The “Informed” Citizen

The Expectation

We live in a self-defined “democratic” society. In this democratic society we are expected to have a strong grasp on the “facts” and be able to defend our opinion valiantly against the likes of Jimmy Kimmel and Jessee Watters for fear of being made an idiot in front of a national audience. The topics we ought to have such opinions on range from nuclear deals in Iran to mandatory minimums on drug crimes. Furthermore, we are supposed to take our informed minds and then vote into office representatives that will, at least partially, represent these reasonable conclusions we have come to.

All in an effort to legitimize, via democratic involvement, the institutions that serve us.

The Problem

But see, there is a problem with this expectation and that problem is time.

For the general population our conception on how time ought to be spent is this. Work forty hours a week to subsist, attend to all familial and social needs, eat, sleep, and use what’s left for hobbies and leisure. Where in this scheme is a person to investigate the nuance of the gun violence debate? How about the moral details of war and aggression? Unfortunately, for most of the working class the limitations on their time prohibit even those with a desire to know.

The result of this expectation to know and the problem of time deficiency can be best illustrated by street interviews conducted for the entertainment of an audience or the cacophony of sound-bite, meme garbage on the internet. When prompted to respond, people are much more likely to say what they hope is correct than admit that they are “ignorant” or “don’t know”. This is an assumption on my part and it very well might not be as universal as I make it sound, but I feel confident that it is at least a prevalent force in modern discourse.

A view must be expressed no matter how little one has considered a topic.

The question, “Do you support a single-payer healthcare system?” does not have weight if the respondent has not considered the potential consequences of such a system or the current state of affairs. Even thoughtfully dealing with our cultural notions of death appears important to a substantiated opinion on a question like this.

To illustrate how I am part of this problem instead of above here is an anecdote of an argument I had with my girlfriend on gun control.

I took on the “More Guns Less Crime” theory and she took the opposite. We traded blows for a half hour with each of us exasperated that the other wouldn’t relent their opinion. I explained that places with guns deter potential murderers; she explained that a strange men open carrying firearms is not conducive to a safe work environment. After the discussion we decided to actually sift through some of the academic material on the topic and it soon became clear that neither of us had a clear picture of the situation at hand. Not only were we ignorant of the finer details of our positions, but we were woefully unaware of the major systemic problems with studying the topic of gun violence at all!

Foiled again by societies’ insistence on argumentation over discovery.

The Solutions

There are a few potential solutions, though this list is far from exhaustive.

Listen To The Experts

This is the dominant view. In many articles, even well researched ones, there are appeals to authority. The so and so from leading institution “X” is given weight to differentiate their “right” opinion from their opponents “wrong” opinion. “The facts are on our side” is invoked without considering that their rivals may too have facts that support their opinions. Instead their rivals are painted as raving lunatics who believe what they do based on quazzi-faith or dangerous principles. This may be true, but it is often implied rather than demonstrated.

So, as a theoretical person with no time, I am told “Go find yourself an expert and have them tell you what to think! These experts have long careers in their field they know what they’re talking about!”

Well, yeah. But which one do I listen to? In almost every debate about public policy both sides are accusing the other of intellectual dishonesty. Even my use of the term both is misleading, there are many views in many different areas of public policy. Amid this variety, which position do I subscribe to?

I find this method insufficient. It does not help us become “informed”, but merely accept at face value whatever social dogma one intellectual class decides to be advocating for. Often, when implemented, this method turns quickly into confirmation bias where we add facts to our opinion bazooka ready to blow the next “dirty liberal” or “racist conservative” away.

Improve Labor Conditions

This is something that I would like to see in general, but ultimately may not solve the issue. An increase in labor conditions that will sufficiently allow the general populace more time for themselves will not necessarily result in an overall increase in levels of “informedness”, though it might. People rightfully have other interests to pursue, entertainment to enjoy, and dreams to accomplish. But it may allow others to increase their “informedness” and pass that on. If it were to occur, I’d be interested in observing the results.

Disconnect “Ignorance” From “Stupid”

Naturally, this is my argument. We must, if we are to make any progress, disconnect the ideas of “stupid” and “ignorance”. As humans we are all feeling our way through a thick fog with a dim headlamp that works intermittently. To not know everything is to be mortal and that is how these subjects should be treated. We have to admit to ourselves that we have inclinations towards certain belief sets for a variety of reasons, but often have not taken the time to truly substantiate them (if that is possible). I feel very adversarial towards capitalism as a system and I could furnish some reasons for feeling this, but that has a lot more to do with my immediate experience with it and the faith I have in the sources I digest than a substantive investigation of my own. So, in the spirit of this endeavor, the quality level of capitalism on the human condition remains an open question for me.

Alright, alright. So What Are YOU Doing About It?

Great question, hypothetical person. This is a dual medium effort; one part blog the other video. In these written portions I will be as thorough and thoughtful as possible and each essay will be linked in a corresponding video that I will create. The video will be the TLDR explanation of the essay where only the most relevant information will be shared in what I hope is an entertaining format.

The overarching question of this whole project is:

“Can one be an informed citizen and if so, can that informed citizen change public policy positively?”

The Guiding Principle

Before we go further, I would like to announce the guiding principle for this project.

To take individual or collective action if we can reasonably expect that the quality and quantity of human life will increase.

The terms within this principle will be defined as such.

Individual (action): An act of agency by our one person that will impact the quality or quantity of human life.

EX: If having a gun in the household will increase the chance that a member of that household will commit suicide over the chance it would be used to stop an intruder we should remove said gun.

Collective (action): An act of agency by a group of people that will impact the quality and quantity of human life. This can include anything from awareness campaigns to legislation.

EX: If background checks on firearms reduce the rate of violent death to a degree that trumps personal privacy concerns we ought to pass a law requiring background checks.

Reasonably Expect: We have sufficient evidence that we can predict with some measure of confidence that the result of an individual or collective action will increase the quantity and quality of human life.

Quality of Human Life: The increase in human happiness by the reduction of fear, hunger, and victimization while expanding opportunities for growth, knowledge, safety, and prosperity.

Quantity of Human Life: The increase in absolute numbers of persons alive by intervening in the situations that allow them to die and which we are able to prevent.

This, like all principles, is up for debate. I am aware that even within my definitions of the terms of this principle there are vague statements like “sufficient evidence” and “reduction of fear”. Unfortunately, the only way to make these statement “precise” is by assigning a numeric value to them which for a concept like “fear” is difficult to do meaningfully.

I’m all up for meta-discussions, but for this project that is what I’ll be working from. Furthermore this will be the method in which we shall interpret each individual book, study, article or other collection of thoughts.

The Skeptical Bath Treatment

In an effort to work through the large amount of information that will be presented to us it will be helpful to have a general procedure in which to consider each individual body of thought. This is what I call the skeptical bath treatment.

It will go as follows:

The Skeptical Bath Treatment (Outline)

A. Framing The Issue

  • Put forth the question the author(s) are trying to answer
  • Present a list of potential hypotheses
  • Acknowledge the conclusion that the author(s) make
  • Reflect on our starting positions, the potential moral concerns involved with the topic, and any other issues we might have

B. Data

  • Where did the data come from?
  • How was it validated? If not, how was it compensated for its flaws?

C. Analysis

  • What is the methodology of this author?
  • Which tools were used to prove the author’s claim?
  • Did the author control for confounding variables?

D. Interpretation

  • Are your results reasonable? (As defined by, do they match with existing fact? Are they possible?)
  • What are the implications of the results?
  • Where is it relevant? Where is it not?

An Explanation of The SBT

This method is meant to treat an individual work from its assumptions to its conclusions. Think of it like a modern Descartes approach without the mind controlling demon — we want to question the author on her every step. At the end we will discuss whether the author’s conclusions are justified by their evidence and techniques and what other conclusions might be drawn from them. I do not wish this method to be static — each lettered section most likely will remain constant, but the questions underneath should change depending on the subject material.

For instance, a study on gun violence would require asking specifically about the mathematical tools used to compare the variable “guns” with the variable “violence”. We also would like to know what kind of study it is and what are the strengths and weaknesses of such a thing. It is my desire to deal with each topic with a preference for depth as opposed to breadth.

Instead of taking a large umbrella issue like “Foreign Policy” or even “What Should We Do In Iraq?” and summarizing the various opinions on the topic we will be moving through a single collection of thought (book, essay, study etc.) with a perspective on the subject and see how well it holds up.

Framing The Issue

This is all about taking a psychological inventory of ourselves. We want to know what we’re asking and why we’re asking it. For the authors, what are their assumptions? What assumptions does their discipline make? For us, what are our assumptions? What baggage are we bringing to the discussion? Additionally, I will be presenting a partial list of potential hypotheses that we will be dealing with.

And then I will bombard you with as many moral question as I can conjure.

The goals of this stage is to make us sufficiently unsure of our initial positions that we will be either more skeptical or more generous to a given work depending on our initial position.

Data

This section is fairly self explanatory. We need to identify the major sources of data that this work draws from and ask how they validate that source. Simply saying that it is “official” will not be enough. Details in minutiae will abound on the potential pitfalls of the sources that are used and whether they compensated for those pitfalls. Anything ranging from using multiple sources to confirm a specific event to oversampling in a telephone survey will be brought up.

Garbage in, garbage out. Let’s make sure we avoid the antecedent.

Analysis

When making their argument, how do they go about it? Are there mathematical models used? What are the issues with those? How does the logical progression of their ideas hold up? This section will primarily be dealing with the process of a given work.

What I mean by controlling for confounding variables is that often arguments are made that “X” causes “Y” and we should do something to stop “X” from causing “Y” because “Y” is bad. What is often the case is that not just “X” causes “Y” — “Z” may contribute to “Y” as well. Furthermore, “X” can cause “Y”, but “Y” can also cause “X”. The interplay between these variables and how the author handles it is extremely important.

Interpretation

This is an opportunity first and foremost to try and set the limits on possible debate. Your opinion will not be squelched should you provide one out of this limit, but we want to ask if there are any implications of this conclusion that are simply not possible.

This method is used in science often to show that models are incomplete. Here is an excerpt from Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time:

According to the laws we believed at the time, a hot body should radiate the same amount of energy in waves with frequencies between one and two million million waves a second. Now since the number of waves a second is unlimited, this would mean that the total energy radiated would be infinite.

In order to avoid this obviously ridiculous result, the German scientist Max Planck suggested in 1900 that light, X rays, and other waves could not be emitted at an arbitrary rate, but only in certain packets that he called quanta. Moreover, each quantum had a certain amount of energy that was greater the higher the frequency of the waves, so at a high enough frequency the emission of a single quantum would require more energy than was available. Thus the radiation at high frequencies would be reduced, and so the rate at which the body lost energy would be finite. (Pg. 54)

There were the current “laws” that predicted a “obviously ridiculous result” and therefore the “laws” needed to be amended. We can use similar tools to exclude some lines of thinking. Also, it will be important for us to within the limits of that physical possibility establish the range of efficacy for a particular conclusion. We would be foolish to consider the relationship between gun ownership and violence and then assume that a gun buyback program is a good idea. It may lead us to ask those questions yet the answers will not be immediately available.

Conclusion

If you got this far, congratulations. The writing portion of this is meant to be more measured, thorough, and “academic” than the video portion. The point of this is for us to learn together not you learn from me. This interpretation method gives a coherent process for us to coordinate our minds and I hope to become one of many “Informed Citizens” not a guru with students.

I’m too young for that shit anyway.