Sunday, January 06, 2019

Democracy, truth, fallibilism, and the tech overlords

In a recent conversation a friend of mine offered the following: "There would be no need to vote on anything if we knew the truth." That statement has such profound implications that I will only scratch the surface of it here.

First, democracy presupposes that none of us knows the truth. We have our experience, our analyses, our logic and our intuitions, but we don't have the truth with a capital "T." We may reliably report our names to bank tellers. This is a social and legal designation, a definition backed by a birth certificate, driver's license, and other official documents. Even here we are obliged to provide evidence of the truth of our identity to the teller.

But whether it is wise to subsidize electric cars, legalize gambling, or go to war are issues that are far beyond simple social and legal designations. Our information on such topics is always incomplete, conflicting and quite possibly unreliable. We have difficulty verifying through personal observation much of what we are told. And, we are prone to errors of logic and to misinterpretations.

For these reasons we often turn to experts to do our thinking for us. But they all suffer from the same disadvantages as we do and one additional one: Some are paid to say what they say. It is therefore in the cacophony of debate and consultation that we try to arrive at an approximation of the truth although according to the fallibilist view, we can never be sure that we are even close to the truth.

(There is, of course, the problem of truth in context. It may be true that kicking a football through the uprights on a football field during a football game results in three points for the team doing so. But, the same action will have no discernible effect on a U.S. senate resolution authorizing war.)

Our every action then becomes an experiment in which we try to see if our suppositions (and possibly those of others) bear any resemblance to reality. If we are wise and steady, we adjust as we learn from our experience, trying to get closer to our goal.

This is the process that expresses itself in a truly democratic society. It is easy to see that we are very far from this ideal precisely because we have leaders who believe that they possess the truth with a capital "T." They profess to know first principles—from the Bible, from the field of economics, from the halls of distinguished international relations graduate programs—principles that will lead to an ever improving if not perfect world society, one that is prosperous, just and secure. We call such people ideologues because they believe the world can be perfected by making it conform to abstract ideas.

Ideologues who take their inspiration from the three sources mentioned above are increasingly the targets of skepticism in American, if not world society. But one group whom I like to refer to as the tech overlords are only recently becoming a target of that skepticism. The tech overlords are a grab bag technology companies, technology scientists and inventors, and technology investors and journalists who have bewitched the modern world through inventions that speed up our daily lives without necessarily making them better.

The tech overlords purport to know how to feed the world, end poverty, empower the individual, solve climate change and colonize other planets. And the key to these feats is, of course, more and newer technology. The wizardry of our ubiquitous cellphones and computers give every person a feeling that he or she is somehow participating in this grand future.

But our tech overlords are as reductionist as the other ideologues I've mentioned. These tech boosters fail to understand the many dimensions—social, political, economic, and cultural—of the problems they seek to solve. The natural world and human society are machines for which the tech overlords say they have discovered many of the control buttons. Artificial intelligence will supposedly soon discover the rest.

America was the original modern democracy. Its people were skeptical of the divine right of kings. Its political processes mistrusted the concentration of power and wealth. Its leaders set religion apart from the state having seen what can happen when the two are united. In fact, James Madison once wrote: "The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries."

American soil has instead given rise to a new philosophy called Pragmatism rooted in fallibilism best described as follows:

[N]o beliefs (or opinions or views or theses, and so on) are so well justified or supported by good evidence or apt circumstances that they could not be false. Fallibilism tells us that there is no conclusive justification and no rational certainty for any of our beliefs or theses.

That is a statement of profound humility. Reality is so much more subtle and complex than we humans can comprehend. If we stumble onto truth, we often do not know it. And, of course, what is true today may not be true tomorrow. The world is ever changing even if our ideas about it stand still.

The picture of the world to come from our tech overlords is found in the myriad speeches of so-called futurists. If it were true that we can predict the future, then we would have no need for democratic deliberation. But, grand techno-uptopian visions of the future are just tricks to make us think that humans know more than they do and that there are "experts" who know so much more than the rest of us that we should just leave everything to them.

The so-called "experts" have brought us a fossil fueled infrastructure; climate change; mechanized slaughter called war; expanding surveillance; cellphone and internet addiction; a rapid decline in the world's biodiversity; and a toxic soup of chemicals in our air, water and food. I'm not sure we should leave the future to them. I think they are just as fallible as I am.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Joe said...

Yet we got here with democracy. Even though it may be better than other forms of government, it has not been up to the task of making our society environmentally sustainable. If democracy can't do it, we are doomed.

blackTom said...

Democracy merely reflects the views and wants of the majority, there is no other grand purpose like preserving the environment. If people want to better their lives short term at the expense of long term survivability then that's that.

Robert Brown said...

There have long been problems with the way we treat science and technology overall, and in particular, one of them is how we almost deify people who succeed at something. In a way, we create these tech overlords, my giving them gravitas and depth they simply don't have.

Previously, I've written about how society tends to conflate scientists and engineers, another deep mistake, and how engineers are focused on some fairly narrow goals. Largely as a result of that, many of the problems we have today amount to unintended consequences, as result of accomplishing goals, that, while hey have some short term benefit to shareholders and customers, generate problems that tend to be long-term, and effectall of us. Some laws and regulations are intended to broaden evaluations, but they are not treated as a critical part of the process.

Along related lines, we highly values success, even by the limited ground rules just defined, and we tend to allow more latitude to those who have achieved success, by those rules. Einstein, who made most of his significant contributions to science before 1920, was always amazed at the questions people would ask him, often on topics in which he claimed little knowledge, and no expertise. Late in life, he understood that since he had solved some very challengng problems, people assumed that he the answers to most other things. He once observed that he could have said almost anything, and people would have eagerly accepted it.

Apply this same treatment to someone like Bill Gate, Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk; all people who have been very successful in our system, successful by any measure in business.Such success gives their word added value and weight, so when they hold forth, on any topic, thier word weighs heavily on the scale. Without picking on these men in particular (there are others) whatever they say gets extra attention and notoriety, not necessarily on the merits of what they are saying, but due to their overall profile and fame, derived from that success. Now it is good when these people have done their "homework" and know what they are saying, and some (Gates in particular) are using their wealth to sustain a foundation that is, on the whole, doing some beneficial projects. But this is not always the case, and please remember that some of these successes are predicated on the same narrow values (profitability, customer and shareholder value uber alles) that produced the unintended consequences that are causing so much concern.

This notion is fundamentally rubbish, the idea that "Oh, but XXX is so wealthy/successful, he must be smart, and know what he's saying about YYY". There are many ways that this makes no sense at all. I am reminded of a certain real estate developer and licensor of the family name for use in conjunction with other properties, who used this reasoning and presentation recently, to to achieve high political office (no names, please, merely an example).