September 23, 2009

Civility and the Masses

Conspicuous displays of irrationality and belligerence in the USA, and a "toxic" parliament in Canada where policians complete to win the prize for the most insulting, hostile behavior, I updated my notes on human conduct. I feel priviledged to live far away from the maddening crowd. I can enjoy a dispassionate view of my fellow humans, furry little creatures who seem unable to achieve any cooperative stability. In Group Dynamics, I wrote:

"The term “civil” refers, in part, to strategies and devices use to regulate the interface between individual interests and community interests. A civil society is characterized by a multilayered system of organizations that meet, discuss, vote and contribute to the well-being of the community. In an ideal civil society, individual and civil interests are congruent and there is no conflict.

The maintenance of civility requires the imposition of attitudes, expectations, beliefs, rules and the enforcement of codes of conduct. The main dynamic in a free society involves the defense of social civility by law and the defense of civil liberties by individuals and groups who champion personal freedom.

Socialism refers to political movements based on the idea that citizens of a state should own and manage the means of production and distribution of life’s necessities. In the best case, an ideal egalitarian society distributes resources equitably and provides safety and security for its citizens.

The problem with social idealism is that human nature cannot be changed. Humans naturally compete and distribute resources through hierarchical networks. To change a more or less spontaneous order, a revolutionary group needs to arbitrarily construct a political and economic system. There have been many versions of imposed socialism and many revolutions that failed. A reasonable historian can conclude that communism introduced by revolution in Russia and China failed and is being replaced by hybrid economies that combine “free enterprise” with state-owned enterprise.

What is remarkable about socialist ideas in the US is the paranoid resistance that arises from advocates of capitalism, a resistance organized by dominant humans who will fight to maintain control of resources and wealth. Ideological battles are disguises for real fighting to defend and expand territory, wealth and dominance.

Large aggregations of humans grew beyond reasonable limits in the 20th century. The tendency for the largest coalitions of nations to break up into smaller units is probably adaptive and represents an old primate tendency. The tendency in business for large companies to merge and form international conglomerates is driven by rational goals and means, but goes beyond human cognitive abilities. These large organizations are not likely to endure. Large assemblies become unfriendly and inefficient and eventually fail unless they are re-organized into subgroups that are small enough to allow individuals to work effectively together.

The Masses

From the viewpoint of a single person, only a small number of other humans can be recognized as individuals. Only individuals have thoughts, feelings, status and rights. All the rest turn into "the masses". As humans adapt to living in large groups, some peculiar attitudes emerge in an attempt to cope with a large number of other humans out there that you cannot know, cannot understand and cannot trust. While categories are inevitable, the human tendency is to rely on broad generalizations. A distinction has to be made between concepts, principles and axioms that reveal the essence of human tendencies and categories that lack cogent information.

Humans often lack a sense of appropriateness when they go beyond names and concepts that apply to a better-known, local community. Categories are improvised to collect faceless people of indeterminate numbers into imaginary groups. An American will tell about Europeans in a few sentences and a European will tell you about Americans. These broad categories have almost no informational value, but they do serve the cause of prejudice. Every human walks around with a collection of generalizations and categorical prejudices and generally feels comfortable with this "knowledge base."

The reader will be reassured to know that I have been on duty for many years, notebook in hand, studying the masses. One of my vantage points was a local café where I listened to conversations and studied human behavior as I read newspapers. One sunny afternoon on the café patio, a loud male speaker in his early 20's was holding forth about the "masses" and what the "masses want" and what the "masses don't know." There was a bit of conspiracy theory thrown in for good measure. This young man didn't score high on the impromptu coffee shop IQ test - he got 100- but his remarks epitomize an approach that is common "among the masses". Since identities blur as the distance increases, there is a tendency to use all inclusive, general and vague categories for everyone who does not belong to your inner circle. As you move further and further away from home, even these general categories blur.

The dangerous aspect of the young man's concern is the possibility that he, in all his wisdom, will figure out what the masses really need and, with a small band of trusted cronies, he will set out to save the world. Despots are people who know what the masses need and impose their will. As the distance from other humans increases, the other humans lose their humanity and may become victims of despots who treat them as tokens in the video game of life.

From Group Dynamics by Stephen Gislason 2009

September 14, 2009

Solving Big Problems

An exoteric view of the human experience identifies three deeply embedded problems that require solutions.

1. The human destruction of nature.
2. The human destruction of humans
3. Dysfunctional Minds…ignorance, delusions, anger, hatred.

We have recognized that the key human survival is group cooperation, integrated with individual specialization and motivation. Education and government involve social devices that, in the best case, smooth out the negative effects of individual limitations and irrationality. The understanding and solution of “social problems” often involves the interaction of elite and educated groups with aberrant, dysfunctional groups. Human societies involve increasing specialization of individuals who are skillful at performing single tasks. Most humans, even highly skilled specialists, live with a minimum level of overall comprehension and tend to regress to old and innate patterns if societal controls are inadequate to constrain competitive and hostile behaviors. Anarchy can replace order, even in the most polite societies. Most humans remain misinformed and unreasonable as long as a small number of more reasonable and skillful humans build and maintain infrastructures that support them.

Science and Technology

There is little doubt that humans benefit from some technologies and suffer from others. We know in the most general terms that affluence and education creates more cooperative people. Clean air, water and healthy food produce healthy people who are more optimistic and cooperative. The problem, of course, is that small groups of smart, innovative, technically advanced humans face much larger groups who offer stubborn resistance to change or who destroy what others create. The economic crisis of 2008-2009 proved to be an opportunity for innovation with no shortage of ideas for providing renewable energy sources, improving methods of transportation, improving food production and distribution.

As the price of oil increased, alternative energy technologies became more viable in the marketplace. Good ideas and technical innovations proliferated in an encouraging manner. Big companies moved quickly in the direction of “green technologies” and some CEOs appeared to have experienced life-altering epiphanies. The favored sources of new energy are wind, solar, hydroelectric generation, hydrogen and nuclear. None of these technologies can soon satisfy the huge energy appetite of 6.5 billion humans. New designs may make nuclear energy more available, more affordable, safer and less expensive to maintain. One ingenious design creates a small 20 kilowatt generator that is delivered by truck, runs silently for several years and when it runs low on fuel, it is shipped back to the factory and recycled. The solution for spent nuclear fuels is to recycle rather than bury in the ground.

A hydrogen fuel infrastructure may develop, but only when basic problems are solved. Problem one is that it requires a lot of energy to create hydrogen from water. Hydroelectric plants are one solution. Solar and wind energy might be used to create hydrogen. Small,modular nuclear reactors could provide the energy for a hydrogen plants, well distributed in areas of energy need.

Scientists, in the best case, are people who make discoveries. They are curious, innovative and want to solve problems that have never been solved before. Most of the problems that I have identified have an existing technical solution or may be resolved by scientific discovery.

To be a good scientist, you have to tolerate uncertainty and enjoy entertaining a number of possible scenarios. Einstein suggested that he developed the Theory of General Relativity because he was curious and child-like; he continued to ask simple questions about essential phenomena – light, gravity, waves and energy. The best questions are “Why does…” What if….” I wonder what would happen if…” What is really going here?”

You cannot be a good scientist if you entertain too many improbable scenarios and get carried away with wild speculations, fears and fantasies. Sane reality testing requires you to live in the real and natural world as much as possible. If you do not test your perceptions and skills in the real world, you will become noumenal, delusional and will have a poor understanding of real relationships and real consequences. I do not trust humans who spend all their time inside buildings and who derive all their knowledge from books, journals and conferences.

An editorial in Nature described the need to support innovators with “crazy ideas’ since most advances in science are not planned in advance but happen serendipitously. The editor pointed to the Gates Foundation as a model for other research agencies…How many potentially groundbreaking ideas are dragged down a dark alley and quietly strangled by overly conservative peer review of grant proposals? Research funding should strive for a balanced portfolio that includes both safe investments and higher-risk work. While the world's financial system has been inflated with wildly excessive risk, research funding has had the opposite problem — exacerbated by ever greater competition for limited funds, it is overly wedded to safe, unadventurous research. This, in effect, ostracizes off-the-wall ideas, which often cross disciplinary boundaries and would have potentially big payoffs should they work. Researchers long ago learned that the last people they should tell about their big ideas are their sources of financial support. To be fair, there are exceptions to such conservatism. The US National Institutes of Health, for example, has systematically promoted risky research through several initiatives.

I have already discussed some of the advantages and disadvantages of the media, the internet and wireless communication links . While there are suggestions of benefit from social networks online, this virtual reality does harm by disconnecting people from the real world, and replaces real friends with casual contacts that promise more than they can actually deliver. The free access into the internet requires vigilance against malice, libel, and crime. You might argue that only in an idealized virtual world such as second life, where real people are replaced by avatars can benefit (as an illusion) be realized. Increasingly, safe participation in the internet requires barriers, enclosures, gates and other security measures that increase distrust and create distance. The ongoing challenge of using the internet is not seeking more exposure to others, but needing selective, non-intrusive, non-threatening exposure to others.