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I'm starting to wonder if the era of super-big problems is over. Wars are trending smaller. Economic meltdowns aren't quite so deep or lasting. Israel has become so skilled at managing its local threats that a peace treaty would feel like a step backwards. The Gates Foundation is chipping away at malaria. The technology to create and deliver food where it's needed is better than ever. New energy sources are popping up daily.

Generally speaking, the world's biggest problems have shifted from the right-now type to the pending doom type. Climate change might end us all someday. A meteor might head our way. The global economy might disintegrate because of (insert reason). Iran might build a nuke and use it. Immigration problems might evolve from a nuisance to a huge problem. Pipelines might burst and pollute stuff. Demographics might make us a world full of senile oldsters. And so on.

There's a lot of scary stuff in the "might" category. Luckily, the Adams Theory of Slow-Moving Disasters predicts that any problem the world sees coming gets solved. We humans are surprisingly competent when we focus.

The great thing about the connected world is that we can see problems developing early enough to head them off. We can monitor climate change over time. We can detect terror plots before they are executed. We can identify financial bubbles early. We can alter lifestyle to ward off predictable future health problems.

A huge advantage of the connected world is that we can study what one government does to address a given problem and then steal those best practices. We could be a lot better at doing that, but the trend seems clear enough.

1.       We now have the means to predict most problems well in advance.

2.       We can borrow best practices from anywhere in the world.

3.       Modern technology provides immense problem-solving tools.

Now that civilization has the ability to identify problems early, and the ability to research and borrow best practices to solve those problems, the weak link is government. Our current forms of government - at least the democracies - are poorly designed for data-driven decisions. Dogma, superstition, money, and reelection concerns will always trump data.

I don't think there's a realistic hope of reengineering the basic forms of our elected governments anytime soon. Perhaps we need an independent group of scientists and engineers to identify trending national problems, rank them for importance, and identify best practices from other places. The entrenched political parties will of course ignore data and best practices as they always have. But perhaps the existence of well-publicized best practices will encourage future candidates to run on platforms of data over dogma.

I would feel most comfortable if the scientists and engineers in this independent group were atheists who don't vote and aren't strongly aligned with any political party - sort of like having eunuchs guard the harem.

 
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+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 19, 2013
It's hard for me to imagine that you really believe us humans are good at any of the things you mention. Climate change, an irreversible long term threat has been knocking on our doors for decades, yet we continue our throw-away overpopulated infinite growth model until it is too late. The latest financial catastrophe hit most countries by surprise and none know how to solve it, since it cannot really be solved except by highly artificial means. We have raped and exploited almost any corner of the earth and are the most destructive species ever.

We create problems, then we "foresee" them, them we don't solve them or solve them too late. Humans are collectively enormously stupid.

And yet we are brilliant. If we would forget about artificial money for once, and maximize technology, we can prevent and avoid most of the suffering and destruction in this world. But we won't. We just keep living in a broken model. We chose to be dumb.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 19, 2013
Scott, your comments today sound hopelessly naïve. The next world war will likely be over water, and it will likely happen within the next decade or so. America is far too arrogant to adopt best practices from anywhere, even those we invent here (let alone Europe, whom we consider to be too Socialist to be correct about anything). And we're all too happy to create financial bubbles, like the housing bubble, because they benefit the uber-wealthy who control and ride them. Until the richest Americans realize that they can do better by doing good, we are all skrooed.
 
 
Aug 19, 2013
@Backslash68
You don’t seem to be familiar with history when you use the Japan reference. The Japanese were losing the war but they were also dragging it out and making it very costly. They were committed to the last man. The bombs brought that to a much swifter end. The merits of that can be debated, but the effectiveness cannot.
[they could have dropped them in a Japan cornfield and that would have been enough of a demonstation to end the war - but no, they had to drop them on two cities.]
The very fact that a second city was needed defeats your statement. Hiroshima did not convince the Japanese but bombing a cornfield would? The Japanese would have mocked either our stupidity or our aim. Anyone requiring two lost cities would not surrender from the loss of a cornfield no matter how tasty the corn was. ;-)
 
 
Aug 16, 2013
@backslash68

[what makes the USA entitled to build atomic weapons, and think that some other countries can not? ]

Do you beleive that any country that wants the atomic bomb should have one? What about any organization? Any person? Where do you draw the line? And once you draw that line can you really blame us for drawing it in a different place than you do?
 
 
Aug 15, 2013
"Iran might build a nuke and use it"

There is something that is really hard for me to understand, please can someone explain:
what makes the USA entitled to build atomic weapons, and think that some other countries can not? because they are the god-sent democracy, while other countries are inherently evil dictatorships? may I remind you that the USA is the *only* country that dropped nukes on people in 1945 - they could have dropped them in a Japan cornfield and that would have been enough of a demonstation to end the war - but no, they had to drop them on two cities.
 
 
Aug 15, 2013
A friend of mine whose father worked for NASA once told me that the costs of redesigning the space station over and over again as Congress changed budgets and priorities could have been used to build the space station ten years before they built the space station. It's a good example of how the cost of politics is sometimes higher than the cost of the engineering.

What Scott is saying reminds me not of modern day NASA (a topic I could go off on, but won't), which does have the problems I stated above, but of Apollo-era NASA. In those days the government was smart enough to know that the scientists and engineers were smarter than the politicians - and the people who knew how to do this were given the funds and free reign to do it. What he is saying isn't really that controversial ... it's just how big science problems were done in an age when big problems got solved.

The wonder of it is that apparently people who think that the way things are done currently somehow makes more sense. For instance, spending $9 billion to develop something - then stopping when it's near completion because Congress changed its mind about what it wants. And apparently some people think this is how to get things done.

I don't. And I suspect Scott doesn't either. What he is saying mirrors my own thinking about why the U.S. can't do big things any more - and it's simply because the cost of politics is too high. The way it should be is you set the goal, find the people who can do that, and then fund them to get to the goal. But apparently we need "oversight" of everything and where government is concerned we need oversight to the point where nothing gets done because people are happier that way. The problems in "Dilbert" are real world problems and they afflict our government. I guess I'm surprised more readers of this blog don't see that.
 
 
Aug 15, 2013
Most "Big Problems" are manufactured.

Weasel government departments, weasel companies and weasel whole industries want you to think you are under threat so you buy stuff. Their stuff.

Every day we see a "crisis" in health. Trace it back and it is by a charity, or company which stands to benefit from actions to prevent "this crisis".

Every day we hear of a new computer virus. Trace it back and the "news" comes from an anti-virus vendor.

Every day we hear of a risk - alcohol, drugs, speed, crime. All put out there by "Alcohol Concern", Drug Helpline Charities yada yada.

The threat from internet !$%*!$%*!$%* Put out by people who want to monitor your every word or control your behaviour - not just in !$%* but in everything.

Worst of all is the Defence Industry/Department (the two are inseparable with a revolving door). These guys create wars to sell their products.

The reason that these things go away, is that they weren't real in the first place.
 
 
Aug 14, 2013
In summary, Scott would prefer that the world be run by people like himself.

Hey, me too!

oh wait... you also?

well, back to democracy...
 
 
-4 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 14, 2013
An unelected, unrecallable technical elite sounds like a bad idea. Though it does resemble aspects of our judicial branch...

Just find it odd that someone with such strong disdain for the pointy headed boss (PHB) would think government especially without very strong checks and balances is going to get anything right.

I think we need a more effective means to fire our current government hacks. Swipe your fingerprint on your computer at a regular interval, review an excerpt of current gov idiocy and verify which elected officials should be retained or immediately ousted and position re-opened. When a tipping point is reached (50%?) erase said flunky's access, salary and gold-plated health care and open the field for nomination petitions. Not like a vacant office could be less effective than 99% of current office holders.

We do need some mechanism to attain some semblance of sane foreign policy. Watching John I'm a Vietnam Veteran and anti-american traitor Kerry kick Israel through another round of appease the made up arab remnants known as palestinians even though they never honor their side of the agreement is just the icing on at least 5 years of foreign policy pure idiocy. Seems like congress should pass some very high-level objectives and the State Department should implement them in a non-partisan manner. Yeah, like any part of that last sentence is gonna happen. And it would probably include some vague "road map" verbiage that would enshrine a goodly portion of diplomatic lunacy for all time.
 
 
Aug 14, 2013
"I'm of the opinion that athiesm does not exist in a practical manner."

You are entitled to your wrong opinion.

"when people stop worshiping God they start worshiping other things"

Nope. "Worship" doesn't form any part of my life at all.

You might just as well say "when people stop playing football they start playing other team-based ball games". Well, yes, some people do. But really, MOST people who stop playing football just, y'know, stop playing football, and indeed all ball-sport-related activities, and instead just get on with their lives doing more important, constructive things, perhaps occasionally stopping to marvel that some people continue to waste their Sundays kicking a ball around a field instead of doing something positive to improve their lives and the lives of others.

In exactly the same way that you seem unable to comprehend that you can live your life without "worshipping" something, I'm honestly baffled why you'd waste your time in that way.
 
 
Aug 14, 2013
The problem with trusting data is some of the best inventors of all time weren't exactly hard data driven people as we think of it. Tesla just thought about how things worked so let's say he had a strong intuitive instinct. Kelly Johnson of Lockheed (he basically helped invent jets and stealth fighters) basically trusted his gut on how things worked.

Then you got the problem with people fudging the data to suit their needs, people who mess it up on purpose, things there aren't data for, data that has ambiguous results at best, things that are completely subjective, etc.

BTW, I'm of the opinion that athiesm does not exist in a practical manner. Basically when people stop worshiping God they start worshiping other things, including secular things (money, the environment, government, etc).
 
 
Aug 13, 2013
BobNL,

Sorry to have to say that you have limited reading comprehension, but you do.

Other than my opinionions [sic], there are facts. If a few people are allowed to force their opinionions on a majority of people, it is reasonable to think that those people will object to being ruled by those people's (technocrats) opinionions.

My point with the two lying scientists was to give reasonable people the ability to say that it's OK for them to object to being ruled by a few academic fools who call their opinionions fact.

Moreover, 'democracy by parliament' is what we in the states call 'a republic.' Sorry the concept is so foreign (pun intended) to you. That's what I was saying was superior to a technocracy. Sorry you missed the point.

What you seem to be saying is that you support a technocracy ruling us, while at the same time saying that we should choose 'democracy by parliament.'

And you say MY reasoning is flawed?

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

Enjoy your consistency.
 
 
Aug 13, 2013
"Modern technology provides immense problem-solving tools."

One worry is the seemingly increasing backlash against many new processes & technologies - anti-GMO, anti-fracking, anti-vaccine, etc. And these opposition movements appear to grow even without much of any scientific backing. The precautionary principle is anti-science in itself. )you can never try new things without some risk). And there seems to be more of it all the time.

And, Scott, I do also worry about your faith in "experts". The more complex processes are, the less that there can be *any* consensus of "best practices". And the more we force any consensus, the more likely that some "Big" things will be gotten "Super" horribly wrong.
 
 
Aug 13, 2013
Wars are trending smaller? No. REPORTING of wars is trending smalller. How many US troops still in Afghanistan, after 12 years? You don't know, do you?

Economic meltdowns aren't so deep? Tell that to Greece. Or Italy. Or Spain. Or Portugal. Long lasting? Tell that to Japan - they had a problem in the 90s that they've still not recovered from.

Climate change is already causing problems. The meteor strike WILL happen - nobody serious doubts it. The only question there is time scale. Probably something else will get us first, like the Yellowstone supervolcano.

"Any problem the world sees coming gets solved"? Nope. The financial crash of 2007/08 was predicted by many, many pundits - it was a problem we saw coming a decade away. They were ignored, because solving the problem would have meant stopping people becoming fabulously rich, and stopping lots of other people from buying houses and big TVs that they wanted but couldn't afford.

"We can alter lifestyle to ward off predictable future health problems."? Sure. We can. But we won't. Because a sit down and a cookie and a cigarette RIGHT NOW is more appealing than ten more years of life in some vague future. And if you don't believe me, count the obese people you can see next time you go out of the house...
 
 
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 13, 2013
Want to avoid a Super-Big Problem?

If the harem is all Scott-Fantasy-Robot-Girlfriends, then the eunuchs guarding the harem should certainly NOT be scientists and engineers.




 
 
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 13, 2013
I wish I was as optimistic as you are. Alas, I recently read The Art Of Thinking Clearly and all those cognitive biases with definitions, examples etc are fresh in my mind.

Instead of trying to refute you, let me redirect you to an article very relevant to your post. If you are open to getting dissuaded or revise your position, you should read it. Even if not, it is a good read. Here: http://yudkowsky.net/rational/cognitive-biases - Cognitive Biases Potentially Affecting Judgment of Global Risks. It says we are "tempted" to think the way we do and compromise rationality on the way.
Quote from the article:
"More generally, people tend to overestimate conjunctive probabilities and underestimate disjunctive probabilities. (Tversky and Kahneman 1974.) That is, people tend to overestimate the probability that,e.g., seven events of 90% probability will all occur. Conversely, people tend to underestimate the probability that at least one of seven events of 10% probability will occur."

I wish you were right, though.
 
 
+14 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 13, 2013
"We can detect terror plots before they are executed. We can identify financial bubbles early. We can alter lifestyle to ward off predictable future health problems."

No, we can't. It's a promise by technology companies, marketers, and governments. But it's in no way real - as we've seen in the last few years (and the obstacle there wasn't government).
 
 
Aug 13, 2013
Scott, I envy your optimism! Given that oil EROI is starting to fall precipitously and we are now passing the phosphorus peak production, I am bracing for a fast-moving disaster.
 
 
+9 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 13, 2013
@ Phantom II:
Your reasoning is ..flawed..
Yes, I am being nice. Your argument is totally infuenced by your opininions, but you don't seem to notice.
Two examples.
1 : Because two scientists messed up, now all scientists must be distrusted?
2 : There is no such thing as "the combined wisdom" of a large group of people. That's why the democracy by parliament was invented.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 13, 2013
Off-topic:
I just got your "20 years of Dilbert"-book for my birthday (it was on my wish-list). It is a beautifful book (and very heavy too). The nice thing about it is that the history of your career in it makes you more human.

On-topic:
Yes, it seems like the problems are getting less threatening immediately. In my youth we worried about a global nuclear war. Now we're worried that it is getting warmer.
 
 
 
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