“Societal Windtunnels?”

Over on Clarissa’s blog, there’s a bit of an ongoing debate as to whether it is possible to ‘perfect’ Communism in such a way that implementing it doesn’t result in millions upon millions of innocent people dying. On the one side of the debate are the people (myself included) who argue that the fact that it has failed spectacularly every single time that it has ever been tried is strong evidence that the social and economic model it promotes suffers from irreducible flaws. On the other side are those who (at the risk of charicaturing their arguments) take something of a you-can’t-make-an-omelet-without-breaking-some-eggs approach. Likening the development of different societal models to that of any other technology, they argue that prior to about a hundred years ago, heavier-than-air flight was also widely seen as impossible (also on the grounds that it had failed spectacularly every time it had been tried), and that getting it to finally work was simply a matter of experimenting with different designs until one of them finally stuck.

Anyways, I found this argument somewhat interesting, on the grounds that it effectively underscores one of the many ways in which social sciences cannot be conducted in the same manner as natural sciences. Namely, you will notice that it nicely glazes-over the fact that, when you’re refining the design of a plane,  you lose (at worst) the lives of a few test pilots who consented to undertake the test, while fully informed of the risks, of their own free will; by contrast, any further attempts to refine the communist model, even if they eventually hit upon a design that worked, would almost certainly result in tens of millions more deaths before this success was achieved. Even ignoring the fact that the people who administer such ‘social experiments’ have, historically, not been what you would call ‘dispassionate researchers,’ I need hardly explain why this is grievously immoral. I’m sure we’d agree that it would be unethical for a doctor to experiment on a patient in a manner that might kill him without his informed consent–even if this experiment ultimately resulted in a cure for a deadly disease. Why then would it not be a million times more unethical to experiment upon a million patients in a manner that might kill them without their informed consent–even if this experiment ultimately resulted in a utopia?

But it got me to thinking: what if there was some way to test societal models in a controlled setting? A sort of “societal windtunnel,” if you will, in which (to carry the analogy with planes to its natural conclusion) different models could be tested-out in a laboratory without any risk to anyone. I started considering this problem in terms of my own discipline.

Now, obviously, this precise ethical problem rarely comes-up in the various domains of physics: however, there exist certain systems studied by physicists which are simply impossible to conduct controlled experiments upon; a good example of this would be the question of galaxy formation in the early universe: how the hell do you go about testing your different hypotheses on a system so huge, so vast, and so ancient? One way, of course, is to do so observationally, but in the case of societal models that would just lead us back to my earlier point that observationally, communism doesn’t work.

The other way in which it is commonly done, however, is modelling it out upon a computer. You see, it’s possible to program the laws of physics into an iterated simulation, set up a some initial conditions, and then just watch the way that your assumptions would play-out in the real world, time-step by time-step. Would it be possible, in principle, to do something similar with a societal model? Where your initial conditions, in this case, could consist of things like wealth distribution, social mobility, tons of manufactured goods, life expectancy and so forth?

My gut instict, personally, is that no, such a simulation would not be possible–societies are actually a great deal more complicated than most physical systems, and I suspect, more prone to “stochastic” behaviour based upon even slightly modified initial conditions. Plus, there’s also the critical difference that no one can seem to agree, in broad terms, how the damn thing actually works. Even still, I think it’s an amusing thought-experiment.

 

About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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9 Responses to “Societal Windtunnels?”

  1. n8chz says:

    The other way in which it is commonly done, however, is modelling it out upon a computer.

    Perhaps the most devastating critique of socialism is the so-called Calculation Argument. The idea is that there’s no substitute for the market mechanism as a means of efficient allocation of resources because the math is beyond complicated. But as you said, there was a time they thought it was theoretically impossible to fly. I suggest a method to attempt “manual” allocation while maintaining voluntary participation here and here. Not exactly a wind tunnel, as my particular recipe doesn’t call for physical separation from the existing kapitalist economy, but in which a self-selected community does (gradually) seek self-sufficiency from it. There’s been such a thing as anarcho-communists for at least 150 years, so it’s a false dichotomy between human-nature essentialists who think it’s theoretically impossible and people who think the end justifies the means of breaking eggs.

  2. Lindsay says:

    What you describe sounds a lot similar to the thing I thought was the most intriguing thing about Asimov’s Foundation books — he conceived of a discipline he called “psychohistory,” which is essentially predictive sociology. He imagines that, far in the future, we will have collected enough data, and devised sophisticated enough statistical methods, that we will be able to predict what large groups of people will do.

    I was probably older than most people are when they first read those books, but I wanted that to exist SO BADLY. I still want it to exist now.

    I guess you could argue that Asimov must’ve seen social sciences as not inherently different from natural sciences — that they could become just as “hard” if they were given enough time to collect the amount of data needed to make, and test, hypotheses.

  3. Pingback: Sunday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion | Clarissa's Blog

  4. Drama says:

    Of course it’s possible, that’s why we have different countries because they all have different systems. That’s why it irritates me to see countries sending their history down the tubes in the name of multi-culti, especially since it’s only the developed western nations who are doing that anyway.

    There’s nothing wrong with countries being unique, in fact it makes things more interesting.

    • I’m afraid I don’t see the relevance of this comment.
      I was asking whether it was possible to experiment with different societal models in a way that didn’t risk anyone’s lives. Of course it is possible to experiment on a country-by-country basis, but the problem is people still die.
      As for the multiculturalism comment, that seems completely off base on account of the fact that history unambiguously shows that by far the most successful states are the diverse, cosmopolitan ones. Consider, for example, the Roman Empire, Han China, Achmanaeid Persia, the Iroquois Confederacy, Moorish Spain, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Austo-Hungarian Empire, and, indeed, the modern United States.

      • Drama says:

        By its nature an experiment is to explore something unknown, in which case safety cannot really be guaranteed. And realistically there is no way to experiment without people dying, at the risk of sounding fatalistic, nobody is guaranteed a long life or one that will be unchallenging. That idea alone is naive.

        You’re certainly right in pointing out that those historical examples were all successful and had diverse citizenry but they also had, clearly defined cultures and societies. Rome may have taken the best ideas/products of each state that it conquered, but they were still definitively Roman. America may be a melting pot of people but that does not mean there is no American tradition.
        My comment was not that these countries are simply diverse, its that they encourage the destruction of their own history and replace with another peoples. At best in the UK and America today we should hold it with pride, at middle incorporate outside ideas, but not replace it with another culture simply to appease others. To replace one’s own culture and history merely to avoid offending another is a travesty.
        Again those countries of your examples worked well with diversity to bring people together, when the state actively seperates them the results are less impressive.

      • “And realistically there is no way to experiment without people dying, at the risk of sounding fatalistic, nobody is guaranteed a long life or one that will be unchallenging. That idea alone is naive.”
        I hope that you’re not therefore implying that such experiments are morally acceptable.
        “My comment was not that these countries are simply diverse, its that they encourage the destruction of their own history and replace with another peoples. At best in the UK and America today we should hold it with pride, at middle incorporate outside ideas, but not replace it with another culture simply to appease others. To replace one’s own culture and history merely to avoid offending another is a travesty.”
        I have seen absolutely no evidence whatsoever that this “replacement” is even remotely the case in a multicultural system. It does, however, have the glorious ring of a right-wing talking point.

      • n8chz says:

        Conservatives can be such victims when they put their mind to it.

      • Lindsay says:

        [R]ealistically there is no way to experiment without people dying …

        Stop right there! *blows whistle*

        I cannot tell from looking at your blog what you do, or what you are educated in, but there are lots of very strict rules governing experiments conducted with human subjects. (There are *some* rules governing experiments done on animals, but I do not think they are yet adequate. For instance, you have to prove to your research institution’s Animal Care and Use Committee that your proposed experiment is 1) scientifically or medically justified; 2) cannot be conducted without using animal subjects; and 3) goes to whatever lengths it can to relieve the animal subjects’ pain, and to avoid visiting any unnecessary suffering on them.)

        The rules for humans, you can take a look at on the US government’s Department of Health and Human Services website, and also at the American Psychological Association’s website. Suffice it to say, the rules for humans are way, way stricter and go into such things as making sure the human subjects know what they’re signing up for, have complete freedom to opt out, are not deceived (or, if deception is part of the experiment, like in some psychological experiments, its use is heavily restricted and the researchers are required to tell the subjects the truth “as early as is feasible”), and are not given incentives that would push them to consent to procedures they might otherwise be iffy about, plus a whole bunch of other stuff. Children and pregnant women have even more rules governing their participation in research, because researchers don’t want to expose children/fetuses to things that might disrupt their development.

        Anyway, what you say about experiments is not true. At all.

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