of everyday life, statistics predominate.  Even so seemingly straightforward a relation as the ideal gas law (PV=nRT, relating the volume, temperature, and pressure of a gas) is the product of the statistical effects of innumerable molecules interacting with each other.  In this case, the shorthand works well enough, because the numbers involved are so vast, but in more ordinary interactions of humans with each other and with the world, we do not have numbers large enough to produce reliable, simplified formulae.  We must deal with statistics and probability.  If we do not, then we will fail to deal with reality as accurately as we could, which cannot fail to have consequences, usually bad ones.  As I often say (paraphrasing John Mellencamp) “When you fight reality, reality always wins.” Continue reading “Odds are we should teach probability and statistics”

What is it with gravitons and black holes?

I occasionally wonder about what physicist really think regarding the hypothetical particles, gravitons, those carriers of the gravitational force mandated by the need* to quantize all the forces of nature.  Specifically, I wonder how they behave in and around black holes.

I know, from my understanding of General Relativity, that the influence of gravity travels at the speed of light, and the recent LIGO results, and all other experimental results of which I’ve heard, are consistent with that.  This must surely mean that the proposed gravitons travel at the speed of light, and are thus mass-less particles.  And if they are carrying a force, they must have some form of inherent energy, which means that, according to Einstein at least, their path would be affected by gravity.  This seems contradictory in some ways, but it’s my understanding that the electrical force produced by a moving electron also acts backward on itself, so I guess that’s not completely unreasonable…though here I’m veering further away from any deep knowledge, much to my sorrow.

My real question applies to the surface of an event horizon, that boundary in space-time within which all things are separated from the outside by the strength of the gravitational force – more particularly, according to Einstein, by the degree of curvature of space-time.  If gravitons are particles, carrying the gravitational force, are they constrained by the effects of the event horizon, or –  presumably because they wouldn’t be self-interacting – do they simply pass through it, it being irrelevant to their motion, unlike all other things with finite speeds…which means everything.  That sometimes seems contradictory to me, though by no means am I certain that I’m thinking correctly about this.  Could it be that the gravitons within and outside of an event horizon are two separate populations of gravitons, with the external ones somehow being generated at the horizon?  If not, then how can a particle ignore the degree of gravity, unless, of course, as a mentioned above, they are not self-interacting – which wouldn’t be unusual, since, if I understand correctly, photons also don’t interact with other photons.  But photons would, obviously, interact with gravitons, of course, otherwise they wouldn’t be effected by gravity, as we know they are…the most extreme example of this being at a black hole.

I know that a possible explanation for this might be found in M theory, in which we exist in a 3-brane that floats in a larger, higher-dimensional “bulk,” and that gravitons, unlike all the more “ordinary” particles are not constrained to remain within that brane, but can go above and below it, so to speak, thus bypassing any barrier that is exclusive to the brane.  But I don’t know if this really deals with the issue.

And, of course, how can the idea of gravity as a force, mediated by a quantum particle, be reconciled with the convincing and highly fruitful model of gravity as the consequence of the curvature of space-time?  Obviously, I don’t expect anyone to know the deep answer to this question, since it’s the biggest, most fundamental problem in modern physics:  our two best, most powerful theories of the world don’t work when brought together.  But if anyone out there has any idea of at least the form of such a possible reconciliation – i.e. do proponents of quantum gravity think that it will eliminate the notion of curved space-time, or do they think, somehow, that it will be an expression thereof – I would be delighted to hear from you.  My best reading to date on things like string theory hasn’t given me any real insight into the possible shape of such a unification.

Anyway, these are some of the thoughts that are troubling me this Monday morning.  I’d love to know any of your thoughts in response, or if you have any recommendations on further study materials, I would welcome those as well.

* due to the Uncertainty Principle, among other things.

One little old mayor

There’s an interesting scene in the movie The Dark Knight in which the Joker confronts Harvey Dent in the hospital, and conveys to him what he sees as the misplaced and irrational prioritization of alarm among human populations.  The scene is wonderful for many reasons—it’s well-written, well-directed, and brilliantly acted—but I think it is also conveys an important point about which many of us don’t think carefully enough.

In the scene, the Joker says that he’s noticed that “nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan’.  Even if the plan is horrifying.”  He then adds, “If tomorrow I tell the press that, like, a gang-banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blowing up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan’.  But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!”

This is a deeply important point, because it highlights a profound illogic in our moral prioritization of who is important, who is to be protected, who is an “acceptable loss”, and who is “hands off.”  We become more outraged—or at least more exercised—when one of our “leaders” is threatened or even killed than when soldiers, or even ordinary citizens, are put in jeopardy.  This is not morally defensible. Continue reading “One little old mayor”

Requiem for a Zombie Father

I was listening to a podcast today in which two men discussed, among other subjects, the state of being happy simply for the happiness of the person or people you love, even if that happiness was without you, or was despite you (not a negative type of “despite,” just a happiness that was fundamentally orthogonal to your existence), or was in a situation that traditionally is associated with jealousy.  They were speaking specifically of a notion associated with the “polyamory movement,” the concept of Compersion:  A feeling of joy when a loved one invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship.

One of the speakers said that, while he thought he would have trouble ever feeling real “compersion,” he nevertheless thought that, if he were to learn that he was about to die, he would certainly want to know that his wife and children would be happy after he was gone, even if that meant knowing that his wife would marry someone else, as long as doing so would make her happy, and the new man would be a good stepfather for his children.

I felt a strange and disturbing pang when I heard this, because it seemed to me that his hypothetical scenario described my situation quite well…except, of course, for the fact that I haven’t died.  I’m a sort of zombie version of that speaker’s contrafactual: dead but still wandering around, too stupid to realize that I’m no longer among the living.  I do not grow or obtain new life; I merely continue.

I truly do want my family to be happy, though.  All of them.  And maybe they really all would be happier if they didn’t have to worry about some pathetic revenant who’s too stupid to know he’s no longer part of the world.

It’s a strange thing to find myself envious of a hypothetical, alternate version of myself—one who died, perhaps, of some relatively short-term illness or accident, after which all the other events in the lives of my former wife and my children played out exactly as they have in this reality.  But I do feel that it would have been so much easier—for me, and probably for them—than the Nosferatu “life” I’m living.  It’s all but unbearable to be the dead husband and father and yet still to be around to know it, to feel the chill and putrescence of one’s own dead flesh, to ache and yearn for the life one used to have, and that others have, but to know—despite not wanting to know—that it’s all gone forever, and to know oneself to be now merely a source of pain and worry for those who have made it clear that they are happier without an animated corpse in their lives.

What is one to do in such a situation?  I’m really not the sort who believes in reincarnation, unfortunately, so I don’t expect to be revivified.  It’s just not the way I’m built; it’s not in my nature.  I had my life, my family, the people I loved the most in all the universe, but now that’s over.  They’re gone—or, more precisely, I’m gone.  I died some years ago, and somehow, I’m still upright.  I suppose there are some who might admire the stubbornness of a cadaver who is unwilling, or unable, simply to accept reality and die, but personally, I find it a contemptible.  Then again, I’ve never been my biggest fan.

In “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Dumbledore says, “Do not pity the dead, Harry.  Pity the living, and, above all those who live without love.”  I think he was right.  Death is, finally, nothing to be afraid of or to be pitied; it’s simply a state of oblivion.  It’s the restored default, a return to the ground state—the deleted file, the song after it’s through being played, the dance after the dancers have left the floor.  Life, on the other hand—especially the life of a walking corpse—can be a sheer cacophony, a lurching, drunkard’s walk.

What is one to do?  Where is my answer, or at the very least, my release?  Where is my Van Helsing, with cross and wooden stake, to end my career as an undead thing?  I’m waiting.

In the book “Red Dragon,” Will Graham says of Hannibal Lecter, “He’s a monster.  I think of him as one of those pitiful things that are born in hospitals from time to time.  They feed it, and keep it warm, but they don’t put it on the machines and it dies.  Lecter is the same way in his head, but he looks normal and nobody could tell.”  Though I’m certainly neither a murderer nor a cannibal, I think I know what he means.  I think I know how that feels.

I’m tired of being in pain, of knowing that I can never get back even a semblance of all that I’ve lost.  I miss my children so much, but I have nothing to offer them.  I even miss their mother as well, but I clearly have less than nothing to offer her.  Every breath is a weariness.

In defense of scientism

[Originally posted on on July 20th, 2017]

On this 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, I want to talk a little bit about science, and how it, in principle, can apply to nearly every subject in life.

The word science is derived from Latin scientia, and earlier scire, which means “to know.”  I am, as you might have guessed, a huge fan of science, and have in the past even been a practitioner of it.  But science is not just a collection of facts, as many have said before me.  Science is an approach to information, and more generally to reality itself, a blend of rationalism and empiricism that calls on us to apply reason to the phenomena which we find in our world and to understand, with increasing completeness, the rules by which our world operates.  Personally, I think there are few—and possibly no—areas into which the scientific method cannot be applied to give us a greater understanding of, insight into, and control of, our world and our experience. Continue reading “In defense of scientism”

Phone calls aren’t old-fashioned, and a call from me isn’t worth the effort, anyway.

There’s a Facebook meme that I sometimes see, and it goes something like this: “Call me old fashioned, but I prefer a phone call to a text message.  I want to hear your voice, to have a personal connection, not just read what you have to say.”

I don’t think I have the words exactly right, but the gist of the thing is there, and it’s the general message and attitude of it that I want to address to begin with.  The attitude conveyed by the meme seems to be one of self-righteousness and self-congratulation—though probably most of the people who share it don’t feel that way.  To many of us that’s the way it comes across, though, and I have little doubt that the originator of the meme felt smug and snooty as he or she created it.

It’s to that person that I’m really addressing the first part of this post, but I also want to speak to those who thoughtlessly share the meme, causing real pain for some people, one of whom is me.

First, and perhaps foremost, I want to address the absurd notion that a phone call could ever be “old-fashioned.”  Humans have had telephones—in any form—for barely over a century, and for the first half of that time, the phone was a rarely used, and a rarely owned, item.  Phones as a ubiquitous means of communication only came into common existence in the latter half of the twentieth century, and became something each person carried on their person only within the last decade or so.  Writing, on the other hand—text messages, if you will—has existed in one form or another for millennia. Continue reading “Phone calls aren’t old-fashioned, and a call from me isn’t worth the effort, anyway.”