Eigendemocracy: crowd-sourced deliberative democracy
June 23, 2014 4:56 AM Subscribe
Scott Aaronson on building a 'PageRank' for (eigen)morality and (eigen)trust - "Now, would those with axes to grind try to subvert such a system the instant it went online? Certainly. For example, I assume that millions of people would rate Conservapedia as a more trustworthy source than Wikipedia—and would rate other people who had done so as, themselves, trustworthy sources, while rating as untrustworthy anyone who called Conservapedia untrustworthy. So there would arise a parallel world of trust and consensus and 'expertise', mutually-reinforcing yet nearly disjoint from the world of the real. But here's the thing: anyone would be able to see, with the click of a mouse, the extent to which this parallel world had diverged from the real one."
They'd see that there was a huge, central connected component in the trust graph—including almost all of the Nobel laureates, physicists from the US nuclear weapons labs, military planners, actuaries, other hardheaded people—who all accepted the reality of humans warming the planet, and only tiny, isolated tendrils of trust reaching from that component into the component of Rush Limbaugh and James Inhofe. The deniers and their think-tanks would be exposed to the sun; they'd lose their thin cover of legitimacy. It should go without saying that the same would happen to various charlatans on the left, and should go without saying that I'd cheer that outcome as well.Read the whole thing, as they say; the introduction and setup of 'philosophical mechanics' is really interesting as is Aaronson's discussion of the state of climate change policy today:
Some will object: but people who believe in pseudosciences—whether creationists or anti-vaxxers or climate change deniers—already know they're in a minority! And far from being worried about it, they treat it as a badge of honor. They think they're Galileo, that their belief in spite of a scientific consensus makes them heroes, while those in the giant central component of the trust graph are merely slavish followers.
I admit all this. But the point of an eigentrust system wouldn't be to convince everyone. As long as I'm fantasizing, the point would be that, once people's individual decisions did give rise to a giant connected trust component, the recommendations of that component could acquire the force of law. The formation of the giant component would be the signal that there's now enough of a consensus to warrant action, despite the continuing existence of a vocal dissenting minority—that the minority has, in effect, withdrawn itself from the main conversation and retreated into a different discourse. Conversely, it's essential to note, if there were a dissenting minority, but that minority had strong trunks of topic-relevant trust pointing toward it from the main component (for example, because the minority contained a large fraction of the experts in the relevant field), then the minority's objections might be enough to veto action, even if it was numerically small. This is still democracy; it's just democracy enhanced by linear algebra.
"In the two previous comment threads, we got into a discussion of anthropogenic climate change, and of my own preferred way to address it and related threats to our civilization's survival, which is simply to tax every economic activity at a rate commensurate with the environmental damage that it does, and use the funds collected for cleanup, mitigation, and research into alternatives. (Obviously, such ideas are nonstarters in the current political climate of the US, but I'm not talking here about what's feasible, only about what's necessary.) As several commenters pointed out, my view raises an obvious question: who is to decide how much 'damage' each activity causes, and thus how much it should be taxed? Of course, this is merely a special case of the more general question: who is to decide on any question of public policy whatsoever?
"For the past few centuries, our main method for answering such questions—in those parts of the world where a king or dictator or Politburo doesn't decree the answer—has been representative democracy. Democracy is, arguably, the best decision-making method that our sorry species has ever managed to put into practice, at least outside the hard sciences. But in my view, representative democracy is now failing spectacularly at possibly the single most important problem it's ever faced: namely, that of leaving our descendants a livable planet. Even though, by and large, reasonable people mostly agree about what needs to be done—weaning ourselves off fossil fuels (especially the dirtier ones), switching to solar, wind, and nuclear, planting forests and stopping deforestation, etc.—after decades of debate we're still taking only limping, token steps toward those goals, and in many cases we're moving rapidly in the opposite direction. Those who, for financial, theological, or ideological reasons, deny the very existence of a problem, have proved that despite being a minority, they can push hard enough on the levers of democracy to prevent anything meaningful from happening.
"So what's the solution? To put the world under the thumb of an environmentalist dictator? Absolutely not. In all of history, I don't think any dictatorial system has ever shown itself robust against takeover by murderous tyrants (people who probably aren't too keen on alternative energy either). The problem, I think, is epistemological. Within physics and chemistry and climatology, the people who think anthropogenic climate change exists and is a serious problem have won the argument—but the news of their intellectual victory hasn't yet spread to the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal, or cable news, or the US Congress, or the minds of enough people to tip the scales of history. Because our domination of the earth's climate and biosphere is new and unfamiliar; because the evidence for rapid climate change is complicated and statistical; because the worst effects are still remote from us in time, space, or both; because the sacrifices needed to address the problem are real—for all of these reasons, the deniers have learned that they can subvert the Popperian process by which bad explanations are discarded and good explanations win. If you just repeat debunked ideas through a loud enough megaphone, it turns out, many onlookers won't be able to tell the difference between you and the people who have genuine knowledge—or they will eventually, but not until it's too late. If you have a few million dollars, you can even set up your own parody of the scientific process: your own phony experts, in their own phony think tanks, with their own phony publications, giving each other legitimacy by citing each other. (Of course, all this is a problem for many fields, not just climate change. Climate is special only because there, the future of life on earth might literally hinge on our ability to get epistemology right.)
"Yet for all that, I'm an optimist—sort of. For it seems to me that the Internet has given us new tools with which to try to fix our collective epistemology, without giving up on a democratic society. Google, Wikipedia, Quora, and so forth have already improved our situation, if only by a little. We could improve it a lot more..."
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