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.