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Thread: Can representative systems of laymen handle complex scientific or financial matters?

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    Synapse's Avatar
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    Can representative systems of laymen handle complex scientific or financial matters?

    This question has been with me in one form or another for my whole life.

    Abstract:
    I'm almost 30 now, and I know of precious few instances in which my government (the us congress) managed a complex scientific or financial matter correctly. It got me to thinking:
    Yes they are advised by some kind of staff, but even then, how much can be explained in a short amount of time?
    It seems to me there is an upper limit to the complexity of instrument that we can expect congress to be able to make any kind of informed decision about. Above that line they can't be expected to know how to use it appropriately.

    Financial instruments in particular....what is the upper limit of financial complexity that congress can be expected to handle?

    1. Do you agree that the competency bar for the group should be lower than that of most individuals? I don't think anyone expects the US government to manage its finances through complex derivitives products similar to those which broke the investment banks recently. Clearly you couldn't ask a normal senator to know how to deal with that. Shouldn't the competency bar for the entire group actually be below that of most (or even a majority of) the individuals, to ensure that more than half the group can comprehend what is going on?

    2. Some people would say you can't expect US senators or representatives to deal responsibly with debts they won't be asked to pay off, either. What's your take on the maximum debt complexity representatives can handle?

    3. At what point is the complexity of the system such that a group of advised average laymen cannot deal with it, and what other systems (scientific, strategic, political) are already beyond that point in your thinking?

  2. #2
    SAI Peregrinus's Avatar
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    First, you're mixing science and economics. Economics saw science once, in the distance, but they never met.
    Both do have the same problem, in that the complex matters they deal with can't be reasonably understood without extensive training. They differ in that no one currently understands economics.
    When the group cannot understand the consequences of their decision with the amount of training they can get before making the decision, then the system is too complex for advised laymen to properly deal with it. Most systems are beyond this point. Since most decisions have only a few options, and because training increases the chance of making the right decision, many decisions made by groups of advised laymen are correct. The question shouldn't be "when can they no longer deal with it" but "when does the error rate become unacceptably high."

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    Quote Originally Posted by SAI Peregrinus View Post
    First, you're mixing science and economics. Economics saw science once, in the distance, but they never met.
    Both do have the same problem, in that the complex matters they deal with can't be reasonably understood without extensive training. They differ in that no one currently understands economics.
    When the group cannot understand the consequences of their decision with the amount of training they can get before making the decision, then the system is too complex for advised laymen to properly deal with it. Most systems are beyond this point. Since most decisions have only a few options, and because training increases the chance of making the right decision, many decisions made by groups of advised laymen are correct. The question shouldn't be "when can they no longer deal with it" but "when does the error rate become unacceptably high."
    I'm deliberately mixing science and economics and any field in which the concepts get complicated enough that an educated advisor can't tell you how to understand it in a few hours.

    You're right that it's debatable whether anyone understands macroeconomics at all.

    I like your meta-analysis about error rate when making advised guesses, but it just pushes back the line at which "failure to make good decisions" occurs. What's your opinion on whether we are at or beyond the acceptable error rate, then? It's basically the same question with a bit more nuance.

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    Assuming a trustsworthy, competent, neutral group of advisors I see no theoretical upper bound on the complexity that a representative government can handle. That said, at some point you're not really electing a congressperson to make decisions for you, you're electing their <field> advisor. At some point it would be beneficial to overhaul the system such that advisor groups are a formalized part of the election process, as they're really going to be the driving force behind decisions. And at that point you've crossed over into a sort of recursive representative governance system.

    -O
    I thought what I'd do was, I'd pretend I was one of those Thukkers, that way I wouldn't have to have any goddamn stupid useless conversations with anybody.
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    SAI Peregrinus's Avatar
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    I still think there can be an upper bound. The advisors aren't always going to be perfectly knowledgeable, as not every subject is perfectly understood. There's also commonly interaction between different fields, and what is best from one field's perspective will not be optimal from another field's perspective. The interaction between issues can become extremely complex, and thus be poorly understood. Time is also a factor. Some decision can be understood with enough study by experts, but that can take too long.

    Decisions will always need to be made based on imperfect information. The trick is finding a way to make the decisions cause the least possible harm, without needing to always make the right decision.

    I think we (the USA) are likely beyond the acceptable error rate.

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    Even the best of economists do not understand economics...
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    let's split economics off to begin with, it's around 98% political ideology coupled with 2% misleading statistics to justify the ideology, just to bring the point home the assumption is that human consequences can be entirely uncoupled with from the system and the entire point is process optimization, that this "process optimization" can and does cost lives because reality never conforms to the models is just a "unfortunate side effect" see things like "Rational choice theory" that underpins many economic models for just how full on retarded that field is.

    making science understandable is down to the people doing the explanation, even quantum physics can be explained in a broad manner in about 20 minutes, this does not give a deep understanding of the field, but enough to start exploring the field itself and start posing the questions we do not have the answers for yet, the problem with this entire model is a version of "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" or "who watches the watchmen?" it will essentially enshrine the currently hugely problematic lobbying system, after all these experts will need food on the table and are obvious targets for outside influence.
    Viking, n.:
    1. Daring Scandinavian seafarers, explorers, adventurers, entrepreneurs world-famous for their aggressive, nautical import business, highly leveraged takeovers and blue eyes.
    2. Bloodthirsty sea pirates who ravaged northern Europe beginning in the 9th century.

    Hagar's note: The first definition is much preferred; the second is used only by malcontents, the envious, and disgruntled owners of waterfront property.

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    Liare, I think your definition of "explain" needs some work.

    Representatives get very little useful out of being to the point of "start exploring the field itself and start posing the questions we do not have the answers for yet" They have no time to pose further questions or explore the field. They have at maximum an hour or two to have this explained to them before voting and moving to the next schedule item.

    They need to be at the "make meaningful and relatively informed decisions as to the pros and cons of complex systemic changes on/in this field"

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    that's entirely a presentation issue Synapse, i spend the majority of my professional career reducing complex technical constructs down to something possible to be digested by the average human being, the majority of laws are drafted in cross-party commission like constructs allowing for plenty of time and possibility to consider the consequences, they are then put to the first vote and subsequently redrafted if required, a parliamentary system that allows one or more parties to pull a law out of the hat for voting without any preparatory debates and the like is defective by design and the problem is not the content of the legislative complexity, but entirely because the system itself is badly designed.

    the journey from draft to law here requires at minimum two votes and a consultation with any interested parties in parliament, and fuck me if this doesn't fail a awful lot too. (largely because our politicians are more inbred than the people of Iceland)
    Viking, n.:
    1. Daring Scandinavian seafarers, explorers, adventurers, entrepreneurs world-famous for their aggressive, nautical import business, highly leveraged takeovers and blue eyes.
    2. Bloodthirsty sea pirates who ravaged northern Europe beginning in the 9th century.

    Hagar's note: The first definition is much preferred; the second is used only by malcontents, the envious, and disgruntled owners of waterfront property.

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    Number of votes does not imply time spent investigating those votes though.

    From what I see here our congress has 4-5 votes a day. It wouldn't be temporally possible to spend more than 2 hours on each one (ok two votes so maybe 4 hours total)

    ..and that assumes they drop all other activities like trying to be reelected or schmoozing with lobbyiests or sex with staffers. All of which I suspect eat more of their time than either voting or researching.


    ...or...you know....actually trying to understand the will of their constituents. That might take up a bit of time too. (easily all of it.)

  11. #11
    Liare's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Synapse View Post
    Number of votes does not imply time spent investigating those votes though.

    From what I see here our congress has 4-5 votes a day. It wouldn't be temporally possible to spend more than 2 hours on each one (ok two votes so maybe 4 hours total)

    ..and that assumes they drop all other activities like trying to be reelected or schmoozing with lobbyiests or sex with staffers. All of which I suspect eat more of their time than either voting or researching.


    ...or...you know....actually trying to understand the will of their constituents. That might take up a bit of time too. (easily all of it.)
    so you're looking at the wrong problem, what's really needed is a slowing of the legislative process itself, laws should be quality over quantity should they not ?

    moreover various legistative areas are typically divided up between members of the parties in question meaning each member affects the direction of the voting of the party as a whole ?

    as for the will of their constituents, i will believe that when i see it actually happen outside responding to angry protesting.
    Viking, n.:
    1. Daring Scandinavian seafarers, explorers, adventurers, entrepreneurs world-famous for their aggressive, nautical import business, highly leveraged takeovers and blue eyes.
    2. Bloodthirsty sea pirates who ravaged northern Europe beginning in the 9th century.

    Hagar's note: The first definition is much preferred; the second is used only by malcontents, the envious, and disgruntled owners of waterfront property.

  12. #12
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    Quote Originally Posted by Liare View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Synapse View Post
    Number of votes does not imply time spent investigating those votes though.

    From what I see here our congress has 4-5 votes a day. It wouldn't be temporally possible to spend more than 2 hours on each one (ok two votes so maybe 4 hours total)

    ..and that assumes they drop all other activities like trying to be reelected or schmoozing with lobbyiests or sex with staffers. All of which I suspect eat more of their time than either voting or researching.


    ...or...you know....actually trying to understand the will of their constituents. That might take up a bit of time too. (easily all of it.)
    so you're looking at the wrong problem, what's really needed is a slowing of the legislative process itself, laws should be quality over quantity should they not ?

    moreover various legistative areas are typically divided up between members of the parties in question meaning each member affects the direction of the voting of the party as a whole ?

    as for the will of their constituents, i will believe that when i see it actually happen outside responding to angry protesting.
    That's exactly my point. If we did slow down the legislative process, I would NOT suggest spend it on this, valuable as it is. It would be better spent putting that time into actually thinking about the will of the constituents (or maybe more importantly the needs of the constituents)...and you're back with the same problem again.

  13. #13

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    In a perfect world?

    You would have a 'Congress of Experts' appointed by a politically independent body as recognition of their expertise in a field. Anything that passes through the main congress also has to pass through the Congress of Experts.

    The congress of experts would have a very limited set of powers mostly focused around reviewing and shooting down bills. Their job would be to stop gibberish being legislated and to maintain their own expertise.


    We have something similar in the UK - The house of lords. It started off as a dirty method of keeping the toff's in power but over the centuries has evolved into something akin to the congress of experts mentioned above. It's not perfect (as quite a few of the seats are still assigned based on hereditary and religious grounds), but it does allow a body of experts to review/reject bills put out by the howler monkeys in the house of commons. Because they don't need to worry about re-election they can spend their time actually focusing on the issues. Because they can't actually propose any new bills, the worrying potential of them being unelected is never realised.

    Despite how it sounds, some of the most worrying 'could have been' laws in the UK that would have trampled all over the freedoms of our populace were actually shot down by the house of lords after the house of commons passed them.

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