A recurring topic in this blog is the idea of a government by data and urgency, that I named a dedomenocracy. Such a government is supreme authoritarian powers for its laws but those laws are few and short lived based on the population’s consensus of some urgency. When an urgent situation comes up the population agrees to abide by whatever rules come out of a trusted algorithm working on trusted data encompassing all areas of everyone’s lives. The algorithm’s results are supreme, beyond any override by any person or any number of persons, but they come with an automatic expiration date in the very near future so that after that time everything reverts to full liberty of the people.
After some rule expires, the population has to re-express its urgency for a new rule to continue the authoritarian assistance. Unlike human rulers, the algorithm has no obligation to be consistent with its last rule because it is possible that the best next rule is to contradict the first, to make a U-turn in policy.
Another rationale for this kind of governing is that the actual parameters of an urgency will change. The exact nature of urgency of the first ruling is not the same as what happens after the first rules expire. In fact, the urgency may be completely different in nature.
In the example of the COVID19 response in US, there was a ruling made for social distancing and isolation and in particular for the cessation of anything that the government listed as non-essential. This list ranged from non-essential activities such as team sports, non-essential staff, non-essential occupations, non-essential businesses, non-essential areas of town. This rule was entirely consistent with the goals of minimizing the contagion opportunities for a new virus. The rule was also more readily accepted because it occurred at the boundary between two seasons: the multi-holiday cluster season was over as was the winter-storm season, but the spring season had not yet fully started when people will be wanting to do more outdoors activities from exterior landscaping to recreation. It was the best time for the best solution to hamper the contagion.
I concede that a dedomenocracy could have come up with the exact same rules we came up with under our representative system of government. The difference is that the rule would expire on a certain date no matter what the outcome was. Assuming that now is when the rule would expire, we would face a suspension of the rules and a return to full liberty.
At this point in time, there is evidence that the exponential increase in new cases are leveling off and may even be in the declining direction. This recent data gives us some sense of relief but clearly there are still new cases giving proof that the virus is still able to spread. There is justification for people to remain concern to an level justifying a new urgency for more authoritarian guidance.
A democratic-based government seeks the advice of polls, and polling suggests very popular support for continuing the lock-down. The lock down appears to be working so it makes sense to continue it, or even strengthen it to hasten the elimination of this virus. Others support the idea because they personally adapted, convincing themselves that they can live indefinitely without the prescribed non-essential aspects of their lives.
A democratic-based government is also constrained by the earlier assertion described as scientific fact during a political era where each side quickly accuses the other as being unscientific. This precedence determines the next action. If the first action was scientific and the science hasn’t changed, then the next action has to be to continue what we are doing.
This might be a mistake. Personally, I am convinced it would be mistake to continue the current policies. I see evidence that governors and leaders at least worry that it would be a mistake to continue their original rules. Unfortunately, they need popular support to continue in their roles and the popular sentiment is that no change should be made, or even that isolation rules should be even more strict.
While an enlightenment-inspired democracy places faith in science, a dedomenocracy instead places faith in data. Roughly speaking, this is the difference between governing by causality and governing by correlation. Stated in those terms, our education demands that we choose causality over just correlation.
Correlation may be spurious or it may be a causality not yet understood nor proven. With the recent-history availability of data in large volumes of wide variation arriving at high velocity, we have enjoyed many beneficial outcomes by following correlations. Those benefits sometimes come just from luck when the correlations are just spurious. Other times, the correlations have some causal basis that we don’t need to understand to benefit from them. Another example is the recent experiences of agile practices that accepts the notion of failing quickly in order to find something that works.
Our democratic governments arose out of the enlightenment era of scientific discovery of repeatably predictive models. We are now in a new era of data technologies allowing us to quickly re-evaluate our data massive stores with new information or new questions, getting actionable guidance without an underlying scientific discovery. We are also accustomed to disruptive innovations replacing established institutions only to be replaced later by other innovations.
Agile data-driven government need not wait for science. We can try something and then reassess a short while later always ready to completely discard it entirely and try something else.
The scientific causality thinking assumes that we can know timeless truths about the workings of nature and of man. Data agile thinking assumes that there are unknown truths that can benefit us but we don’t need to wait to discover them in a scientifically satisfying way.
The scientific and causality government is not allowed to fail when based on the best scientific knowledge. Once a policy has a scientific basis, we must follow that guidance even to our eventual doom because doing anything else is irrational.
The data and agile government is permitted to fail because it follows data correlations that need no scientific proof of causality. The agile nature permits it to rapidly discard a bad idea and replace it with even a completely contradictory one that it may later discard also.
Another distinction is that the scientific and causality government expect a linear progress where each new stage is backed by new scientific discovery of some timeless truth. In contrast, the data and agile government is free to follow suggestions from currently available data leading it to wander without direction.
The data-driven agile type government appears irrational in it aimless trajectory compared to the linear progress of scientifically guided policy.
If we allow data-drive agile government to rule, it may be more consistent with the the nature of life from which the virus also emerges. In nature, an often effective strategy for communities to respond to threats is to move in herds or flocks in a murmuration pattern moving without any long-term aim but constantly rearranging itself while maintaining its communal cohesion. Doing so usually results in minimal of any losses. Permitting our government to behave similarly may have the same result.
The alternative of following a linear progressive of scientific prescription is non-lifelike and more likely to be fatal to the life that is our civilization.
Perhaps the scientific question that needs to be answered is what approach works best for governing in the modern world. We have more data than we can possibly extract scientifically-rigorous discoveries in time to be relevant for immediate urgent problems of such complexities beyond the scientific knowledge.
When we demand government to follow the science and nothing but the science, we force ourselves to extract simple piece out of a complex problem where that simple piece has a scientific principle to follow and that simple piece is also something significant to the problem.
In the case of the current pandemic, the complex problem is the global civilization of interconnected dependencies in an economy of various pursuits. The challenge is how to adjust this civilization model to hamper the progress of a new contagious disease. The simple piece with scientific backing is the understanding of that this is disease spread from human to human. The enlightenment based representative government must follow the simple answer to restrict the global economy to only life-essential human-to-human interactions.
I pity the people serving as our representative leaders especially if they recognize that the problem they face is far more complex than what current science understands. If they don’t know this intuitively, they see it in the data:
- shutting down non-essential travel has collapsed the demand for gasoline that is a by product of producing diesel needed for trucks to deliver essential goods
- shutting down non-essential retail has collapsed the demand for most of the haulage that finances the trucking industry leading them to financially unable to haul the essentials.
- restricting people’s liberties with arbitrary list of restrictions for everyone where each restriction is intolerable only to distinct minority leading to social unrest that can undermine the intent of the policy at the very least but may lead to full revolt.
- linking these restrictions to science empowers the population to report on their violating neighbors and the policy to retain those violators leading to undermining the peace and beneficent cooperation in communities.
- Denying non-essential commerce will lead to missed opportunities such as maintaining properties for comfort even for essential workers. In particular, we consider non-essential those activities the maintain pleasant appearances of properties and of people, needed for maintaining desirable places to live.
There are many other desirable aspects of modern living that we place at risk with our scientific-based ruling of lock-down. Our rulers have no science to account for these other obvious ramifications to counter the hard science of contagion spreading between humans. They are not allowed to ignore the science to save the economy in part because they have no science for what to do with the economy.
They only have data.
Thinking about this reminds me of a recent personal observation.
I live in a neighborhood of single family houses immediately adjacent to an urban area of high rises with shops and restaurants as well access to the mass transit system. Separating my house from that area is a major heavily traveled artery carrying generally impatient motorists passing through. The official crosswalks are at intersections with lights. Until recently, the only intersections with crossing lights were also intersections of other arteries carrying their own impatient drivers who also want to turn between one artery to another. Many times, turning vehicles will give right-of-way to pedestrians but they will creep up as close as possible to the crossing pedestrian and then hard-accelerate once clear making their inconvenience clear to all.
Recently, there was a new cross walk with light opened in a side street between the two other arteries. I immediately rerouted my path to use that intersection. Even though it is long wait for the light to change there are no impatient drivers wanting to enter or leave that side street. It is also a T intersection so there is only one lane to watch for turns.
My observation is that this side street apparently is showing up in motorist’s navigation displays as a good way to reach a certain block. The problem is that the software apparently isn’t updated to the fact that that block is one-way preventing the recommended route.
Just about every time I use that intersection, I observe a car confidently and speedily turning into that street from the artery only to stop mid-turn at the stop sign when they realize that it is the wrong way.
They really want to get to an address on the block in the wrong direction. The best possible decision is to make a U-turn to go back to the artery and take the next intersection.
The problem is that they have already committed to this current route guided by their trusted navigation software. The navigation software is also committed to the bit and suggests an alternate route to turn right instead of left, but this is a very narrow street that only initially head in the right direction but then turns to intersect the next parallel road instead of getting back to the perpendicular road offering the second best route.
At this juncture, the best choice of turning right to get to the next arterial road amounts to going out of the way. The scientifically-provable shorter route is to turn left to get to the other cross artery, turn left onto that one, and then immediately turn left to get on the desired block. The problem is those two left turns are very hard to make because it is a busy street a block away from a stop light for a busy cross artery.
I’ve watched this happen multiple times and the majority of time each driver makes the wrong series of well-guided choices.
Only once so far have I observed a person make the optimal choice of a U-turn at the intersection despite his initial confidence. I suppose he had super-confidence of his own assessment of the data being superior to the guidance of his automated navigation pilot.
A government of data and urgency has the luxury of making U-turns that enlightenment governments can make because their only rational choice is to continue forward until they learn scientifically that that was a bad choice.