Sunday, May 17, 2009

Politics: What Kind of Science?

FLASH! This just in- a 'nerdly correction' has been sent, to wit:

"Please don't attribute this to me, but as a big fan of both series, I felt the compulsion to correct your reference to Bill Nye as the source of "I have a master's degree - in science". It should properly be attributed to an NPR radio show that lasts about 2 minutes called "Ask Dr. Science" - produced by Ducksbreath Mystery Theater. While I haven't heard it on the air in a while, the website still lives at with a daily science question. "I have a master's degree - in science" is the tag line after the cute little musical ditty and the "remember, he's not a real doctor" helpful disclaimer in case anyone thought otherwise. I love them both, but Ducksbreath makes absolutely no attempt to say anything that makes sense, whereas Bill Nye... he's still and forever The Science Guy.

P.S. Bill Nye has a degree in mechanical engineering, but just an undergraduate degree, I think. "

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule, the law of the vital few and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
That might also be the ratio of people who actively participate in politics to those who don't, but we can't be sure.

Bill Nye, the 'Science Guy' used to say 'I have a master's degree in science'.
But, he said it with tongue firmly in cheek. Kinda.
Have you ever wondered what 'science' he mastered in?
Probably chemistry or physics, maybe biology?
Ever wonder why we keep using that word 'mastered', instead of some sort of made-up, gender-neutral term?
Maybe that has to do with the science of physics, particularly Newton's Laws;, as paraphrased below:
Newton's first law: law of inertia
Lex I: Corpus omne perseverare in statu suo quiescendi vel movendi uniformiter in directum, nisi quatenus a viribus impressis cogitur statum illum mutare. Every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.

Newton's second law
Lex II: Mutationem motus proportionalem esse vi motrici impressae, et fieri secundum lineam rectam qua vis illa imprimitur. The change of momentum of a body is proportional to the impulse impressed on the body, and happens along the straight line on which that impulse is impressed.

Newton's third law: law of reciprocal actions
Lex III: Actioni contrariam semper et æqualem esse reactionem: sive corporum duorum actiones in se mutuo semper esse æquales et in partes contrarias dirigi. For a force there is always an equal and opposite reaction: or the forces of two bodies on each other are always equal and are directed in opposite directions.

Newton probably wasn't referring to people when he used the word 'bodies', but he could have been.
In other words, folks tend to let things alone that -politically speaking- don't bother them too much.

The concept of 'science' does mean different things to different people.
Consider the following list of 'sciences' from Wikipedia, while understanding that each named science has other subsets:

1 Natural sciences
1.1 Physical Sciences
1.1.1 Chemistry
1.1.2 Physics
1.1.3 Astronomy
1.1.4 Earth sciences
1.1.5 Environmental sciences

1.2 Life Sciences
1.2.1 Biology

2 Formal sciences
2.1 Computer sciences
2.2 Mathematics
2.3 Systems science

3 Social sciences
3.1 Anthropology
3.2 Economics
3.3 Psychology
3.4 Geography
3.5 Philosophy
3.6 Political science
3.7 Sociology

4 Applied sciences
4.1 Architecture
4.2 Cognitive sciences
4.3 Education
4.4 Engineering
4.5 Health sciences
4.6 Management
4.7 Medicine
4.8 Military Science

The respected ancient scholar and philosopher, Aristotle, had much to do with categorizing the early sciences and may have been the first to see politics as a so-called 'practical science' or 'social science', as opposed to a 'natural' science.
He also saw politics and ethics as closely related, both highly dependent upon the 'polis' -or city-state in which they were practiced.
But, Aristotle also had something to say about the form of government employed, considering more democratic forms that emphasized the common good to those that mainly favored the few, like oligarchies or kingdoms.
He thought the more democratic forms of government were definitely superior.
What did he know, or suspect, that we now seem to take for granted?

Thank goodness our forefathers -or forepersons- thought the same way Aristotle did and wrote our Declaration of Independence and Constitution to keep the goal of the common good uppermost in our hearts and minds!
Now, how do we keep it that way?

I believe that means we must be constantly ruthless in the honest pursuit of 'the common good'.
There's that troublesome concept of honesty and truthfulness again!
It can be difficult to even ascertain what the 'truth' is at times, much less attain it.
But, we have to try, and try hard, because in the end, that is the very foundation of a society based upon the 'common good'.
What else would -could you- you base it on?

I believe the quest for truth depends upon more complete, not partial understandings and ideas.
And, more candid rather than more clever slogans and solutions.
While we're at it, how about more accuracy than otherwise?
Catch phrases that are easy on the ear and smooth off the tongue often turn out to be misleading -either deliberately or otherwise.

Knowledge, context, and fitting contemporary times all need to be kept in mind.
Those seem to correspond pretty well to the concepts of comprehensive application of science, careful and consistent logic and being timely and contemporary -as well as visionary- don't you think?
It won't do to just pick an easy answer and call it good.
How many times have you seen that flawed ploy tried?
How many times did it succeed?

A couple of quick examples will illustrate the last point;

Mathematics is a powerful tool to help determine, or at least estimate, unknowns from data that may be available.
If data is not available locally, there are usually other sources that may be reasonably applicable and translatable.
Examples abound for Growth Management, Water Supply Protection, Waterfront Redevelopment, Budgeting, and almost any issue.
All one needs to do is look, ask and learn.

Even if an equation can only relate two variables to each other, that is valuable- like X = Y (squared) - because by simply substituting one number the other value can be determined.

And, the same is true for any number of unknown quantities, as long as there are simultaneous equations relating each variable to another.
Of course, this gets progressively more complicated, but can be qualitatively helpful.

One example is evaluating Growth Management Act goals when considering almost any action or proposal.
There are some 13 GMA Goals directly specified for evaluation, plus an additional item -Shoreline Management Plan- that often gets considered as part of the mix.
How to do this?
Quantitatively, it is probably impossible in most cases, because directly comparable data is lacking, and weighting the goals can be highly subjective.
But, the exercise itself is valuable because it does force thoughtful consideration of each goal at the same time.

This discipline helps eliminate, or at least minimize, the chance that a single, loud or emotional argument -regardless of its relationship to the common good - outweighs all the others and is the sole or primary determinant of a public decision.
And, yes, I do have some issues that spring readily to mind, but the main goal of this piece is more general.
Besides, it's already long enough anyway.

My main point is that in matters pertaining to the common good, we need to consistently employ more of the 'good science' in our politics, not junk science!
And, 'good science', before it becomes accepted as such, is rooted in truth that tends to be far more universal than any local 'polis' can claim.
The common good depends upon 'good science', properly considered and practically applied.
Now, if we can just get more than Pareto's 20% actively involved in politics, we can have more certainty that the common good will consistently be served!

At least, that's my opinion......