Unintelligent Design at the Local Library

I once worked part time at a small local library. My first temptation would have been to describe myself as an “accidental” librarian, but that’s a bit misleading. I didn’t get the job by accident. A better description might have been “reluctant” librarian. I got the job on purpose, to float me through the final year of my graduate studies after I was unexpectedly left adrift without a research assistantship.

 My duties at the library included the management of books catalogued and shelved among the 500s – “pure science”, according to the Dewey system. My professional and educational background is in science (not pure science, per se, but the peculiar nexus of science and humanities occupied by archaeology) so I approached this assignment with more than a little enthusiasm. It was a good excuse to indulge in a bit of healthy intellectual promiscuity, diving into topics outside the parochial confines of my native discipline.

 It is with this background in mind that I ask you to consider my surprise (and chagrin) when, shelf-reading the 570s, I noticed a book by the name of Darwin’s Doubt. For the unfamiliar, Darwin’s Doubt is a 2013 book by a fellow named Stephen Meyer, advocating the position that certain features of the biological world are inexplicable absent the intervention of some kind of intelligent designer. In particular, Meyer argues that the Cambrian Explosion – a massive flourishing of multicellular life that witnessed the emergence of the majority of currently recognized animal phyla – doesn’t make sense when viewed through the lens of modern evolutionary theory. A better explanation, in Meyer’s view, is that the Cambrian Explosion is the work of some unspecified and generally invisible cosmic engineer.

 This seemed to me a clear classification error. My predecessor in managing the science collections probably hadn’t been particularly well-versed in scientific methodology or the criteria deployed in distinguishing science from pseudoscience. They’d purchased or received a book that had all the superficial trappings of science and made the understandable mistake of placing it among science books.

 Curious, I decided to do a bit of research. Turns out, my predecessor had indeed made an error. Unfortunately, they were far from alone in making it. This misclassification is astonishingly pervasive. The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) lists catalog numbers in the 570s (Dewey) or QHs (Library of Congress Classification) as the most frequent classification for not only Darwin’s Doubt, but a variety of similar works. I checked the catalogs of public libraries in New York, Chicago, L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, and the District of Columbia – in each location, the story is the same. Of course, this is hardly a representative sample, but the emerging pattern was distressing nonetheless: public libraries across the United States are failing in their charge to present accurate information to the public.

History of a Bad Idea: the Rise of Intelligent Design

In popular parlance, the perspective peddled in the books I’m referring to is called intelligent design. It is the modern incarnation of creationism, a thoroughly discredited branch of religious dogma that formerly masqueraded as science. The 1975 Daniel v. Waters circuit court and 1982 Mclean v. Arkansas district court decisions gave legal standing to the current scientific consensus on the processes that account for cosmological, biological, and geological phenomena, rejecting creationism as a suitable topic for public science education. In the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard case, the U.S. Supreme Court did likewise. It was recognized that creationism is a religious perspective on the origins of life, incapable of withstanding serious scientific scrutiny and incompatible with the principles of secular education.

 Thereafter, those inclined to view religious origin stories as an essential component of science education adopted a new tactic. Creationism was stripped of all obvious references to Christianity, Biblical doctrine, and even deity. Subsequently married to a school of rather potent intellectual gymnastics, creationism sired what is now known as intelligent design – a more sophisticated and insidious rebranding of the old campaign to inject theology into the realms of scientific discourse and public science education.

 Advocates of intelligent design have worked hard to disguise their sectarian motivations and present a veneer of scientific objectivity. Despite these efforts at obfuscation, intelligent design has been consistently rejected as an appropriate topic for public science classrooms. Most recently, in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, Judge John E. Johns – a Bush appointee – ruled that, because intelligent design is not science, its presentation in publicly funded science curricula represents a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

On its own, this legal precedent makes the presence of books like Darwin’s Doubt in public library science collections a real eyebrow-raiser. Why, if it is inappropriate to inject religiously motivated thinking into publicly funded science education, is it somehow permissible to allow religiously motivated thinking into similarly financed science collections at public libraries? According to established legal precedent, every library that shelves books like Darwin’s Doubt and Michael Behe’s equally unscientific Darwin’s Black Box in their science collections stands in flagrant violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Intelligent Design Isn’t Science

This alone should offer sufficient reason for any publicly funded library to take the simple step of booting these books out of their science collections. But to drive the point home, let’s push a little further. Surely it will be protested that the courts do not decide what is and is not science. This is true. But if the courts don’t decide, who does?

 One answer might be that the scientists themselves decide. And there is a sense in which this is true. Consensus does play a role in shaping the course of scientific progress and the vast majority of scientists reject intelligent design as junk or pseudoscience. This is especially true among life scientists, who tend to have the most relevant expertise when it comes to evaluating the scientific validity of an idea like intelligent design. Scientific organizations like the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have issued unequivocal repudiations of intelligent design, denying its credibility as a scientific theory and urging educators to guard against its intrusion into public science curricula.

 Of course, science doesn’t work by consensus alone. This means that the deepest reasons for doubting the scientific veracity of intelligent design come from the nature of science itself. Individual scientists have different ideas about what exactly differentiates science from non-science. But one defining feature about which there is virtually unanimous agreement is this: science must make some appeal to observable reality. Its special standing as a knowledge-gaining pursuit is granted by a thorough dependence on the fruits of observation and experimentation. Scientific claims must be testable and, more fundamentally, falsifiable. If there is no conceivable way in which your idea can be proven wrong, then it is extremely likely that it is not science.

 This is where intelligent design is dealt its fatal blow. The entire program of intelligent design consists of stubborn attempts to poke holes in a Darwinian understanding of the origins and diversity of life on earth. Intelligent design advocates do not formulate testable hypotheses, in no small part because their central claim – that the existence of life hinges upon the intervention of an intelligent designer – can’t be tested. Those sympathetic to intelligent design posit scientific-sounding notions like irreducible complexity – the notion that certain features of the biological world cannot have evolved by natural processes because they depend on an intricate interplay among essential components – as a smokescreen for the credulous, hoping clever branding will mask a paucity of strong ideas.

 Various intelligent design proponents have posited candidates for irreducible complexity in the form of biological traits like flagellar motors and complex eyes. Each of these features rests well within the explanatory wheelhouse of modern evolutionary theory. Insofar as an irreducibly complex flagellar motor is an intelligent design hypothesis, the theory has been falsified. But this is too permissive. Look deeper and you’ll find that there are no objective criteria for recognizing irreducible complexity when you see it. The claim that the camera eye is irreducibly complex doesn’t flow from the logical structure of intelligent design, so it can’t actually be seen as a hypothesis with any relevance to said idea’s explanatory potential. What is and is not irreducibly complex is all in the eye of the beholder. The notion that the Cambrian Explosion can’t be explained by established Darwinian principles isn’t a hypothesis – it’s an opinion. It is an argument from incredulity that offers no fodder for experimental or observational evaluation and therefore disallows intelligent design entry into the scientific fold.

Lying in Place: Misleading the Public Through Careless Shelving

None of this is particularly groundbreaking stuff. These ideas have been spelled out repeatedly in ponderous legal decisions, dense philosophical tracts, breezy popular science bestsellers, and from countless university lecterns across the globe. Yet somehow intelligent design books like Darwin’s Doubt and Darwin’s Black Box have managed to sneak into public library science collections across the United States.

 A mislabeled book here and there is a small thing. Surely the vast majority of the books on the surrounding shelves represent good science. Those good ideas should swamp the bad. But think of the disservice done to the laypersons that come to these topics with fresh eyes. It’s a simple thing, but the placement of books can say a lot. In this case, it may say that intelligent design – an idea regarded by the vast majority of actual scientists as either junk science or pseudoscience – should be granted the same credence as any other book in the science section. In which case, the library will have done the job of carelessly misinforming its patrons. Placing intelligent design books in science collections is a decision that carries with it an implicit suggestion that they have the same explanatory merit as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection or Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

 Darwin’s Doubt and books like it belong in the library. Public libraries have a duty to serve the interests of the theologically minded as much as the scientifically curious. These books might make good candidates for entries in philosophical collections dealing with the metaphysics of change or teleogy. More aptly, they might find a place in religious collections. Collection managers ought to have some discretion in this regard.

 There is, however, one place in the public library where these books do not belong: the science section. Most libraries weed out books on discredited ideas. If a library is doing its job, patrons shouldn’t find books advocating the phlogiston theory of combustion or offering astrological explanations for the condition of their love life in the science collection. Intelligent design is equally unscientific. Let’s do the public the service of cataloguing it accordingly.

The Universe According to Carroll: The Sneaky Idealism of Poetic Naturalism

There are a lot of ways to define science. The broadest might characterize it as a systematic process for uncovering facts or explanations about the way the world works. From there, individual scientists sometimes differ over the exact features that distinguish science from other enterprises, but they all tend to accept the basic proposition that it is an empirical enterprise. The degree of agreement between theory and observation is what ultimately decides whether a scientific idea offers a good or bad explanation of natural phenomena.

This is why science is often depicted as a naturalistic enterprise. Which is true, but there are different strains of naturalism. It’s worth taking a moment to distinguish them. First, there is metaphysical or ontological naturalism. This is the view that the universe is entirely of matter or other measurable stuff, governed exclusively by natural forces. This stands in contrast to methodological naturalism. Advocates of methodological naturalism grant that the universe may be filled with or influenced by supernatural or immaterial forces, but stipulate that those are irrelevant to science.

Both ideas have their weaknesses. In The Big Picture, Sean Carroll introduces the concept of poetic naturalism as a way of getting around them. Poetic naturalism (PE) grants breathing room for concepts that don’t necessarily relate to the steely, unforgiving rudiments of physical reality. It is traditional naturalism’s less conservative, more ecumenical progeny.  PE grants room for higher order concepts like consciousness and protons in a world populated by more fundamental stuff. It even allows room for the “supernatural”, so long as it produces some measurable effect and offers some explanatory merit.

There are certainly some physicists who are considerably less generous when it comes to the reality of emergent phenomena like biological evolution and human consciousness. Though Carroll adopts a more tolerant pose, it’s by no means revolutionary. Old school naturalism was never married to the idea that the only thing science can meaningfully address are esoteric subatomatic particles like quarks and gluons. It recognizes that everything observable is made from those things, but doesn’t automatically suggest that the only substantive way to talk about the workings of reality is in terms of fundamental physics. That is a perspective that seems exclusive to provincially minded physicists.

In this, Carroll is starting from a strange place. He is introducing a new concept in order to account for how the way most skeptically minded critical thinkers – including most scientists – already think of the world. His reasons for doing so are clear. Viewed from the realm of ordinary experience – or even, for that matter, sciences like psychology or biology – the picture of the universe that comes from studying fundamental physics is extraordinarily weird. Basic concepts like time and causality begin to look less and less essential to the way things work. The physical world of ordinary experience is mostly empty space permeated by fields, sprinkled with tiny particles that simultaneously occupy every possible state.

That’s all very bizarre. On the scales most people are used to, the ordered flow of time and the causal connections between events are conceptually indispensable. But in the world of quantum physics, it seems like they are superfluous. Our best theories seem to work perfectly well without them. In this sense, they only emerge as an artifact of our particular frame of reference: relatively large, slow moving creatures inhabiting a certain spot in the universe.

According to Carroll, anything beyond the world of the subatomic – the infinitesimal, fuzzy world of point particles and force fields – is an emergent feature that is somehow less real than the elementary stuff of which it is made. Nowhere does Carroll say this outright. Instead, it is implicit as the motivating core of poetic naturalism. It is a philosophy of science that Carroll has invented as a way to avoid saying flowers and cells and eyeballs are less real than neutrinos and electromagnetism.

The basic argument at the heart of his notion of poetic naturalism is that the truth or veracity of a scientific idea is inextricably linked to its usefulness. It is a reworking of the old instrumentalist doctrine that it doesn’t matter so much whether or not a theory is true in any axiomatic or Platonic sense. That is, science needn’t hang its hat on whether or not it is about things that actually exist “out there” in the universe. The important thing is that it reliably yields accurate predictions.

Carroll’s innovation is to essentially turn instrumentalism on its head. Back in the pioneering days of quantum physics, in the first decades of the 20th century, scientists (and philosophers) struggled to reconcile the probabilistic theories they were uncovering with the apparently deterministic world in which they lived. Unmistakably, it is puzzling. The quantum world is one of imperfect knowledge, where your ability to know one feature of a particle in great detail (say its velocity) actually impinges on the precision with which you can measure its position. Systems are described according to wave-functions, where their state is understood as an evolving probability distribution. A particle has good odds of being here and having these properties, poorer odds of being there and having those properties, and so forth. Prior to observation, they occupy a “superposition” of all possible states. This is the world of Schrodinger’s infamously dead and alive cat. It’s almost unsettlingly counter-intuitive. It also happens to be true, as illustrated by the famous double-slit experiment.

Double-slit

An experimental demonstration of something truly weird. If a detector watches which slit the electron passes through, it hits the observing screen as a particle. If unobserved, the electron passes through both slits as a wave, producing an interference pattern.

The deep peculiarity of the quantum world led to a purely utilitarian interpretation of the relationship between the emerging physics and experimental results. Though the relevant mathematics describe the behavior of subatomic particles in terms of collapsing wave functions, physicists like Neils Bohr adopted the position that one could remain agnostic about the concrete physical nature of both the particles and their wave-like nature. All that matters is that describing them in that way yields predictions that are upheld by experiment. This isn’t a view that treats wave-functions and point particles as convenient fictions. Instead, it simply says the precise physical nature of the objects of study doesn’t matter. The important thing is that the physics yields robust predictions.

This kind of agnosticism doesn’t appeal to Carroll. In his view, the suite of subatomic particles and fields described by modern quantum mechanics are the real deal. Quarks and gluons and neutrinos and photons are the raw building blocks of reality. Everything else is emergent. Carroll’s poetic naturalism is an inverted instrumentalism. Reality is built of interacting particles and fields. Higher order theories, like Darwinian evolution and plate tectonics, are just useful approximations. But since PE grants that a given theory’s truth hinges on its usefulness within a given domain of application, the fact that higher level theories aren’t directly tethered to direct reference to quantum phenomena isn’t a problem. Because Darwinism and plate tectonics work on the relevant scales, they can be thought of as just as true as quantum field theory within the appropriate domains. According to Carroll’s PE, the elegant mathematics of fundamental physics is a more fine grained description of fundamental workings of reality.

To a degree, this particular flavor of naturalism is a sympathetic view. But there is also a point at which PE’s reliance on an instrumentalist account of science begins to rob it of some its resilience. Good scientific ideas are indeed those we find most useful. Doubtlessly, this is a critical part of how science works. Yet it is also far from the whole story.

For one thing, PE remains rather sparse on the issue of what does and does not count as useful. The most obvious and objective way to evaluate a theory’s usefulness is to test how accurately the predictions it generates match observation. Carroll never spells out his conception of theoretical utility. Throughout most of The Big Picture, it seems like Carroll’s version of scientific usefulness boils down to the correspondence between prediction and observation. That’s a pragmatic – if somewhat tepid – view. However, there are points where it is clear Carroll is invoking a picture of utility that might lead us into unnecessarily murky waters.

If all Carroll means by utility is a capacity to generate reliable predictions, it would be hard to quibble. It is conceivable that we might arrive at algorithms that allow us to make good predictions about the behavior of systems by pure chance or brute trial-and-error, all the while remaining entirely agnostic about the underlying processes. In some sense, this is always the case. For most people, the most familiar scientific theories are those that deal with large objects moving at relatively low speeds over relatively small distances. It makes sense to talk in terms of solid fingers impacting a solid keyboard. At that scale, talking instead of tiny particles and fields and empty space is unwieldy. It doesn’t buy us much in the way of understanding. There isn’t a clear connection between what is going on subatomic scales and the kinds of explanations that work in the realm of evolving biological systems or dynamic geological processes. This is the case for a large swath of science, from neurology to planetary astronomy. Scientists build robust, powerful explanations for how the world works and remain agnostic about the precise mechanisms that link the behavior of the big with the behavior of the very small.

Inasmuch as utility is a measure of veracity, it is also true that higher order theories are true in a more concrete ontological sense. Genes and minerals are not just reified constructs, invented for the purpose of making predictions about how organisms change over time or how different temperatures and pressures yield different kinds of crystalline structures. They aren’t posited with a wink and nod to a deeper understanding that what is really going on is explained in terms of particle physics. They are things that actually exist, out there in the world. Evolutionary biology and geology are good theories because they make reliable predictions and consistently avoid falsification. And they make those predictions because they present accurate models of how the world actually works. This is a considerable step beyond instrumentalism. There is no obvious contradiction between thinking of cell as a fundamental component of a biological system and thinking of a cell as something that emerges from the interactions of subatomic particles. Subatomic particles are real. And so are all the higher order structures they comprise, from protons and planets to tadpoles and trees.

As a criticism of poetic naturalism, this might look a bit like trivial complaint rattling around in a big bag of pedantry. Carroll isn’t going to dispute that there really are such things as nucleotide sequences, neurons, and metamorphic rocks. PE begins to break down when it strays from the cold, decisive reaches of traditional science. In science, utility has long been understood as an important – if partial – measure of truth. But there comes a point in The Big Picture where Carroll makes moves to substantially broaden the definition of utility. It ceases to be a circumscribed instrument for talking about how much fidelity there is between theory and observation and becomes dangerously tied up in subjective preferences.

Consider a definition of instrumentalism where usefulness is defined much more widely than might be captured by agreement between prediction and observation. An idea’s utility can be more broadly construed as a measure of how well it works to achieve or justify an end. For instance, some wealthy billionaires have the aim of maintaining their wealth and accruing more. In this, they may find libertarian economic systems enormously useful. Does that make the underlying principles true? Under a broad enough definition of utility, it obviously does. The fact that extreme libertarian philosophies don’t offer good solutions to problems of third-party enforcement or public goods dilemmas is hardly a problem. Likewise, the fact that they make thoroughly erroneous assumptions about the nature of economic systems and human behavior is irrelevant.

As a groundwork for any kind of epistemology (that is, a theory of knowledge and how to go about gaining it) this seems garishly ridiculous. Carroll, I suspect, would instantly object. Yet he puts precisely this kind of lily-livered instrumentalism to use in his defense of compatibilist free will. For the unfamiliar, compatibilism is the stance that conscious agents can exercise a narrow range of agency within otherwise entirely deterministic systems. It accepts that we are built of organs that are built of cells that are built of molecules that are built of atoms that are built of subatomic particles and fields. Likewise, it accepts that our minds emerge from the meat in our skulls, itself built of physical ingredients all the way down to the subatomic realm. But is posits that consciousness, as an emergent product of otherwise physical, deterministic systems, somehow exerts some amount of sovereignty over the natural world. To put it a little more simply, in the world of compatibilism, particles bump into particles, building more and more intricate and sophisticated structures, until they pass a threshold of complexity beyond which they produce a system sufficiently complicated that it can escape that causal chain.

There are plenty of people who find the idea of strict determinism unpalatable, for a lot of different reasons. Agency is a fundamental component of humanity’s self-conception. It is tied up in religious notions of sin and damnation and salvation. Similarly, it is exerts considerable social force when it comes to legal notions of punishment and justice. It is intrinsic to the embarrassment we feel after making a mistake and the triumph we feel after accomplishing a goal. Whatever science might say, it certainly feels like we make choices. Free will is one of the founding precepts of commonplace ideas about what it means to be human.

The problem is, our best scientific understanding of the natural world leaves less and less room for it. The more we understand about how humans work as biological systems, the less space there is for the notion that we are boundlessly willful agents. Consequently, the idea of so-called libertarian free will – that human preferences and decisions are an entirely unconstrained, top-down affair – has basically been consigned to the philosophical dustbin. Very few people who take the results of science seriously believe that humans can do whatever they want, and those who do go through some brutally torturous intellectual gymnastics to get there. Science teaches us about the world as it actually is, not as we want it to be. In the domain of consciousness and identity and free will, it teaches us this: We are our brains and, to lesser but still meaningful extent, our bodies and those systems are governed by the same rules as everything else in the universe.

Now, for the sake of intellectual honesty, it is worth pointing out that science has not ruled out the possibility of free will. It has merely (if one can describe such a monumental reordering of the human worldview so flippantly) shrunk the domain in which free will can operate. A few centuries ago, it was a free range affair, able to roam wherever philosophers and theologians cared to take it. Now, it lives in an increasingly cramped paddock. The scope for specifying what free will is and what it is capable of is constantly shrinking. One can posit free will, but the move itself is extraneous and costly. The only work it might do is explain why we perceive ourselves as volitional agents. That could be satisfying on an existential level, but it’s a little strange, considering the bulk of science consists of rigorous attempts to prevent our perceptions about what the world is like from fooling us about how the world actually works. Simultaneously, arguing for free will introduces the burden of explaining why the human brain is exempt from the rules that govern all other matter. As the neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky put it, free will has become a kind of psychological god-of-the-gaps argument. It doesn’t carry any explanatory weight, but interested parties can still find room to invoke it if they wish.

In Carroll’s case, the argument for free will rests on the grounds that the concept remains useful, particularly when it comes to issues of responsibility and punishment (or reward). He doesn’t seem to care whether or not that description is compatible with more fundamental descriptions of reality, be they quantum mechanical, molecular, neurobiological, or evolutionary. Only that it maintains a domain of utility.

Conceivably, one could define wider domains in which less circumspect claims are thought to be useful. Many religious sects find the idea of libertarian free will a useful component of cosmologies of eternal reward and suffering. That reasoning is, of course, painfully circular. Humans are imbued with free will as means to earn reward or punishment. And in the absence of free will, the concepts of eternal punishment and reward become ethically unjustifiable nightmares – the workings of a capricious hand in a cruel universe.

Carroll is an atheist, so these kinds of cosmic, supernatural reward schemes don’t appeal to him. But in his defense of free will, he makes just this kind of argument. Our criminal justice system is built on penalties and punishments. If we don’t have free will, the argument goes, that system doesn’t make much sense. Well, yes and no. The idea that our actions are determined outside the realm of conscious, willful influence is perfectly compatible with the idea that behavior is sensitive to environmental inputs. In this framework, punishment can serve two ends: discouraging repeat behavior and keeping dangerous people away from the rest of us. A system sensitive to external influence can still be entirely deterministic.

However, the idea that punishment is an end unto itself or that we should endorse the idea of free will as a means of justifying the existing system of criminal justice doesn’t hold a lot of water. Modern criminal justice systems – particularly in the United States – use the concept of punishment to perverse and unjustifiable ends. We shouldn’t use free will as a prop to stabilize that old and barbaric edifice. Rather, we should use our growing understanding that behavior isn’t subject to very much volitional control as an impetus for reform. In Carroll’s view, we ought to hold onto a constrained version of free will as a means of justifying the status quo. The more enlightened (and scientifically consistent) perspective is that we ought to use our understanding of what actually shapes human behavior to build a more humane and effective criminal justice system.

Curiously, Carroll even goes so far as to hitch the idea of free will to the uncertainty of future actions. Under most conditions, we can’t predict human behavior with very much precision. Therefore, he argues, it must be subject to some sort of top-down control. Under that line of thinking, he even goes so far as to say we will have progressively less free will as our understanding of human neurobiology grows and our capacity to forecast human behavior improves. This is a step beyond instrumentalism. It straddles an uncomfortable boundary with the kinds of idealist fantasies he had earlier rejected in dealing with “quantum consciousness” and the hazy spiritualist belief that conscious precedes existence. Here, he is not just saying that we should hold onto to the idea of free will because it serves beneficent societal purposes. He is actually saying that the existential state of free will is caught up in how well we understand the human brain.

Reality is what it is, regardless of whether or not humans understand it. And that is the fatal flaw of poetic naturalism. By binding his epistemology to an excessively permissive breed of instrumentalism, Carroll is suggesting that there are cases in which truth is anchored to human reasoning. That misses a more nuanced point. Our ability to uncover truth is inextricably tied to the power of human reasoning. What is and is not true is not. Either free will exists or it doesn’t. How useful we find the concept is irrelevant.

Carroll’s use of PE to defend a constrained version of free will is damning, primarily because it is easy to dismantle. But the flaw that cripples the poetic naturalist’s conception of free also cripples his conception of everything else. It doesn’t make sense to say that everything that can’t be reduced to particle physics is only real insofar as humans find it useful, because it binds all of reality to human understanding. The fact that our understanding of vision has yet to be reduced to the equations of quantum field theory doesn’t mean that eyeballs and retinas and optic nerves don’t really exist on a fundamental level. It only means that there are gaps in our understanding. Hopefully, they will one day be filled. But it is also entirely possible that they won’t. We may never be able to explain certain higher order phenomena in terms of fundamental physics. That doesn’t mean we need to invent a new version of naturalism to account for them or that we can use the gaps in our knowledge as an excuse to entertain any brand of wishful thinking we find convenient.

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Combating Political Religion: How Small Government, Free Market Dogma Fails to Account for Observable Reality

There is growing sense that those interested in finding out what is true of the world are becoming a rarer and rarer breed. Everywhere we look, someone is trumpeting some blatant inanity. Vaccines cause autism. Adding flouride to water is a government conspiracy. Genetically modified organism are dangerous. Organic food is particularly nutritious. Christians are a persecuted minority. The 44th President was a foreign national and communist agent. The 9/11 Terror Attacks were an inside job. The world is only 6000 years old. Humans can’t influence the climate.

Nonsense is everywhere, but the impression that it is more prevalent than ever is mostly a matter of appearances. Humans are innately tuned to focus on the negative aspects of their environment. Good reasons for this abound, easily distilled in the recognition that it is far more consequential for us to spend our time thinking about the things that could be better than it is to spend it thinking about the things that are going just fine. On the landscapes of our ancestors, where decisions about what to pay attention to were a regular matter of life and death, it was vitally important to take note when things were about to turn sour – when herds of prey were about to migrate to a new territory, when seasonal changes were about to reduce the availability of edible fruits, when an unfriendly band of visitors turned up in your neighborhood.

So it is today. We perk up and pay extra attention when our political rivals take office or slow down and drive more carefully after passing an accident on the side of the road. The idea that we live in a world anomalously dominated by halfwits and conspiracy theorists isn’t due to the fact that halfwits and conspiracy theorists are more common than they once were. Rather, it is due to two related facts.  First, that we have access to the knowledge necessary to identify half-witted and conspiratorial thinking. Second, erroneous views about the world are obnoxious at best, dangerous at worst. Because of this, they tend to stand out. It’s unfortunate that only some of us use the knowledge constantly at our fingertips to build a more consistent, reliable understanding of the world. But the larger reality – that any of us have access to any of that information at all – is the real historical aberration.

Ignorance persists despite the proliferation of tools for its easy obliteration. As a consequence, individuals with any amount of expertise in a given subject are likely to take note of the fact that a lot of their peers have firm beliefs about the way things work that are flat-out wrong. The resilience of discernible falsehoods is an unremarkable product of historical inertia. In that, we should rejoice – not that they are still around, but that we now know how to spot them.

Unfortunately, there are situations in which the perpetuation of obviously false views about how the world works can achieve special gravity. This happens when the people who hold the levers of power embrace attitudes that are thoroughly divorced from reason and evidence. Historically, we can point to the woe and misery wrought by efforts to force the square peg of communist fantasy into the round hole of reality as illustrative examples. Men like Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin held views about the way the world should work that had very little basis in fact. They achieved power and millions of humans suffered and died as a result.

Sadly, this is not a phenomenon that has been consigned to history books. In the United States, this kind of thing pervades government.  Powerful men and women who harbor ill-founded and objectively false ideas about how the world works are currently engaged in the cruel work of hammering Western society into a form that better fits their perverse vision. They are not communists, but like communists they celebrate a vision of society based far more in fantasy than in observable reality. In this, their categorical affinity with communists is striking:  that is, they are ideological fanatics.

Their fanaticism flows from two doctrinaire beliefs. First, that market liberalization results in the best kind of society possible. The fewer restrictions there are on the way people make money, the better off we will all be. This view can be reduced to a simple slogan: “markets produce the best possible distribution of wealth and resources.” Second, that government is the source of all evil. They believe that the only legitimate role for government is to militarily secure and protect an open field for profit generation. This perspective is captured by the old aphorism, “that government which governs least governs best.”

An immediate problem with both views is that they are meaningless tautologies. They don’t produce useful criteria for judging whether or not they are actually true. Instead, they frame things in such a way that any outcome that results from liberalizing markets or decreasing the size of government is granted a priori status as the best possible outcome that could have happened. For an ideologue, this is a useful definition. For anyone concerned with actually evaluating how accurate these prescriptions are and how effectively they produce worthwhile outcomes, these views are entirely useless.

There need to be external, independently verifiable criteria for deciding what does and does not count as effective governance or a desirable distribution of resources. Absent such benchmarks, slogans about the power of markets and the proper role of government are reduced to religious mantras. They don’t gain truth through repetition, but a lot of elected representatives have taken their steady repetition as a sign of truth.

Consider some concrete examples. Below are the mission statements of two influential think tanks.

The mission of The Heritage Foundation is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. 

The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC. Our mission is to conduct in-depth research that leads to new ideas for solving problems facing society at the local, national and global level.

The first is immediately problematic. The Heritage Foundation is intellectually neutered by its interest in finding policy solutions that conform to a pre-established ideological litmus test. They have decided that the solutions to public policy problems involve free enterprise and limited government in advance of evaluating any evidence. The Brookings Institution, on the other hand, places initial emphasis on in-depth research as a tool for solving problems. Usefully, they do so without establishing ideological strictures on what the best solutions ought to look like.

Take any hypothetical problem and it becomes immediately obvious that The Heritage Foundation is going to have a harder time finding a good solution than The Brookings Institution. American students are scoring poorly in math and science. The burning of fossil fuels is having detrimental environmental consequences. Millions of American kids aren’t getting enough to eat. For The Heritage Foundation, the answer is always clear: less government, freer enterprise. If a branch of science worked this way, it would cease to be science. No congress of physicists is going to get together and outline a research program that says all good science must conform to Newtonian mechanics. But this is precisely what The Heritage Foundation has done with issues of public policy.

Yet the views of the Heritage Foundation carry enormous weight. They are endorsed by majorities in both houses of congress. The Speaker of the House, third in line for presidential succession, is a zealous devotee to the a priori assumptions of small government, free market fundamentalism. Conservative bill mills like the American Legislative Exchange Council produce legislature precisely tailored to reflect free market, small government dogma and Republican politicians – at every level of government – work to make that legislation the law of the land. Those willing to dissent do so at considerable risk. Skepticism is likely to be greeted with a well-funded primary challenge from an individual more willing to tow the party line. It is hardly shocking that there is an armada of well-heeled conservative ideologues willing to spend huge sums of money on the project of forcing Western society into the mold of libertarian utopia.

The Dubious Underpinnings of Conservative Economics

The ultimate tragedy in all of this is that the market religion of the modern GOP is provably false. Visions of conservative/libertarian utopia emerge from the logic of neoclassical economics. Starting in the 19th century, men like Leon Walras and Vilfredo Pareto took up the work of turning our understanding of human economic behavior into a respectable science. They turned up lot of powerful insights, but also set in motion a line of thinking that would eventually turn large segments of economics into nothing short of a mathematically sophisticated religion.

By the early 20th century, economics had come to invoke a number of simplifying assumptions in order to produce workable models. These assumptions included:

  1. The belief that economic agents are perfectly rational.
  2. The belief that economic agents work to maximize utility.
  3. The belief that economic agents are entirely self-interested.
  4. The belief that economic agents are infinitely knowledgeable.
  5. The belief that economic agents have consistent, well-ordered preferences.
  6. The belief that all contracts are complete.
  7. The belief that all economic agents are scrupulously honest.
  8. The belief that prices always accurately reflect the costs and benefits of a product.
  9. The belief that economies are closed equilibrium systems.

Deploying these premises, economists produced theories about how people ought to behave in idealized markets. They weren’t wrong. If all of the above assumptions were true, then the best governments could ever do to facilitate happiness and prosperity is get out the market’s way.

Problematic in all of this is that each and every one of those assumptions is false. Not just doubtful or misleading, but an objectively untrue statement about observable reality. Many economists were aware of this fact at the time and many are aware of it today. That’s why economists use fancy terms like “unpriced externality” – this is an implicit acknowledgement of the reality that assumptions four through eight are false.  But there’s no reason to stop there. Observational and experimental evidence also tells us that humans are not perfectly rational, that they aren’t good at maximizing utility, that they aren’t entirely self-interested, and that economic systems are neither closed nor precisely tuned to seek out any equilibrium states.

Yet for some reason, some people began to act as if the aforementioned beliefs were more than just useful assumptions. They didn’t just make it easier to model the exceedingly complex behavior of huge swarms of interacting humans. Rather, they were true reflections of how the world actually operates. If this were the case, the ideological fanatics working for The Heritage Foundation and populating every tier of U.S. Government would be onto something. Indeed, they would hardly deserve being labeled “ideological fanatics”. They would be right to think that all policy solutions ought to involve steps to limit government and deregulate markets.

Or would they?

Notions of market optimality – the belief that unfettered markets produce the best possible outcomes – do not withstand a lot of scrutiny and often fail in their own terms. Consider two examples: scientific research and pollution control.

Much of the technology we take for granted today would be impossible absent scientific breakthroughs from the first half of the twentieth century or latter half of the nineteenth. Some of these discoveries were funded by governments, others through private philanthropy. None of the foundational insights in theoretical and experimental physics that laid the groundwork for global GPS, cellular phones, communication satellites, or the worldwide web emerged from a desire to get rich. At the time, a physicist who displayed a thirst for profit was frequently greeted with scorn and ostracized by his or her community.

Governments across the Western world funded scientific research as an expression of human curiosity and a matter of national prestige. Curiosity-driven scientific research often yields enormous benefits, but the ways in which discoveries will shape futures landscapes are largely unforeseeable. Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, Lise Meitner, Marie Curie, Robert Oppenheimer, Alan Turing and their peers didn’t envision a world where Apple and Samsung would make billions producing portable, wireless communication devices connected to a worldwide web, granting hundreds of millions of people perpetual access to virtually all human knowledge. Yet without their discoveries, that world would not exist.

Indeed, a rational, entirely self-interested, utility maximizing agent would never make an investment in a research program that might, in some way or another, decades down the line, turn a profit for someone else. A CEO who sought to divert funds to scientific efforts that might – forty, fifty, sixty, or seventy years in the future – prove foundational to some kind of profit generating enterprise would quickly be removed by shareholders and replaced by someone made business decisions more closely aligned with their interests – that is, making money.

The same logic bears out in the realm of pollution control. Some types of business are environmentally costly. The processes they use to manufacture products for commercial use also produce byproducts with harmful downstream consequences. According to the strict logic of neoclassical economics, businesses should only respond to the costs of pollution and mitigate the effects of harmful byproducts of production under a narrow range of circumstances.

If the costs of pollution are immediately obvious to customers, they can and will (under the assumption of rational choice) respond by sanctioning the company, who will in turn work to remedy the problem in order to placate their customer base. But any time the costs of pollution are not sufficiently large or localized to be immediately discernible to customers, the logic of the market demands that the business do nothing about it. In fact, being rational and self-interested, they should actually make efforts to conceal their harmful behavior anytime the costs of deception are lower than the costs of mitigation (one of the ways in which the founding premises of market optimality are inherently contradictory).

That means a factory that manufactures paper plates in Mississippi will have little incentive to clean up any harmful byproducts if most of those paper plates are sold in China. Likewise, pollutants that accrue gradually, such that their ill-effects are only exerted decades down the line, are invisible to corrective mechanisms internal to the market itself. Such is the case with anthropogenic climate change, where the costs of burning hydrocarbons aren’t necessarily felt until decades after the fact.

Suffice it to say, there are numerous conditions under which the reasoning behind the modern conservative ethos – the ruling dogma of billionaire oligarchs like Charles and David Koch and ambitious political zealots like Ted Cruz – crumbles under its own weight. This was widely known and commonly accepted in the first decades after World War 2. Economists and politicians alike recognized that market were only sensitive to a narrow range of inputs and entirely blind to many of the downstream costs that might accrue for any given method of production. Recognition that third-party intervention would sometimes be necessary to secure good outcomes was bipartisan. That’s why the EPA was founded under Richard Nixon and his signature graced the first iterations of the Clean Air and Water Acts.

The antipathy toward government now common on the political right emerged as part of a deliberate campaign undertaken by fanatical millionaires to peel back what they perceived as the creeping threat of socialism. They founded think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and launched an intellectually caustic propaganda war against any and all barriers to the generation of wealth – in particular, their wealth. In this, they have been enormously successful, managing to shift their fringe views so far into the mainstream that they are openly espoused as true and irrefutable on the most widely viewed cable news network in the United States.

Now, congress is populated by zealots oblivious to the dubious intellectual underpinnings of their ruling philosophy. Their worldview is the direct progeny of a set of premises adopted for instrumental utility, otherwise entirely lacking in reality. Based on their behavior, it is safe to assume that they are true believers – they really think that eradicating every piece of government that doesn’t relate to national defense is the best thing to do for everyone. They are simply blind to the fact that their core beliefs are so flimsy that they often fail in their own terms and crumple when measured against external benchmarks of success.

But there is no reason why we should confine ourselves to discussing such a spurious worldview strictly in its own terms. Few of the founding premises of modern conservative socioeconomic philosophy happen to be true. Shifting the dogma of the modern conservative movement into natural light reveals an edifice held together by tape and glue.

Humans are frequently irrational. And markets are made of humans. Those inclined to root their understanding of human systems in verifiable reality are rarely surprised to learn that market behavior is riddled with error. Investors sometimes value a parent company at millions of dollars less than its subsidiary, clearly falsifying the neoclassical prediction that the price set by the market is always right. Football teams sometimes trade multiple later round draft picks for the chance to pick up a star up front and win fewer games as a result. People take out loans they can’t afford, buy items they don’t need on credit, and don’t save enough for retirement.

Let’s reconsider those nine premises I listed a few paragraphs back.

  1. The belief that economic agents are perfectly rational.
  2. The belief that economic agents work to maximize utility.
  3. The belief that economic agents are entirely self-interested.
  4. The belief that economic agents are infinitely knowledgeable.
  5. The belief that economic agents have consistent, well-ordered preferences.
  6. The belief that all contracts are complete.
  7. The belief that all economic agents are scrupulously honest.
  8. The belief that prices always accurately reflect the costs and benefits of a product.
  9. The belief that economies are closed equilibrium systems.

Recall that the smaller government, freer markets at any cost emerges from taking these premises as reliable, high fidelity distillations of observable reality. They are instrumental to substantiating the mindset of men like Charles Koch and Ted Cruz. And every single one of them is undeniably false.

This is not a secret. It is widely known and easily discoverable. This is why it is impossible to take people like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell or Ted Cruz seriously as thoughtful stewards of American wellbeing. These people are not principled statesmen. They are ideological fanatics. They subscribe to a worldview that has been repeatedly and consistently refuted by the very nature of reality. Insofar as their policy prescriptions have any merit, it is largely a result of coincidence. They have not, I suspect, invented a remarkable method for reasoning from false premises to sound conclusions.

And yet they persist in these beliefs. Their belligerent insistence on clinging to a misguided vision of how the world ought to be, independent of any and all evidence of how the world actually is, makes them incredibly dangerous men. Though they have yet to scratch lowest rung of the anguish unleashed by the likes of Mao and Stalin, the fact remains that their ideology lives in the same epistemological neighborhood as communism. It is a vision of what the world could be if a number of important facts about what the world is actually like were otherwise. Their efforts to force the world to conform to their ideological prescriptions will only result in conflict and pain. Powerful solutions to pressing social, economic, and ecological problems will escape them, willfully hidden behind a veil of dogma. Even if compelling policy initiatives that violate their worldview are brought to their attention, they will be prohibited from adopting them by a blind commitment to ideological purity. As the mission statement of the Heritage Foundation clearly states, only solutions that embrace limited government and free enterprise are on the table.

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Combating Political Religion

The arc of recent history bends toward insight and discovery. Anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and religious fundamentalist receive a lot of well-deserved public derision. This sometimes makes it look as though society has become infected by an unprecedented strain of ignorance. But the larger reality is that people have easier and easier access to better and better information about the world in which they live. It’s easy to feel disheartened when a poll shows that 40% of U.S. adults think the world was made, as is, by some divine power within the last 10,000 years. Every available strain of evidence says this view is false, yet people persist in maintaining it. Taking a wider view brightens things a bit. Sure, it’s a bummer that a bunch of adults are so enamored of a childish fairytale that they deny the fundamental nature of reality. But a couple centuries ago, we didn’t even have access to the information that exposed those beliefs as farcical. The vast majority of people held views about the age of the earth and the nature of reality with absolutely no basis in reality.

This rosy outlook is tainted when people who cling to superstitious or ideologically clouded thinking achieve political power. It is easier today than at any other point in human history to find out when we hold false views about the way the world works. Yet a glaring majority of the elected officials in the U.S. Federal Government passionately subscribe to a view of human behavior and the role of government that is provably false. Not only do they hold these beliefs, they are using them to guide policy formation.

The GOP has held control of two out three branches of government for a little over two months. Already, they have taken steps to roll back vital environmental regulations and decrease funding for curiosity driven science. These, as mentioned, are two of the areas where their one-size-fits-all belief in smaller government, freer markets fails in its own terms. Unchecked, they stand to implement a campaign of ideological extremism unlike anything the nation has ever seen. That this is done in service of unchecked greed is largely incidental. The fact that very wealthy people stand to become even wealthier while the poor are left to wither as a result of the conservative agenda disguises the fact that that agenda is an expression of fervent religious devotion. I

Some scholars have made the mistake of using communism to point up the dangers of secularism. This ignores the fact that communism itself, as expressed in the regimes of Pol Pot, Mao, and Stalin, cannot be derived from secular thinking. Secular thinking is an expression of reason, guided by evidence. It gives us things like an expanding circle of human rights and cures for dangerous infectious diseases. Communism, like exaggerated notions of libertarian capitalism, falls apart when subjected to evidentiary checks. And libertarian capitalism, like communism, is a form of political religion. Both are utopian visions that exist in obstinate indifference to the hard nature of reality.

Huge swaths of political thinking run afoul of this single, crippling fallacy – the mistaken belief that there is one right answer. Sometimes governments grow too large and run inefficiently. Sometimes free markets generate undesirable outcomes. Neither point can be used for the wholesale dismissal of either.

This is precisely why we need external, universally recognizable criteria for recognizing success and failure. What do we want governments and markets to achieve? If we want markets to achieve an optimal allocation of resources, we need a definition for “optimal allocation of resources” that is external to the market itself. Moreover, we need to recognize that the motivations required to thrive in markets foist on people a certain level of myopia – markets are incapable of planning for the distant future or taking into account all the potential costs a given business strategy might incur. That’s why we need both government regulation and government investment in curiosity-driven science.

The goal of government should be to make it easier and easier for larger and larger portions of the population to thrive. In this, it should be a democratic instrument. The goal of economic systems should be similar. They should not exist to generate wealth as an end unto itself. Rather, their purpose is generating the wealth necessary to pursue the end of human thriving. From these simple premises, we can derive a number of hallmarks for identifying success and failure.

By accepting these aims and jettisoning the fallacious dogmas that drive intransigent anti-government sentiment and fuel blind market liberalization campaigns, it is possible to achieve ground ripe for bipartisan collaboration. History teaches us that liberalized markets tend to be correlated with prosperity and peace. Together with democratic governance, they seem to make people generally better off. It is clearly desirable for people to have as much leeway for free economic choice as possible. That is where the reasoning of the market fundamentalists stops, thereby failing to recognize that the more apt and justifiable expression is that people should have a much leeway for free economic choice as possible, given the larger, perpetually shifting aims of society.

It should be recognized, as a matter of incontrovertible fact, that markets sometimes generate undesirable outcomes. They produce entrenched inequality and unfairly discount the wellbeing of future generations in favor of current wealth. Nor do they include any discernible mechanism instituting ideals higher than “make money”. There is no room for curiosity and the quest for knowledge as ends unto themselves in a world ruled by smaller government, freer markets at any cost ideologues. In that world, a human animal invested in aspirations above and beyond the accumulation of wealth would be a creature bent on extinction. The utopia of the libertarian capitalist is just as bleak and gray as they utopia of the hard-line communist.

Thankfully, we don’t live in an either/or world. Continuing the historical embrace of reason that has been underway since the Enlightenment, we can build an understanding of economic systems and political order based on scientific evidence. Already it is clear that unfettered freedom of expression is unambiguously good and that economic liberty is often a powerful tool for making humans happier, healthier, and more prosperous. Eschewing one-size-fits all political religion can help us take these insights and put them to better use in a piecemeal engagement with the endless parade of political problems that are bound to emerge whenever humans live together in large numbers. Indeed, it is immediately obvious that government can play a vital role in encouraging markets to behave as if those nine assumptions about market optimality were true. For instance, they can make sure the prices of products reflect all of the unforeseen costs of production and ensure that consumers have access to all the information they need to make smart economic choices.

There may be other ways to solve these dilemmas. Discovering them will demand abandoning ideologically motivated, one-size-fits-all policy prescriptions. The point here is not to make the case that government is the solution to all of the world’s problems. Examples where precisely the opposite is true – where government interference in market behavior has produced undesirable outcomes – are plentiful. Sometimes the best solution will be market liberalization. Often, however, markets will generate unexpected and undesirable outcomes. It can never be a foregone conclusion that government is not the answer. Unless someone comes up with a better form of third-party enforcement than democratic governance, there will be many circumstances in which it is the best alternative we have.

 


An addendum in light of a comment.