Friday, September 12, 2008

The Physics of Democracy

Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli once ridiculed a colleague's theories by calling them "not even wrong." But trust me, being wrong is worse. I was horrified two or three years ago to find an error in one of my own published papers, more than a year after it had appeared in American Journal of Physics. A cooling effect I had estimated as being roughly 110 millikelvin in magnitude actually appeared in the published paper as 11 millikelvin, because of a typographical error. (The error was mine; I went back to my files and saw that the mistake had already been present in the manuscript submission.)

I quickly published an erratum. This was embarrassing, but of course I had no choice. How could I live with myself if I knowingly allowed such a bald error to remain in print under my name? This is not to mention that the only thing more embarassing than pointing out the error myself would have been for somebody else to beat me to it!

Being right about the math is important, and we physicists pride ourselves on always getting the order of magnitude right. But being right about the phenomena is finally what matters. And that was why I was actually eager to publish the erratum: The additional digit makes the effect ten times easier to measure, and thus it became more likely that an experimentalist might someday try to verify (or disprove) my predictions. I think I finally have the math right, but if nobody ever performs the experiment, then I'll never know whether my calculation passes the most important test: that of correspondence to the facts.


Political campaigns resemble the enterprise of physics in some ways. Campaign strategists are like theorists trying to understand the electorate. They build models and crunch all kinds of numbers. On the day of the election, the big experiment is performed. Once the data are collected, we see whose numbers (if anyone's) are borne out.

Another similarity is that according to the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics, atomic-scale measurements don't straightforwardly reveal pre-existing qualities of the atom; and likewise, I would doubt that a question on a poll always reveals firmly pre-existing thought patterns in the minds of people being surveyed. In both cases, the act of questioning creates some of the reality. Maybe there are even pollsters who adopt an instrumentalist interpretation of the electorate, just as physicists sometimes did back in the 1950s. On the instrumentalist view of campaigning, you don't even try to figure out what the beast is really thinking; you just try to learn which inputs lead to which outputs. "Pinch and poke" the electorate, and take careful notes on how it responds.


The McCain/Palin campaign's study of the electoral beast appears to have led them to the conclusion that victory depends on shoveling garbage at us as fast as they can. Paul Krugman had a good piece on this on September 11, 2008. A reader made the following comment on Krugman's article:
A democracy cannot function in an atmosphere of dishonesty. The point of popular consent is that the people make a reasoned judgment about their leaders and select those that seem most likely to provide what they are looking for. Political dishonesty is inherently undemocratic. It is an attempt to cheat the voters out of their right to make an intelligent choice. Liars should be rejected for that reason alone. — S MacDougall, N. California
This comment brings us full circle back to physics, although at first sight it's not obvious why. To begin with, here is psychologist Emily Cahan discussing the influential American philosopher John Dewey:
The problem of education for Dewey is to discover the means for making scientific thought more widespread in society and giving it a deepening hold among people—for extending his ideals for individual growth in the classroom into society.
. . . if scientific thought is not something esoteric but is a realization of the most effective operation of intelligence, it should be axiomatic that the development of scientific attitudes of thought, observation, and inquiry is the chief business of study and learning.
In schools,
we want that type of education which will discover and form the kind of individual who is the intelligent carrier of a social democracy.

For it will have come about that education and politics are one and the same thing because politics will have to be in fact what it now pretends to be, the intelligent management of social affairs.

It is interesting to contrast this vision of education with that contained in the education chapter of the Republican platform:
Education is a parental right, a state and local responsibility, and a national strategic interest.
(This is the first paragraph in its entirety.)


Dewey wrote on education during the early 1900's. More than a century earlier, Laplace was led to similar thoughts by his investigations into probability theory. As we now understand much better thanks to R.T. Cox and E.T. Jaynes, Laplace extended probability theory far beyond its roots in the mathematics of gambling, building it into nothing less than a set of principles for any sort of reasoning in the face of incomplete information - that is, any sort of of scientific reasoning - that is, any sort of clear thinking in situations with consequences. Laplace described for the first time how evidence should be used to modify our beliefs, sometimes strengthening them when the evidence lines up, but sometimes weakening them when the evidence turns the other way. But this process can only work if we develop certain habits: the habit of seeking evidence in the first place; the skill and inclination to weigh it critically; the flexibility and integrity to change our minds and admit when we are wrong. These habits are not natural, but must be developed through education. Laplace:
It is remarkable that a science, which commenced with the consideration of games of chance, should be elevated to the rank of the most important subjects of human knowledge.

If we consider that [this science] teaches us to avoid the illusions which ofttimes confuse us, then we shall see that there is no science more worthy of our meditations, and that no more useful one could be incorporated in the system of public education.
The world is harsh, and those who subscribe to illusions are eventually crushed by their failure to respect the facts. That's why we so desperately need more honesty from our leaders. That's why McCain's lying campaign not only insults our intelligence but threatens our country.


Here I am, piling blame on the Republicans. Using some high-falutin names as weapons. (And one of them a—a Frenchman.) I know that many of my friends (and not only the Republicans among them) will say that both parties lie to get elected; that all politicians lie all the time. The trouble with this position is that it puts all lies on the same footing. Take for example the lies that got us into Iraq. Those lies, and all of the weak evidence I'm embarrassed to admit I fell for too, have cost us hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives, while bringing Al Qaeda to Iraq and keeping our eye off the ball in Afghanistan. My nephew and his wife, and doubtless all of America's soldiers, have made their sacrifices willingly. Bravely. Heroically. But the tragedy is that their bravery and their heroism finally do not make their sacrifice worthwhile. We should be furious at the party that led us down this painful road.

To my knowledge, only Barack Obama among the major presidential candidates has said flat out in print that invading Iraq was a mistake. And he said has said it recently, in the heat of this campaign, and he has said it as loud as one can say such a thing: on the editorial page of the New York Times. Here are the first two sentences of "My Plan for Iraq":

Unlike Senator John McCain, I opposed the war in Iraq before it began, and would end it as president. I believed it was a grave mistake to allow ourselves to be distracted from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban by invading a country that posed no imminent threat and had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

This is some of the straightest talk I've ever heard from a presidential candidate. Obama may bob and weave like any politician, but in comparison to John McCain he is a philosopher-king. If it should happen again any time soon that our President leads us to war in Iran, North Korea, or anywhere else, then I want that President to be Barack Obama. He may make mistakes. He may get some things wrong. But he won't lead us to war by manufacturing evidence and lying to us.

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