A recurring topic in my blog is distinguishing observations from the preconceptions I named dark and forbidden data. Dark data are model-generated data that substitutes for missing observations. Forbidden data are actual observations that models identify as dirt to be rejected or quarantined. In both cases, we trust our models to provide reliable data because they capture our appreciation of certain established truths. Often we assert these truths to be absolute in terms of faithfully describing conditions in reality. Often this comes as a categorical statement such as settled science or natural rights.
For an example of dark data, I can know the current local tide level by looking it it up from a table instead of observing it. The table not only tells me what the tide level is now and in the past, but what it will be in the future. Without any investment in a monitoring gauge of my own, I can populate the a table of tide heights by using the model. Alternatively, if I had my own tidal gauge in the same spot, I could use the tide table to reject any readings that fall far outside of the expected values.
Tides are caused by very accurate predictions of relative positions of Sun and Moon. However, tides may be influenced by other phenomena such as local storms or undersea landslides. Although we use different terms such as storm surges or tsunami to describe these, their effect on tidal gauges are the same as celestial caused tides. As a result, actual tide gauge measurements may deviate significantly from predictions especially in estuaries and river basins such as the Chesapeake bay and the Potomac River. There is value to having the gauges despite our certainty of lunar and solar tides. There is value in taking seriously any deviation of the tide gauge from the prediction in the tide tables.
For many purposes, the tide tables are acceptable source of data that we can assert as Truth. Even if the actual tide level is influenced by winds, we can still claim that the tables provide the numbers for the solar and lunar contributions. However, we still need the tide gauges and we still need to take their readings seriously. Someone with waterfront property will experience flooding by the actual tide that could be quite different from the predicted tide.
In my opinion, our acceptance of truth in the form of dark and forbidden data makes the practice of data science very challenging. Often the practice of data science ignores the possibility that truth can be a contaminant of data. Direct and authentic observations have a higher claim to describing current (or historical) conditions than does our preconceptions of truth.
In recent posts, I have explored some thoughts about a form of government where rule-making comes automatically from analytics of observed data. In those posts, I suggested a more agile form of government that can react quickly to the most recent observations in combination with historic observations to identify immediate opportunities to exploit or hazards to avoid. An underlying principle enabling rapid rule making is to trust the observations and strictly statistical analytics to produce rules that we must obey. The rules necessarily have short life-spans in order to allow new rules to take advantage of new information. This rapid rule making requires us to accept that data alone fully justifies the current rules. In such a government, we will not debate the validity of the rules in terms of some larger truth. This form of government has no interest in truth or even consistency such as respecting precedents. It is strictly an obligation to follow the data and the data alone.
In those posts, I emphasized the need for rapid rule making requires devaluing truth or human-cognitive justification. In my imagined dedomenocracy government, the rapidity of short-lived rule making leaves no time for deliberation or persuasive debates. In fact these rules may be very unpredictable where subsequent rules directly contradict its immediate predecessor: much like modern program trading immediately buying a stock that it had sold just a moment before. We may accept this unfathomable rule making through confidence earned from our experience of enjoying more benefits than losses when in balance the benefits outweigh the losses when we follow data-generated rules. We can enjoy these benefits even when we don’t comprehend any truth behind the decisions.
Although my concept of a dedomenocracy is a fiction requiring futuristic data technologies (for example, such a government requires far more data than we have now), I think it offers a different approach to view policy matters. In particular we need to be suspicious of any dark data (such as ideology and truth) that can get in the way of exploiting recent data that may contradict that truth.
In present government, we often set absolutes in policy positions. These absolutes are claims of truth or natural law. When we set an absolute policy position, we categorically reject any policy that contradicts it. These absolutes are a form of dark data.
Governing by by rejecting as absolutely wrong certain things that people will do anyway results in our inability to manage that inevitable activity. Our only response to a violation of an absolute policy position is to demand that everyone stop doing it. It would be more productive if the activity did not fall in to an absolute condemnation sothat we can tolerate it and offer prescriptions for more acceptable or less offense methods of accomplishing the same thing. In my discussion of dedomenocracy, I described a need for tolerance in terms of responding to disobedience. Tolerance for disobedience is necessary to not overwhelm the state’s functions with meting out punishments. It is also helpful in allowing for less intrusive rule making: rules intended to influence behavior instead of banning it altogether.
This article on male and female circumcision provides an example. The author makes a case that the morality of circumcision is the same for boys (removal of foreskin) and girls (cutting in various ways). In my uninformed opinion the severity of the cutting is quite different, but for sake of argument I’ll grant that they are at least comparable in some degree. The author’s point the ban on female circumcision should be extended for male circumcision prior when the child has not yet reached maturity when he (or she) can give informed consent. The rationale for the ban is that it is always immoral to cut a child or baby, particularly it involves removing material from the genital area.
This demand for a complete ban is an example of a absolute or categorical policy choice. Western countries generally already enforce a ban on female circumcision. The argument is to extend the ban to boys on the moral ground that the process is comparable for both sexes: the operation occurs at an age before the individual can make the decision for himself. The problem the author raises is that the same Western countries that ban female circumcision allow male circumcision to occur with minimal regulation at all. Even though this is a surgical procedure, we allow non-medical or even unlicensed cutters to preform male circumcisions.
I agree that there is a problem in the inconsistency of our attitudes toward male and female circumcision. When I look at the case presented, I see a case for supporting the opposite conclusion. Even though female circumcision (in all forms) is forbidden, certain families and cultures will still perform them with a wide variety of interpretations. In contrast, the practice of the male circumcision is much more consistent in terms of what is removed. Even if there is a moral case that any cutting around the genital area of a child is wrong, the experience of male circumcision suggests a benefit from tolerating the practice. Through the tolerance of the practice the ritual has mostly been limited to a relatively minor form of removal compared to what can happen (as sometimes observed in certain cultures). By tolerating the practice, we accept that the practice occurs. This tolerance gives us a voice to influence the practice to find a reasonable compromise of minimizing the harm while preserving the intended ritualistic value.
Instead of extending the ban to both sexes, I would argue we should remove the ban the practice for females. Tolerating some form of circumcision permits us to encourage the milder forms that the author describes in the article. When it comes to female circumcision practices, we are most appalled at the extreme cases of major cutting that deserves the label of mutilation. If the ritual practice were tolerated, we can influence the practice to move toward a broader acceptance of milder and more symbolic practices. It may take a couple generations to eliminate the more severe forms, but tolerating the practice may offer our best opportunity to gradually eliminate the more objectionable practices. Conversely, forbidding all forms of a behavior mutes the government from being able to discuss the topic in a way that can influence the tradition to replace more drastic practices with more symbolic ones.
I gave a similar example in an earlier post about the US experiment of alcohol prohibition where the outright ban resulted in loss of influence of a practice that continued and that rapidly degenerated such as increasing the production of high-proof alcohol and poor quality including substantial poisons in the product. The subsequent return of tolerance for alcohol consumption has lead to higher popularity of consuming low-alcohol drinks such as beer and wine from regulated manufacturers.
The bigger opportunity for influencing behavior, internationally, concerns the practice of corporal punishment for crimes. Because western countries forbid any form of corporal punishment for crimes, it has no leverage to influence those cultures that continue to use it. Forbidding all forms of corporal punishments provides no opportunity to recommend lesser forms over more severe forms of punishment. Even the mildest form must be forbidden.
In an earlier post, I discussed the extreme case of this example of a corporal punishment involving 1000 lashes when perhaps a dozen would have been sufficient. In order to defend a lesser punishment there would have to be some toleration for corporal punishment in general. When the only argument against 1000 lashes is that all forms of corporal punishment must be outlawed, then there is no difference between 1 lash and 1000.
A toleration of corporal punishment could provide a means to argue about an appropriate and sufficient magnitude of the punishment. By tolerating the practice of corporal punishment, societies disapproval of the practice can influence nations to select less severe punishments.
Tolerance does not imply approval. For example, in a dedomenocracy the record of of a judicial finding of guilt is itself a punishment becomes part of the data that defines that individual. Future rules in a dedomenocracy will consider such data documenting past guilt when assigning opportunities or restrictions to each individual. An actual punishment may accompany the finding of guilt but that punishment is optional. If punishment is required, the goals of dedomenocracy demands that punishments are limited to those punishments that do not result in permanent disfigurement, disability, or death. The intent of the punishment is to encourage obedience with future rules. Also because future obedience is best provided with fully capable bodies, any punishments that cause permanent disfigurement or disability would be counter-productive. I use the imagined dedomenocracy as a hypothetical form of government where corporal punishments may be restrained from the excessive punishments we see in modern governments.
Both the tolerance of various swift though harsh punishments and the tolerance of guilt without punishments allow for debate about what is an appropriate punishment for a crime. The tolerance for harsh punishment will allow for the expression of disapproval that can discourage the extreme forms of punishment. A more effective objection to the sentence of 1000 lashes is to express disapproval that the number is too high rather than to demand there must never be any lashes at all.
Forbidding corporal punishment on the grounds of some moral truth limits our ability to govern. In my earlier post, I defended options corporal punishment can be an alternative to incarceration as long as we can govern the practice to avoid long term damage or death. My posts concerned a future dedomenocracy that focuses on the future instead of the past. Other authors (such as here and here) make similar arguments for our current government. Incarceration should not be the only form of punishment for crimes. I complained earlier that our moral truth is wrong: it is incarceration that is inappropriate for punishing crimes, especially when the prison sentences extend for many years beyond the relevance of the crime.
Currently, the US government is facing many foreign policy challenges that involve very serious human rights abuses including genocide, barbaric executions (including slow ones), extreme punishments involving lasting injuries or disabilities, and extreme cases of torture. Governing bodies in states, proto-states, and established rebellions are carrying out these abuses.
In response, the US government (and the Western government in general) has only been able to assert a moral Truth that these are inexcusable practices for the 21st century. We forbid all forms of corporal punishments, torture, and nearly all forms of execution. Although there are persuasive moral arguments for broad condemnation of all such practices, this condemnation prevents us from negotiating for milder forms of punishment, torture, or more limited executions that we could tolerate.
Moral Truth is not something that we can observe. Often we point to historic evidence of ancient moral philosophers or religious texts. Moral truths do not get renewed with new authoritative reassurances given present circumstances. When we accept the truth of the immorality of corporal punishment, torture, or execution, we interpret this truth as eternal and in no need for recent confirmation.
In contrast our observations provide the evidence of what is really happening in the world. For example, in modern times we observe an alarming frequency and severity of atrocious corporal punishments, torture, and executions. In order to address these problems, the first thing we need to do is to accept the fact that these are extremes of a continuum of practices that certainly do exist in the 21st century. We can have more influence if we can make a convincing argument that we will tolerate the practice if it were not so extreme.
Our moral high ground limits our options for responding to these events. Our only permitted response is to insist that all forms of these behaviors are wrong and out of place in the 21st century. We argue that 1000 lashes is wrong because we forbid all forms of corporal (pain inflicting) punishment for criminal offenses. We argue that torture involving deep injuries and permanent disfigurement is wrong because we forbid all forms of torture including milder forms such as simulated drowning (water-boarding). We argue that public beheadings by unskilled swordsmen is wrong because we forbid nearly all forms of capital punishment.
Moral Truths are not observations. They are substitutions for missing observations. In context of dedomenology, moral truths have the same impact of dark data (model generated data) in that it manufactures data to compete with actual observations. The presence of dark data biases our conclusions toward confirming our preconceived notions. Dark data blinds us to what is really happening and prevents us from effectively responding to observations of what is actually happening.
The model of government I call dedomenocracy provides a way to view the modern challenges of democratic government. In effect, we are admitting moral truths as data that have priority or at least equal standing to real observations when it comes to making a decision. If this were permitted in a dedomenocracy, the artificial data of moral truths will restrain the analytics to make recommendations in a way that is similar to our current responses. Or current responses restrained by moral truths are largely unable to have any influence on the problems because the moral truths prevent any form of toleration for milder forms. We are left with only empty words or tears as we watch the world disregard our condemnations. Our condemnations are irrelevant because these communities are going to continue to act on their desire for corporal punishment, torture, or executions. We could be more relevant by tolerating corporal punishments, torture, and executions in order to influence the practice to less severe forms with similar symbolic impact.
A dedomenocracy can more readily offer this toleration by requiring clean data stores of only actual observation free of any contamination dark data (model-generated data) including moral truths. Rule making in dedomenocracy comes automatically from statistical algorithms similarly free from any preconceived models or truths. This type of government will work only with observed data. In terms of the above examples, the observations are that many communities are demanding acts of genital circumcision, corporal punishments, torture, and public execution. Included in these observations are widespread disapproval of the extreme cases. A dedomenocracy will recognize when this disapproval has reached a threshold of urgency to justify creating rules to manage these practices to a more tolerable level. The rule-making analytics will use observations to determine the rules most likely to have positive and lasting influence on these practices in order to decrease the level of disapproval.
Dedomenocracy will implement rules that are not possible in deliberative democratic governments because these rules accepts a toleration for acts that we today find categorically morally repugnant. The dark side of Truth is that it prevents solutions that can actually have a positive impact for communities that are far from being enlightened of this Truth.