The Dangers of Intellectualism

From the moment we embraced science and reason, intellectuals interested in public policy have dreamed of forming the perfect society.  In our minds, all social problems are easily solved–if we ran the system, the system would be perfect.

The result has been disaster–from the Soviet Union to Cuba; to religious scholars who pervert their religion and kill innocent people; to “free” market anarchists nearly destroying the world economy.

Common Sense: The Neural Network vs the Turing Machine

Most intellectuals solve problems much like a Turing Machine (a computer that can represent any other computer)–we create a few simple rules and concepts, and build more complex ideas on top of them.  Cause and effect form trees; this thing causes these two things, those two things each cause three other things, ad infinitum (statisticians constantly tell us otherwise, but we ignore them).

Correlation may not imply causation–but it’s easy enough to avoid that inconvenient truth; policy-minded intellectuals who insist on discussing the uncertainty of their research–what they do not know–often end up in the unpopular “out” group.

Most people are different.  They use the subconscious mind as an information processing machine, pulling data from millions of sources and putting models together on the fly.  This is similar (in principle) to Agile Development[2], where systems are designed and implemented in cycles and rewrites are encouraged.

Neural nets demand this flexibility by nature.  Neurons must handle sensory information, regulate the body, and make as few mistakes as possible–in an environment where nutrients, hormones, and oxygen may vary widely.  Neural nets that worked in the past may become irrelevant at any time, and must restructure to adapt–or survival may be at stake.

Intellectuals in general–but especially public policy researchers–tend to suppress this immense, subconscious processing power.  We demand the world conform to what we know to be “scientifically correct” (or it’s cousin, “politically acceptable”); our subconscious mind fits reality to facts–instead of facts to reality.  Scientific “laws” are more important then personal observation.  Every problem has simple reductionist principles, that universally apply in every situation (or at least “most of the time”–which is treated much the same).

The Scientific Method That Isn’t Used

Science needs two things to work: a known set of assumptions and the ability to falsify (test for incorrectness) hypotheses.  Yet, most of what we call “science” routinely violates those simple concepts.  Outside of “hard” science like math, physics, astronomy and chemistry, the scientific method cannot prove anything.  And even in those fields, old theories are still disproven from time to time (especially when falsifying a theory requires decades for the technology to develop; scientists will often accept it as de facto proven in the interim).

Too Complex To Solve: Sometimes It’s Simply NP-Complete

Computer science–a hard science–well states our inability to fully understand most problems in society.  Many aspects of our world are NP-complete[1]–meaning they cannot solved in predictable, polynomial time.  As the size of problems become larger and more complex, they become exponentially harder to solve.  Solutions can be approximated, but only in some situations and with some margin of error.

If social problems are often NP-complete (i.e.  physically impossible to find perfect solutions in our lifetimes), why do so many “scientific” schools of thought exist on human beings, our needs and our interactions?  If science itself says it cannot solve these problems–if the scientific method, statistics, and computer science state the impossibility of this–why should public policy intellectuals be more authoritative then the rest of society–who, after all, actually live in it?

Why are we better, more capable of running society?  The scientists in the “hard” fields can at least demonstrate real, material benefits.  But most of us  do not work in physics labs, charting new frontiers in math or creating new exotic particles.

The Law of Comparative Advantage

The Law of Comparative Advantage states mutually beneficial trade between two entities can always be achieved, when both sides act in good faith.  I firmly believe this is the basis of human equality.  Intellectuals need schools, buildings, cars, manufactured goods–just like anyone else.  Someone has to provide these goods and services.

Highway construction workers build our roads, using sophisticated machinery in intense conditions.  Contractors build our houses, using skilled electricians and carpenters.  It is said the skill needed to efficiently operate a freight truck, or heavy construction equipment, is on a level with athletes and professional dancers.  Crane operators are often paid into the six figures.

Even the seemingly unskilled is making far more use of his brain then we realize.  A sales clerk must operate a cash register, deal with financial documents and chat amiably with customers–all at once.  Fast food workers must make good quality food at high speed–with no mistakes–in a high-stress environment (with managers who are often overstressed and underqualified).

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