Thursday, March 20, 2014

Politics Through a Scientific Lens

There are many parallels between the world of politics and that of the physical sciences, but some major differences, of course, too.  The upcoming election in my province of residence within Canada (Quebec), as well as the unstable and too often brutal reality in many other jurisdictions across the globe, has brought politics to the forefront of this engineer's brain.

To be honest, when I turned eighteen, and obtained the right to vote, I had little interest in politics (I probably could not have named my province's Premier at the time).  My feeling is that today, this age group is more worldly than I was.  However, until we truly grow roots where we live, be it through having kids or buying real estate, politics are usually quite far from one's mind.

As an adolescent with an interest in science, I had a kind of skewed view of what people should focus on.  My father explained to me that not everyone needed to know science, but everyone needed to be involved in democracy, be politically literate, and cast a vote.  I thought that if the choice was one or the other, people should be scientifically literate.

Now that I am older and hopefully wiser, I see that we were both wrong.  People should have a minimum literacy with both science and politics.  If we do not understand the basic science behind an energy crisis or global warming, how can we establish who has the best energy or environmental policies?  We certainly cannot trust most journalists to inform us - for two reasons: (1) they often work for a media company with a political agenda and (2) they rarely possess a basic background in science themselves.

The most interesting contrast between science and politics that I see is as follows...

With science, we try to understand the behaviour of the universe in which we live in order to adapt to it as best we can.  With politics, the goal is to create policies that will enable a given jurisdiction to thrive as best it can.  The key difference here is design.

Scientists study the code of the universe and policy-makers establish a code.  The nature of these codes are different, but the analogy holds.

The most obvious difference between these codes is that science laws, if correct, can never be broken at any time at any place within the universe.  Societal laws are specific to a certain place and can and will be broken.  We are so certain that they will be broken that we cannot create a law without planning out the consequences associated with breaking them.

Another interesting point to examine is the corruption associated with each field.  While the laws of the universe are infallible, those who seek to study them, scientists, are human, and on occasion, can be corrupted.  As for politicians, well, we'll get to them in a moment.

Let us consider the case of an environmental scientist who is paid a great deal by an oil company to state publicly that man-made climate change is a hoax.  The scientist has effectively chosen to never practice real science again, as his reputation will be forever tarnished within the science community.  Such a practice hurts society, whose citizens are caught in the crossfire of misinformation.  These citizens may become cynical about the practice of scientists.  As such, science institutions must be vigilant, and expose fraudulent studies, and ensure that those who back them lose face in the public domain.

Still, there is an important distinction to make here...

A scientist who is individually corrupt is very different from a science journal being corrupt.  Science journals are peer-reviewed and are the only place one can find research and trust it with supreme confidence.  There are literally hundreds of major science journals, and if any one of them were to publish falsehoods, the reputation of the journal would be called into question.  Such a risk is not worthwhile.  On occasion, an article with false data makes it through peer review and is published.  However, studies must be repeatable, and when they are not, false studies are retracted, pulled from the record, and all involved with the study face repercussions.  [A certain study linking vaccines to autism, which purposely skewed data, comes to mind]

This kind of self-policing, which is inherent to the practice of science, keeps the discipline honest.  Why is it that scandals in politics are so much more pervasive?

One reason is surely the short tenure of politicians, who often come to power after having already attained a fair bit of personal wealth.  Regardless of the performance of our leaders, they will only be in power for a short time.

Also, the consequences that corrupt politicians tend to face are fairly meek.  The only true repercussion of their misdeed is a stained legacy.  They will never be elected again... So what?  They usually do not intend to be involved in politics after their term is completed.

One other reason there is so much corruption in politics has to do with expectations.  A history of dishonesty among politicians has led to a cynical society; the expectation is that there will be dishonesty - at this point we just hope it will be minimal.  It is in this area that the self-policing of politics has failed, perhaps more now than ever before.  In a democracy, the voters are the ones who keep their leaders honest.  If less than 50% of eligible voters turn out (as is becoming the new norm in certain democracies), be it due to cynicism, or apathy, or both, then the political system is effectively broken.

What seems to be lacking most in politics is accountability, in both the individual and collective sense.

I leave you with this message:

We are unable to control the laws of science; we can merely study them and their effects.  In a democracy, we are able to affect the outcome of an election, and thus can impact the policies in place.  Let us use this power, and use it wisely.


PS: In the Quebec election, I intend to vote for the Liberal party.  I agree with their platform; it resonates with me.  Further, I have complete disdain for the Parti Quebecois who have used their short time in power to create divisive laws as a means to get re-elected, rather than creating policies that actually serve society in any kind of positive way.    

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