Saturday, May 19, 2007

Unleash problem-solving

I've been asked to contribute to a coming WIRED issue that discusses "what we need from science." Here's a draft for comment. Of course, much of it will seem yawningly familiar to you folks....

Given the daunting range of problems and opportunities that we face, I'd have to say that our most urgent scientific and technological need is to develop better methods for problem-solving.

Some pieces to the puzzle are already getting attention. Governments and big institutions are developing ways to combine sensor meshes and data mining with powerful analytic and projection tools. But this emphasis on centralized or professional-level anticipation ignores the other half of the solution -- generating a resilient citizenry. A populace so knowing and capable that all problems get noticed and addressed, quickly, by a billion eyes.

Naturally, quild-credentialed professionals have mixed feelings about such a prospect. But, in fact, this trend is in keeping with the way markets, democracy and science all use lateral feedback, rather than than top-down control.

Of course, that won't be enough. We also need help from science to achieve rapid increases in effective human _intelligence and _sanity. This may be achieved somewhat through rising individual abilities, both at thinking and using advanced tools. But the real potential may be in better collective intelligence, through improved methods of positive sum debate and discourse. That will call for tools that are vastly better than the drivel that passes for "discussion" on today's websites and blogs.

Finally, I think the word "sanity" is ripe for rediscovery, after years of well deserved exile (for past, horrific mis-uses). We may be ready for a new, modern and eclectic definition -- one that is based upon tolerance, adaptability, satiability, positive-sum ambition and openness to change.

Above all, we may benefit immensely if science proves, at last, that self righteous indignation is an addictive, self-doped drug high. Imagine how moderate problem solvers of all kinds will be empowered, when they can point to yammering indignation-junkies at every end of the political spectrum, and tell them to get help.

Then, we might roll up our sleeves and start negotiating with each other like adults, finding ways to heal the world.


daveawayfromhome said...

I'm not sure that technology or science is the source for the cures this nation needs. For instance, regarding addiction to indignation, we know all sorts of stuff about other various addictions (scientifically or not), and yet addiction continues unabated.
What we need is a new philosophy, or philosopher. Another Martin Luther King (or a good Jerry Falwell), someone who can redirect the thinking of the masses in a more productive direction. Then the technology angle can kick in.
Blogging, like message boards, or pamphlets, or soap-boxes in the park, dont work any better than the people who listen to them. As long as those who participate only listen to what they want to hear and rarely think about anything that they do hear, all the technology or psychology or educational advances will be for naught.

Whatever the solution, it will probably take a generation to achieve. It's taken decades to get to our current predicament, getting out will be no faster, unless it's done in a very unpleasant manner. Actually, I'd be worried about any solution that did take off in popular opinion, because that smacks of fashion, which changes like clothes, but leaves the same old body inside.

Start with education: bring back Civics class, and have it taught in a professional manner by an objective instructor. Get people thinking about government and their role in it. I think all else will flow from that.

TheRadicalModerate said...

My concern with population-augmenting sanity, intelligence, or even wisdom, is that we really don't understand how society will respond to these kinds of fundamental changes in micro- and macroscopic behavior. These things all sound great, just as superbly efficient communications sounded great forty years ago. The communications revolution has obviously been a mixed blessing with both the good and the bad being largely unforeseen.

My vote for the science we most need are techniques for analyzing and engineering complex, non-linear, dynamic systems. We've already seen the limits of laissez-faire in market dynamics--even if the engineering significantly lags the analysis. We're going to reach the same limits in social systems one day, especially with people trying to augment human mental and moral capacity. When that day comes, I sure hope we know what to tweak to maintain complex stability.

TheRadicalModerate said...

Along a similar vein, I'm reminded of a quote from Brunner's the Shockwave Rider:

"First we had the legs race. Then we had the arms race. Now we're going to have the brain race. And, if we're lucky, the final stage will be the human race."

reformed tourist said...

I find myself concerned that daveawayfromhome feels that the answer lies initially in yet another authoritarian singularity - I would hope that something more akin to E.O. Wilson's concept of consilience were to enjoy a resurgence among both the professional and managerial classes such that common cause developed out of common understanding. I greatly mistrust the siren call of the robust orator, especially those who declaim moral answers to empirical questions. Moreover, I would argue that humanity has rarely found lasting answers to social ills through the imposition of spirituality, however well intentioned.

Mutual (and enlightened) self-interest is a hard enough concept to get across without the added baggage of religiosity. A return to sanity suggests that we were once there - I submit that the best we've enjoyed was a nearer approach to that state prior to the last 7, no make that, 27 years ago.

Daveaway...'s point is well taken that the forum and media one indulges in predisposes a certain limit to results. Social evolution, however, is driven in much the same manner as the biosphere at large: there are stimuli that cause cataclysmic change and those that cumulatively effect what might be termed glacial change. Perhaps the most disturbing factor in these modern times is not simply the extraordinary willingness to suspend disbelief, but rather the truly boggling lack of respect given to critical thinking as a whole coupled with the utter lack of widespread knowledge of what the true definition of "theory" is.

David Brin said...

I do portray, in EARTH, a transcendant singularity that lets us have our cake and eat it too. Positive sum. Become part of something vaster/wiser while retaining individuality and vibrantly competitive humanness.

It not only can happen, as an emergent property of "layers of complexity..."

... it MUST happen.


Oh, has anyone noticed this weird immigration bill?

Weird because suddenly the government of the US seems to have (briefly) re-opened business. Moderate dems and moderate goppers combining, horsetrading common sense reforms and coming up with a combination that makes sense from dozens of angles.

Whaaaaa? And now dig this. Even Bush is backing it.

cue Twilight Zone music. I am creeped out with suspicion.

reformed tourist said...

For what it is worth, David, I used the term "singularity" thinking of Earth...

And re the immigration bill, I, too, am deeply suspicious. As with all things Bush, the key will be to follow the money.

daveawayfromhome said...

@ reformed tourist: no no no no. Not an "authoritarian singularity", but someone with both a new meme and a way to get it heard. Yes, Falwell was an authoritarian, but he set something (wrong and) powerful into motion. But so did King; would you call him an authoritarian, or Ghandi?

reformed tourist said...

I would never detract from the legacies or otherwise impugn the motives of King and Ghandi, but I would also not simply attribute to them the title of sole agents of change in their respective endeavors.

The notion of a cyber-messiah, however still leaves me a bit cold. Physical science may enjoy the romantic historical conceit (as does Political science, for that matter) of the lone discoverer, but the depths of complexity that we are plumbing in the present (let alone the future) intrinsically require a more collective, collegial approach.

I must also regretfully point out that despite their heroic efforts, Ghandi's India, while no longer a British colony, still suffers from continued sectarian violence. And to our shame closer to home, racism remains a pre-dominant facet of both American political and public life. This doesn't lessen the achievements of those 2 giants, but rather points out the need for a wider-ranging, more compelling, and ultimately successful meme.

To restate, given the realities of history and human nature, I don't believe that the solution set, or even the genesis of the solution set will derive from any single source. I would be deeply wary of any such exposition. An environment that breeeds and enhances synthesis is more likely to provide salutary results.

Anonymous said...

One small suggestion. As one who cares for a person with a mental illness sanity is such a enormous term and so often misused you would be much better with a term like Societal health. Or healthy society. I realize you may be trying to shock people out of complacency but you may end up reinforcing old stereotypes and left/right doublethink.

sociotard said...

Here's the thing about Bush and Immigration. The most common opinion republicans hold regarding immigration is that the borders should be secured and illegal workers deported. David Brin has repeatedly demonstrated that George Bush has not done this, while Bill Clinton nearly did.

I say this is because Bush does not want to get rid of the illegals. He wants to make them legal and lure them into his party.

Just look at the rates of demographic shift. Whichever party can bag the Hispanic vote gains a huge support, especially if all those illegal people become legal voting people.

The reforms will help Mexicans enter our nation legally. We would presume they would prefer that and support politicians who likewise prefered it. Therefore, George Bush will support the reforms.

David Brin said...

Actually, the Bushes supported ILLEGAL immigration, crippling the Border Patrol (both father and son) in a blatant set of actions that the rednecks cannot allow themselves to see and the dems cannot allow themselves to exploit.

The subtext is to break the unions, which favor LEGALS immigration so they can organize legal workers and gain members... Hence Bill Clinton's FIRST act of office was to double the number of agents at the border and enact Operation Gatekeeper.

SO why is Bush giving in on increasing border coverage? Because his base is waking up. Simple. Hence he must get his real masters what THEY want (cheap, non-union labor) without offending red-staters. Hence the many categories of non-green-card guest workers.

What surprises me most is that the dems have partly backed off on one of THEIR insanities... insisting that this gigantic tsunami of recent immigration be based entirely on "reuniting families"... including zecond cousins, and then, a year later, THEIR second cousins...

What unmitigated PC loony crap! Are other people less deserving of a chance to come here, just because they don't already have this chain of nepotism going? Yes, some re-uniting makes sense. But so does letting some of this incoming wave be made up of people who had the vigor to develop talents and skills, back home. Only if we take in skilled people can the economy zoom enough to KEEP starying generous with immigration, a wisdom the left never gets.

Still, let's be frank. This kind of consensual and somewhat logical bill could only happen after the dems retook Congress. Yes, this one isn't strictly party line. But it took a somewhat sane party taking over before the few sane guys in the other party had a chance to get back to their job of deliberating genuine law.

And THAT is why we need to restore the word "sanity".

(ANybody know where I did my riff about that word, elsewhere?

Anonymous said...

Note that they're trying to rush it through Congress before any meaningful public debate can occur, the exact opposite of the Transparent Society ideal. I'm sorry to say that your suspicions are extremely well-founded.

Large-scale Mexican immigration is an issue that pits the interests of the elite against that of the middle class. While the elite gets more cheap, compliant labor, the middle class bears the costs of wrecked public school systems and other services.

Anonymous said...

Given the daunting range of problems and opportunities that we face, I'd have to say that our most urgent scientific and technological need is to develop better methods for problem-solving.

Most of our societal problems don't require new science to be solved, just a little good will and some common sense.

OIL Dependence, Raise the taxes gas until people start driving Honda Fits instead of Hummers.

Global Warming, Enforce efficiency standards on all new appliances, and organize a buy back program to replace the old & inefficient.

Pollution, Enforce Environmental laws, make them stricter and repeal all grandfathered loop-holes.

Budget Deficit, Raise income taxes & close the loop-holes, downsize our military.

Health-care, Single-payer system that offers basic standard medical coverage for every-one and lets people buy additional coverage.

daveawayfromhome said...

If either side was really serious about ending illegal immigration there would have been some sort of provision about those who hire illegal aliens.

Anonymous said...

The immigration bill seems to be progressing along the same lines of "bipartisanship" that a secret trade deal has been rolling along:

In my mind, anything that gains Bush's approval without driving several sharp stakes into his feet deserves immediate distrust.

RandomSequence said...

My vote for the science we most need are techniques for analyzing and engineering complex, non-linear, dynamic systems. We've already seen the limits of laissez-faire in market dynamics--even if the engineering significantly lags the analysis. We're going to reach the same limits in social systems one day, especially with people trying to augment human mental and moral capacity. When that day comes, I sure hope we know what to tweak to maintain complex stability.

Quite right, except: we reached the limit of social engineering (particularly in terms of theoretical tools) about 4000 years ago. Everything since then has been basically guesswork.

For economics, we can hope that advancements in non-equilibrium systems theory can help us out. But economics is in a sense the "trivial" case of social engineering - you've got a simple linear unit of exchange that reduces all the relationships and their variables into this tiny dimension.

But for social engineering? Every attempt since the Spartans has been a nightmare. You're talking about stuffing into clan primate's brains a factorial function of relationships - this primate knows its limits! You're talking about understanding a group of monkeys well known for cannibalism, infanticide, rape, an infinity of sexual desires, greed, self-sacrifice, awesome group solidarity, artwork and language. I think the Sumerians were probably at our limit.

RandomSequence said...

David, David, David...

The Dem's immigration policy being loony PC crap? Please - (some of) the Dems have the same corporate masters (some of) the Reps have. The difference is just rhetorical, and shouldn't be taken seriously.

Who passed NAFTA without adequate labor protections or environmental protections? A Dem president and a Rep Congress. Who has been behind the ever-expanding WTO system which completely ignores labor rights, environmental rights and the rights of sovereignty? Both Reps and Dems.

Let's speak frankly! Those with big cash have interest in illegal immigration - it creates a labor pool with minimal protections. It allows the opening of free trade without the necessary economic investment in infrastructure required to bring portions of the market up to par with the rest of the system. That inevitably becomes a cudgel against demands for infrastructure investment in the more advanced portions of the market.

Who does the big money support? The Reps and the Dems. They're the two sides of the coins - the completely irresponsible elites, and the only slightly more responsible elites (reverse the lables if you want). Neither party can survive without the backing of Wall Street.

David Brin said...

Nice smug lecture... that ignores the facts JUST MENTIONED. That Clinton fiercely clamped down on illegal immigration as his very FIRST act in office.

WHile the dems did unleash the biggest surge in LEGAL immigration in US history, surpassing even the 1890s, simply by loosening family reunion rules.

So your entire cynical logic - which smugly indignant and I am sure richly satisfying, simply bears no relation to facts.

NAFTA was far more complex than kneejerk anti-globalists will ever let themselves admit. Free trade zones have many yin yangs and tradeoffs and the EU shows how long the tweaking need go on. Pragmatists of good will (thus, by definition NEITHER righties nor lefties) have to work at it to find the hidden ways that parasites exploit the rules unfairly and finding ways to ensure labor and health and environment get included.

But there is one chief aim and it has lurched forward. It is simple and pragmatic.


Cheap labor notwithstanding, one of the most important things on our agenda should be to turn Mexico into a rich and happy neighbor.

RandomSequence said...


And have Mexican living standards gone up? Hmmm? Why are Mexicans willing to risk life and limb to cross the desert? What has happened to local Mexican industry? Why is Mexico fighting a native insurgency in the South? And you want to tell me that no one could have foreseen this, just like no one could have foreseen 9/11?

And you still want to say this is a question of good-will? You're right, it's not about left and right. Bill was smarter than the current gang - no doubt about that. But, in the end, he gets us to the same place. Under neither Clinton nor Bush has there been any serious attempt to improve Mexican living standards - just lots of loose talk about trade helping "everyone".

The dynamics of illegal immigration in the end are not driven by the details of legal immigration - they are driven by the economic realities of a single market between the US and Mexico. Improving the standard of living in Mexico will not be automatic - and neither the Dems nor the Reps have actually proposed legislation to do so. Bill didn't do it. The Dems haven't. The Reps haven't. Bush of course hasn't. And of course, it's much too late for protectionism - at this point that would cause a total collapse in Mexico (and the US). But it will take a big cash outlay to fix things, just like we did with the south mid-century - when the same process occurred, and for which we are still paying the price.

You want to be indignant at those who question our sacred cows? Well, satisfy yourself with your cap-locks. But there's some serious problems brewing. We've had many years of "knee-jerk" anti-globalization, but have you seen any response in terms of labor rights and environmental issues? Long after Kyoto, where are we? And it's not just the US - even our smug EU allies have been unwilling to commit serious capital to any of these issues, while they watch their vaunted social democracies slowly deteriorate.

I'm more than happy to be pleasantly surprised. But don't ask me to call someone with five year vision a genius, because our other choice is someone with 1 year vision.

RandomSequence said...

In shorter words, show me the money! The rest is hot air.

Anonymous said...

We need a generous guest worker program that requires workers to sign up in their country of origin.

Millions of illegals would flood home to sign up - proving John McCain wrong.

Workers would need to return home after some period, and get back in line - giving others a chance, and making it clear that guest status is temporary.

No preference should be given to former illegals - making conservatives happy.

No penalties should apply either - satisfying those who want amnesty.

Illegal border crossings would plummet due to the safe/legal alternative and lack of jobs for illegals.

A few other "minor" points have to be dealt with - taxes, families, cultural concerns, self-employed illegals, employer penalties, anti-counterfeiting, etc.

Anonymous said...

If you replace every "free" in so called free trade agreements with the word "managed" or "regulated" then you have a true appreciation of where these agreements are headed.

Every time government gets involved in trade by "managing" it wedges open the door for cheating by kleptocrats.

Anonymous said...

Prime example
codex alimentarius
EU regulations for
food and nutritional additives
WTO has said if you are a complying nation then you have to implement codex alimentarius.

The result of this will be in the US of making many Vitamins into prescription drugs.

daveawayfromhome said...

"Workers would need to return home after some period, and get back in line - giving others a chance, and making it clear that guest status is temporary."

My question here would be "why?" Why would they return home, why would they wait in line, why would they sign up? Those who are already here, will have no more motivation to go back home than they already have. They have jobs, which provides all else. To make the illegals go back home and follow the rules (and I have no problem with guest worker plans, provided that it is not privatized) you will have to deprive them of any current jobs they may have or get in the future. If there is no penalty other than a slap on the wrist for employing illegals, the employment will continue, and all the exploitation that goes with it. Put some teeth in laws against hiring illegals and step up enforcement a lot, then watch illegals go home to get in line. Otherwise, why should they?

David Brin said...

I despair of people not seeing that migration to cities (even crossing the border to migrate to US cities) has been part of national development for a long time. Stewart Brand even points out that it has ecological advantages. It certainly reduces birth rates.

Moreover, the remittances sent home by laborers in the US are often THE thing lifting up villages back in Mexico.

Try stopping patronizing assumptions and TALK to some of these workers (the sharp ones who have honed their English) about their home villages.

You may be surprised to hear about their little home rancheras and trips home to spend a thousand here and there on brick and mortar and pipe and concrete, building up a house and barn and investing in a horse, a truck...

...and then adding a hundred to the pot of the expatriate village association to get that road in, the extra room on the school, the cell phone pylon. Some of these village associations in LA hold street fair fundraisers. They have offices both in LA and back home with humming fax lines back and forth.

ANd if you do not know about stuff like this, then your compassion is limited to enjoying angry oversimplifications, not viewing the world's complexity as an opportunity to learn the Engineering of Progress.

The oversimplifying mythologies pursued by the left are sometimes as infuriatingly racist and ignorant as those on the right! We are talking not billions or tens of billions but HUNDREDS, over the last decade. or two. Some (Oh, certainly not all!) of the laborers you meet here -- hauling and scraping and sweating at stuff you'd never do -- are local heroes and mini-lords back home and own horses and fruit trees.

I am not trying to sugar coat. The picture I am painting is as tarnished as it is shiny. But the point is that the simpleminded stereotype utterly ignores the shine.
And thus ignores opportunities.
And thus is ignorant and stupid.

Almost as much as the far right is stupid for saying that the "market solves everything."

Unknown said...

The single most urgent priority for science is to extend its evidence-based methodology to the rest of society, including medicine, law, education and public policy.
This is not some startling original idea; Clay Shirky has advocated it for a long time, but he's only the latest of a long line of advocates for this idea, reaching back to Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and many many others. However, we now live in a global economy so interconnected that we can no longer afford the luxury of winging it and running our instutions by gut feel and ideological gladiator games, rather than evidence and the test of reality:

At present, U.S. medicine has no central database for identifying (for example) all the drugs a patient is currently taking, and what their interactions might be. Cuba has such a system -- but not America:

"Individually, these health statistics systems--such as data on AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, registries on cancer and other diseases, birth and death records, household health surveys, and provider records--generally meet the needs they were created for, albeit with room for improvement. But collectively,
as a national system of information on the health of the U.S. population, they are deficient. Because they were not planned as a unified system, they are a patchwork of data collection systems, both duplicative
and full of gaps."

Accreting many smaller medical databases into larger ones multiplies errors rather than reducing, and error rates in databases are already severe -- facts which bode ill for efforts to generate collective stats from
our fragmented archipelago of medical databases:

"...Payroll record changes have a 1% error rate, billing records have a 2-7% error rate, and the error rate for credit records may be as high as 30%."

What's the cumulative total error rate of American medical records? No one knows -- the records are spread out over too many databases, and many records are not even currently entered into computerized systems (they exist only on paper, in filing cabinets or shelf file systems!), for anyone to form a reliable estimate.

What's the patient mortality rate for each doctor in your local hospital? Can you find out before you choose a doctor? Which doctor scores highest? Which one scores lowest by comparison with a regional and then a national average for that medical specialty? Do you know? Not only do you NOT know, chances are the hospital doesn't know, nor do the doctors themelves. Which ER procedures result in the most saved lives in each community? No one knows. We have no central record-keeping system for American medicine, and as a result medical policy
remains adrift is guesstimation and trial and error.

Likewise, The Innocence Project has applied evidence-based testing to rape convictions, with startling results. This has thrown much of the justice system into chaos and
cast grave doubt on the reliability of eyewitness evidence.
The result? Prosecutors fight against evidence-based procedures in the law! (The best way to keep your conviction rate high is to block DNA testing of convicted rapists.)

In education, we find that rising test scores fail to correlate with increasing skill-sets by graduates. While I.Q. tests march ever upward over the generations, courtesy
of the Flynn Effect

...U.S. high school graduates keep falling farther and farther behind the rest of the world in basic skills:

The same proves true of non-science and non-math student skill sets:

"Our elementary and middle schoosl are sending students to high schoo lwith higher reading skills yet students graduate able to read no better than their peers did a decade ago."

Meanwhile, K-12 U.S. education (particularly in the sciences) continues to get dumbed down, courtesy of "social promotion" and No Child Left Behind test rankings that deceptively rank as "proficient" students who read 1 to 2 grades below their grade level, and other forms of left-wing feel-good ideology, along with the usual right-wing ideology like creationism injected into science classes:

The claim that schools used to demand much more of students isn't just mindless nostalgia. Take a look at this high school final exam from 1895. Then ask yourself if you could pass it today:

Moreover, the degeneration in basic educational standards is international, as this example from Britain clearly shows:

"...My former colleagues, senior doctors in the hospital that I worked in until my recent retirement, received a leaflet with their monthly pay stubs. It offered them, along with all other employees, literacy training: a little late in their careers as doctors, one might have thought.
"The senior doctors could take up to 30 hours of free courses to improve their literacy and numeracy skills, all in working time, of course. In these courses, they could learn to spell at least some words, to punctuate, to add and do fractions, and to read a graph.
“Do you have a SPIKEY [sic] profile?” asked the leaflet, and went on to explain: “A spikey profile is when a person is good at literacy but not at mathematics or visa [sic] versa.” The reader could address himself to one of no fewer than four members of the hospital staff who were “contact persons” for the courses, among them the Vocational Training Coordinator and the Non-Vocational Training Coordinator. In case none was available to answer the telephone or reply to e-mails, the reader could contact one of three central government agencies that deal with the problem of illiterate and innumerate employees."

Lack of basic science education leads to abominations like this:

Cases like the one above are absolutely indefensible in the modern world, given our current state of scientific knowldege. It is well known that humans are particularly bad at statistical reasoning:

And since this is well known, science can offer a variety of methods for correcting this intrinsic human bias in reasoning. This proves particularly important, insofar as most public policy decisions are based on statistical reasoning.

Our society's ongoing failure to use evidence-based methodology
from science leads to crazy public policy of the kind we find in hospitals, where interns who deal with life-threatening situations are forced to stay awake for 36 hours straight despite findings like this:

Lack of basic science education and lack of evidence-based thinking leads to crazy public policy decisions. Decisions like encouraging suburban sprawl with dumb tax incentives, or continuing to use a hub-and-spoke system in our air transportion, resulting in ever-increasing logjams courtesy
of Braess' Paradox.

As you know, Braess' Paradox tells us that adding additional links in a transportation network leads to worse performance. This occurs, as is well known, because in any transport network, the traffic jams always appear in the nodes, never in the interconnections twixt the nodes -- i.e., freeways jam up because of spillback at the onramps and offramps, not because of lack of lanes on the freeway proper, or beacuse of the speed limits on the freeway lanes. Moreover, because adding links increases the number of nodes as the square of the number of links, you get geometrically worse perfomrance by adding more links. This explains why our current hub-and-spoke air travel system experiences geometrically increasing delays as we increase the number of spokes. The delays result from logjams in the boarding terminals, not the speed of the jets themselves, nor from the lack of flights between the hubs. Yet, though Braess' Paradox is today well known, our society persists in maldesigning transportation networks guaranteed to run afoul of this basic principle, with predictable results:

If we weren't nearing Peak Oil this would be bad enough, but it's utterly inexcusable in a world running out of petroleum reserves.

Of course, science itself continues to reveal that the human mind, far from operating on logic, is primarily a swirling soup of emotion and self-delusion, rather than a rational homo economicus difference engine, as
demonstrated by experiments like this:

This probably explains why some people in our society persist in speaking out vehemently against reason and tolerance, and why they're making lucrative careers out of it:

It's long past time for scientists to push back and exert some influence on society by arguing publicly for evidence-based methods throughout society, not just in science itself.

An uneducated society, following not science-based methods of evidence but gut feelings and rhetoric, does have its least to the powers that be:

But it has far more drawbacks.

It seems increasingly likely that the early 21st century represents a return to medievalism. Many have noted this, including Thomas Wolfe in his oft-quoted essay "The Great Relearning," and Martin Van Creveld, in this prescient article from 2000:

It falls to science and in particular to science education to combat this new medievalism, which has given us every sort of self-delusion and error in reasoning from faith-based pre-emptive invasion of other countries to denial of evidence for global warming, to tautological justifications for string "theory" which fails to provide us with the basic requirements of science (to wit, falisifiable predictions), to lunacies like the anti-evolution and anti-secular hysteria on the right and the anti-frankenfood and anti-nuclear frenzy on the left.

Unknown said...

The URL for terrorpets should be:

The story points out that as the U.S. military becomes increasingly desperate for recruits, it's now inducting thousands of gang members. Common sense suggests that the fourth generation warfare kills those American inner city gang members learn in Iraq will soon enough wind up getting used against the police back in America, courtesy of home-made cellphone IEDs und so weiter. At which point our glorious leaders will wail, "Who could ever have foreseen this horrible new cycle of urban violence in America???"

Uneducated kids may wind up becoming gang members in America and going off to fight wars for our wealthy elite, but those uneducated kids aren't stupid. And they'll bring back the urban warfare techniques they learn from the insurgents to American inner cities -- and they'll use 'em.

Anonymous said...

Well, the immigration bill seems to be the topic of the day, so let's start out with that.

Guest worker programs of any sort are just a way for a company to get cheap indentured servants. They're a piece of crap. Anybody who comes to the country and is willing to live here and work should have the chance to become a citizen.

The border fence idea is just a pointless bit of show for the xenophobe base.

Making a path for legalizing the people already here is probably the best and most important part, because once they're legal, they'll pay taxes, they'll be covered by minimum wage, they'll be part of the system, with everything that goes with it. That's probably the best part of the bill, and it seems to be fairly reasonably done, not just a giveaway, but neither is it something impossible.

And the bill, as far as I've seen, doesn't have anything to do with enforcement against companies that hire illegal immigrants. That's the biggest reason we have so many, because there's many companies, especially agriculture, that love to have laborers they can pay less than minimum wage, not provide any health care or documentation or taxes, and being illegal, none of the workers can go to anyone when their working conditions suck, because they're afraid of being deported. Which is an enormous indictment of how bad things are in parts of Mexico, but doesn't do anything to justify these companies' exploitation. You'll hear companies saying they can't get Americans to do the work, but that's a crock, they can't get Americans to do the work because they don't want to pay a decent wage.

So, all in all, would I say the bill's good? Probably not. And the thing is, we can probably get a better bill. The "pass it then fix it later" idea hasn't worked out so hot, NAFTA and other trade deals never got around to getting those labor and environmental protections, the PATRIOT act still hasn't been fixed to be constitutional, the Medicare drug benefit is still just a boondoggle benefiting the pharmaceutical companies, etc.

Especially without anything to address the companies hiring illegal immigrants, I'd have to say this bill really doesn't cut it.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin et al.,

I'm hoping this isn't behind the subscriber wall:

It is entitled "A Good Provider is One Who Leaves."

But this leaves a major issue yet on the table, one that is the core of globalization:

Why is it the poor and working classes that must pay for the development of the world? Why is the middle class in this country absorbing a negative savings rate to provide for economic growth and investment that makes Wall Street speculators rich? Why do we borrow money from the national treasury to give a tax holiday to the wealthy during a time of crisis (called the "fight for our generation," but not important enough for a draft or transformation from consumer to war economy)?

I think a part of science-based learning is not just in the problem solving, but the proper problem *defining.* Note how all the slick PR agencies are setting up their barracades not at the solution step ("it will be soooo expensive to fix the world") but at the problem step ("global warming is just a natural fluctuation").

The real work for us in the reality-based world I think is still in the problem definition step. We still have to show people that every time they make a certain set of political choices, they are being returned the same structure of middle-class-attacking, environment-stripping, soak-the-poor and feed-the-rich infrastructure as is causing many of the problems we are currently seeing.

Once we get the ability to get consensus on what the (root, not just symptom) problems and priorities are, only then can we talk about appropriate solutions.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what it is, but we love Al Gore in Canada, and in Toronto in particular.

Apparently he's coming out with a new book about the democratic process in the US. Not sure if that's been covered yet by media there. The title itself hints at a line of reasoning similar to David's, so I thought I'd ask on this forum if there's anything else known about it.

See this link for some basic info:


Anonymous said...


"Why would they return home, why would they wait in line, why would they sign up? Those who are already here, will have no more motivation to go back home than they already have. They have jobs, which provides all else."

Self-interest. An effective guest worker program should quickly shift jobs from illegals to guest workers.

Of course, that assumes the program isn't made so onerous that employers and workers go around it.

David Brin said...

Al Gore has been cribbing from me ever since EARTH. And since I invented the Internet. I like the guy and approve of him... how could I not, when he clones everything I say! Worse, he often does it BEFORE I said it! It get ticked off but, as I said, I guess it's better to be ripped off by a great guy who almost gets it right than to be ripped off by, well, Hollywood.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the interview with Dyane Sawyer. I don't know if it was on purpose but she sure did show how vapid and shallow the TV news is.

Anonymous said...

Why is it the poor and working classes that must pay for the development of the world?

Cynical answer: they're the ones who live in the undeveloped parts of the world, so they should pay for their own benefits. :P

Naum said...

Is there such a thing as a **effective** guest worker program? Effective by what measure? If gauged on the merit of increasing a cheap and compliant labor pool.

Seems they are closer to slavery in nature, with employees held captive to a single employer. Where there is no freedom of job mobility, terrible disincentives for speaking out illegal actions, and other injustices. It's a throwback to times of almost a century ago. Folks who come here for hard work should not be treated as second class citizens.

While there may be some redeeming value, I don't think it offsets the total minus, especially considering the impact to American workers. It depresses wages, squeezes the least of us, and crushes opportunity. It's a weighted hand, with global labor arbitrage — employers have ability to move work and workers across borders, while workers migrate at great cost and peril. And it's not just in effect at the lower end of the wage income scale — there are millions of professional positions now served in "cheaper labor" locales or by importing foreign workers, most of which are entry level equivalents. While official unemployment statistics are not indicative of an impending crisis, a study of new job creation reveals the vast majority to be lower paying service jobs, many of which are prime candidates for replacement by advances in automation and robotics. Throw in the fact that job security is no more, with workers spending less and less time with each employer, and that adds up to anti-immigration pressure.

I believe as one writer put it (, it's not an "illegal immigration" problem, it's an illegal employer" problem. But now the problem has so manifested itself, brute force solutions like walls and military roundups are impractical and unjust. I, like most Americans, remain opposed to illegal immigration, but I am sickened by the xenophobic nature displayed by much of the anti-immigration crowd.

Senator Kyl (R) is taking heat from constituents for his support of the recent immigration bill. On Monday, I heard him on the radio, defending his position deftly by casting it is something unappealing that had to be done due to the Democratic majority in Congress. I found that to be quite amusing, considering that Democrats have no veto proof majority and not even enough to escape cloture in the Senate. If he truly wanted better immigration legislation, he could talk to the President who is a like member of his political party.

Though it seems to me that a compromise in legislation of this nature profits corporate interests at the expense of both immigrants and working Americans. I'd like to see Democrats stand up for the latter.

David Brin said...

You guys are unfair to the guest worker concept.

The same workers get to send money home (their chief aim). Only now, since they will be legal, they will be able to:

complain about environmental, safety and gross labor abuses

See ombundsmen about the above

Send money home by normal channels, avoiding usery

create bank accounts and drive legally etc while here.

In fact, I was a guest worker when I stayed more than a year in Britain.

Dig it. If it is legal and open and transparent, then there are fewer opportunities for gross exploitation. Yes, the unions hate it and too big a program will be the same as imporing scabs to break what little union power remains. I did not say I support all aspects. Just recognize that this is a complex situation and party lines aren't the be all and end all.

Naum said...

The same workers get to send money home (their chief aim). Only now, since they will be legal, they will be able to: complain about environmental, safety and gross labor abuses… :See ombundsmen about the above… …Send money home by normal channels, avoiding usery… …create bank accounts and drive legally etc while here.

There are redeeming features, like I wrote. However, the negatives far outweigh the positives. This issue is striking for how different the view of elites is in contrast to working Americans. There was a poll, a few years back that measured elites (in media, business, government) view vs. working American view on immigration and it was quite disparate.

In fact, I was a guest worker when I stayed more than a year in Britain. Dig it. If it is legal and open and transparent, then there are fewer opportunities for gross exploitation.

From my first hand experience working with legal non-immigrant visa workers (H-1B, etc.…), exploitation is what happens for the mass of cases. Workers burdened with debt, indentured to firm, and absolutely no oversight whatsoever other than "self-policing". Some would disappear to escape such prohibitive contracts and resurface to work "illegally" because of it.

Meanwhile, thousands of good paying jobs that could be filled by young Americans are instead manned by entry level foreign immigrants.

Without a doubt, your experience is totally different than many coming here to work who are of different race and creed. Rich western professionals working offshore can't be compared to guest workers in the U.S.. History is a showcase for how abusive and exploitative guest worker programs are.

Again, if I have to choose a side, then I would opt for immigrants being here and NOT being treated like 2nd class citizens.

Make employers pay a living wage, create incentives for advancing automation/robotics. Grow the pie bigger… …not provide a captive labor market for aristocrats!

Anonymous said...

"Is there such a thing as a **effective** guest worker program? Effective by what measure? "

The pragmatic measure is obvious (if a bit circular) - it's effective if it largely eliminates illegal immigration. The details of how to make it effective are too complex to resolve here.

A fundamental "guest worker program" question is - do you want massive numbers of foreigners working in the US, why or why not? There are valid reasons to take either side.

Do we want to cut off the income of these relatively impoverished workers? But do we really like being the sort of nation that exploits massive amounts of cheap foreign labor?

Maybe offer citizenship to anyone in the GW program, after they've worked here a year or two. Many won't want it, but at least we'd have had the decency to offer it. Of course, we'd probably have to do it over objections from Mexico...

Anonymous said...

An interesting tidbit re: the Manchurian Candidate from an article by Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson:
Here the key figure is Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al Saud who, as Saudi ambassador to the United States, was one of the leading advocates of the attack on Iraq. Since October 2005 he has been back in Riyadh as Secretary-General of the National Security Council, where he is said to be lobbying hard for another attack: this time (you guessed it) on Iran.

Bandar, of course, is W's buddy that he's nicknamed "Bandar Bush" and the guy who schooled W in foreign policy while he was running for President back in 2000.

Anonymous said...

I'm honestly undecided about guest worker programs. My understanding is that places like Singapore and Switzerland make effective use of them. But such programs don't mix well with our egalitarian ideals, so I suspect it isn't politically possible to correctly implement one here. And no guest worker program may be better than a program that doesn't keep wages high enough to encourage businessmen to invest in labor saving technology.

Anonymous said...

Well, mr.justice i don't agree with you all about the program especially,it mixes well the egalatarian. It nice to get to see this informations more informations on problem solving.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin and the rest of you might like this article. It just went up from the June issue of the Washington Monthly, it's called How a Democrat Can Get My Vote, and it's interviews with seven recently retired military folks about the kinds of things they're concerned about and, obviously, how Democrats could get their votes.

Of course, since the military's made up of a lot of individual people, they sometimes disagree. One guy says the Democrats have to come up with a "plan to win" in the Middle East, another says to be decisive, even on calling for withdrawal. But it's an interesting piece to read, especially given our discussions here.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

I saw this link ( today and thought of your article, "Why Johnny Can't Code."

Some beautiful people got together and made a programming language (Ruby) to help kids learn to code.

Problem solved!

David Brin said...

Alas, while I appreciate such efforts, eg Ruby & Python, they simply miss the point.

Yes, highly motivated kids (like my son) will overcome the energy barrier and access such great tools.

But it used to be that MOST American kids got an inititial exposure to programming thru little BASIC programs IN THEIR TEXT BOOKS! The textbooks had these short exercises because ALL home PCs had the same easily accessed language.

I agree that BASIC is inferior. But it was there. Everywhere.

Unknown said...

But it used to be that MOST American kids got an inititial exposure to programming thru little BASIC programs IN THEIR TEXT BOOKS! The textbooks had these short exercises because ALL home PCs had the same easily accessed language.

Incorrect. During the period where BASIC was on PCs, most American kids did not have access to a PC (at least at home).

Don't wish to rehash an old argument but resources are so plentiful and available to aspiring programmers today — with a few clicks, the doors can be opening to any plane of programming, be it kernel hacking, game programming, web scripting or whatever magical mastery is desired to make the machine do the bidding of its master.

Given the propensity of programmer aptitude to flourish (see any research on the history and science of cultivating and recruiting programmers) in response to present day ubiquity, I'd say the situation is a whole lot better than it was 15-20 years ago.

And I write this as somebody that would have been so much more blessed in that old school Basic environment, but like many many Americans, socioeconomic concerns precluded my participation in programming computing machines until midway through college.

Squandering Resources said...

I work in the evil oil industry in Australia where there is a critical shortage of engineers and technicians (I could go on about the state of education with respect to engineering and science but that is off topic;-).

I have worked with brain pools in India and teams of guest workers in local offices. In this context it is just so much better for the local economy, and the guest workers, for the work to be done here rather than in a cubicle farm in Mumbai. We retain the ability to manage this work, our economy is not constrained by labour shortages and they eat and sleep locally.

When I do factory visits there are often teams of Chinese, Philippine and other nationals beavering away. They enjoy better wages and conditions than they can get at home and I know the finished product will be produced using the QA that I am used to.

The up side for the guest work is as David points out. I know single data points don’t prove the case but when talking to them they often talk about being able to acquire property back home, to support extended families and, most importantly for them, enough money to get married and start a family. They also get to see a different culture and perhaps will take some of the good ideas back home.

So I know a well managed guest worker programme works and works well for all parties (win win). There is the big concern about what happens on the down side of the economic cycle. The only answer is to control your politicians well enough so the guest worker program winds down with the economy. If you can’t do that then you are screwed anyhow.

Illegal immigrations is entirely a different problem. These are the people that are truly exploited and often in very bad ways. Anything that can be done to stop it should be done. Giving them legal status is a good start. Reals punitive fines for employers is also necessary, even better, make it a criminal offence with gaol time. If there is no chance of employment then the illegals wont come - word will spread quickly.

Anonymous said...

Re: Programming for Kids

I think the days of product ubiquity are coming to a close as the Long Tail manifests itself on the body economic (I picture a Jormungandr-like creature, but that's neither here nor there). The fact is, the option is out there, and it can be found with a little searching.

On the other hand, people still have the (increasingly less reasonable) expectation that they can walk into a store or explore the 'ware bundled in their new Dell and find something useful for a kid's education. I'm here to tell you that it ain't happening, at least in my town.

And whatever happened to the Summarizers, Evaluators and Aggregators that were supposed to make sense of the flood of Interwebbian data?

Mark Brown said...

Dr. Brin:

You asked for comments about the fact that BUSHKIE
(see my poetry blog for some great political poems at --

At any rate, I think the fact that Bush pulled this out of his hat is VERY closely related to the "shenanigans" surrounding Alberto, and his assistant, and the remaining folks in his "White house stable"

I think he pulled this out, while alberto was getting ready to testify before the house, and Monica this week.

I also STRONGLY think this is tied to the May 9 signing of the NSPD 51
and the EXTREME DEARTH of press coverage (except for blogs and the "freak"(coast-to-coast)press.

Try google news on NSPD 51 and see what does or doesnt come up

I personally am very very worried about this lack of coverage.
and yes, I AM paranoid that an event like Hurricane Katrina could cause BUSHKIE to put the ENTIRE country under this MARSHAL LAW
I did a word-by-word dissection of it over at my main blog

Thanks for listening.

Do you think YOU could forward some of these concerns to some news media?

I personally think (conspiracy theory... there was a secret portion of this that says NO coverage is to be allowed, or that media outlet will be forfeit to the US NCC (national continuity co-ordinator){read new dicator{

Oh, and I personally sent at least 20 emails to different newspapers, radio outlets, and tv stations/networks, and have had ABSOLUTELY no response.