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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Aug 13, 2013
I have to agree with Phantom II on this one (aside from the plug for Hillsdale College)

If you take Hitler out of the equation - because he was crazy/evil and mentioning him can send people off on all kinds of emotional tangents - I believe the rest of the Nazi leadership probably thought they were doing exactly what Scott prescribes, i.e. bringing the best minds in the country together to make decisions that were good for mankind. Unfortunately one of the hottest scientific fads of the time (and not just in Germany) was a mutated offshoot of evolution called eugenics, which called for weeding out all but the genetically "best" human beings.

So, I understand Scott's impatience with the general populace and their representatives, but their inertia can be a helpful counterweight to the hot pursuit of scientific truth, which often follows a longer than expected path that typically zigzags between competing, yet somehow definitive sounding proclamations.
Aug 13, 2013
You're all over the map on this one. I swear, Scott, you've gone from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again in just a single post. It's easier to follow a cat's meanderings through a junkyard than to follow your logic on this one.

If I can wade through the boozwhaw (not an easy task), what you seem to be proposing is replacing our republic (I wish you could understand or recognize the difference between a republic and a democracy, but it's obvious you can't) with a technocracy. This proves that your understanding of the political process is . . . flawed. Yes, I'm being nice.

Take a look at 'climate change.' The two original scientists who raised the alarm about anthropogenic global warming admitted they cooked the books to make something that wasn't real look real. When they were found out (much too late), their justification was this, and I paraphrase:

"If it's real, it could be really bad. But until we can convince people it's happening, we'll never get the funding to determine if it's real or not."

And THOSE are the people you want to put in charge of public policy? People whose main focus is getting funding for their research proposal?

THOSE are the groups you want to replace the combined wisdom of 300,000,000 people with? Do you think any group, no matter how 'educated' and 'atheistic,' are better at decision making than the people who have to live with the decisions those academic fools make?

You are trying to convince us that a technocratic dictatorship is somehow better than one based on some other dictatorial criterion. I pray that you never get your wish, because you will find out how power corrupts. You obviously don't understand that.

Here's what I say, Scott. Let the people make the decisions, and then let them live by the results of their decisions. Elitists such as you are no more able to make decisions about how I live my life than any other despot who has crushed the people of their country under their thumbs.

I wish you would take some of your copious free time and take the free online courses on the Constitution provided by Hillsdale College. If you really understood what the authors were trying to achieve, and then proposed something other than a technocratic dictatorship, your argument might morph into something that we could really debate.

+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 12, 2013
Scott: go visit Darfur for a year.
Aug 12, 2013
"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."

You've just described the National Academies. Good news- the reports can generally be downloaded for free and the Government tends to regard them as a credible resource. On just about any issue of interest, a constituent could print out a summary and take it to their Representative or Senator. Results may vary.

As for democracies, the only real point is to keep a government from becoming repressive. Everything else is gravy.
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 12, 2013
Sounds like I am the perfect candidate. Computer engineer, small l libertarian, rarely vote. Not a eunuch by any stretch of the imagination, but I do like Unix.
Aug 12, 2013
Well, there's the mother of all Super-Big problems... Human population growth.

If you consider that the world's population has doubled in the past 40 years from about 3.5 Billion to 7.0 Billion today, and most scientists seem to believe our maximum sustainable human capacity is around 10 Billion, we're not too far off from a problem that is absolutely catastrophic.

We're running low on clean water in every populated part of the world, 1.5 Billion people are starving, we don't have the capacity to process our garbage, there's not enough energy for human demands, and even living space is under pressure.

I don't know that 10 Billion is necessarily a hard limit, but if human population doesn't stop or slow down, we'll hit whatever limit there is. Poverty, abuse, and war will be inevitable at that point. Sooner or later we're going to stop competing with animal life for resources... when they're all dead, we'll start competing with each other.

While the leading industrialized countries are approaching ZPG, the most impoverished and densely populated parts of the world are still breeding like crazy, and I don't see that ending any time soon.
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 12, 2013
If you haven't already, read the Taleb's The Black Swan. It's about how humans underestimate the impact of the unpredictable. (And how we retrospectively convince ourselves that it could have been predicted.)
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 12, 2013
You are assuming that politicians and people will follow best practices. To regulate them is to take away freedom and the sense of freedom. To leave the adoption of best practices up to people will lead to obese, gross-polluters who will sell their children for a pack of smokes. Your best bet would be to start a new culture and observe. I really hate to cite an M. Night Shamaylan movie, but "The Village" is an example of this in practice. Only through a system of cultural expectations will people change without riots and wasteful policing of the population. Otherwise we are in a race to see which government can hide the most graft and corruption while keeping the masses placated.
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 12, 2013
I wish that would work. But politicians and special interests will always be more effective communicators than the "experts" even if their messages are flawed/incorrect. When they're not doing the B.S.ing themselves, they will have their own "experts" give biased information that sounds more palatable than your scientists. That's why it will never change. Okay, now I've depressed myself.

Okay, maybe someday an online BS vetting system will catch on. We have them already, but few people care yet. Perhaps it will be a combination of ideas like Yelp, Snopes, and your ranking system such that the best ideas and best people vetting them get a higher ranking. And we can hope that such a system will eventually become popular as people's frustration with the system (especially Congress) inspires them to look for truth.

Maybe it will be led by the new media moguls such as Jeff Bezos. The current media seems to enjoy muckraking and headline-grabbing over investigative reporting. My guess is that print newspapers will soon be owned by those who care about influence over profits, and I can hope that it leads to better coverage.
Aug 12, 2013
I think we are simply in a temporary equilibrium, in which resources and population are roughly in balance. As a result, taking over somebody else's land is not worth the effort, so wars are mainly ideological and small. Couple that with the hassles of trying to control an unwilling populace with access to modern communication and primitive weapons, and war becomes largely not worth the effort.

However, if we see a significant resource pinch, all that calculus can change pretty quickly. My bet is that fresh water will be the culprit, so I am hoping some genius discovers how to 3D print an inexpensive and scalable desalination plant in his parents' garage sometime soon.
Aug 12, 2013
Your "pending doom" list is interesting, and seems like it's sourced more from pop culture than serious consideration.

Anybody who claims that a few degrees shift in climate is going to doom the human race is a panic monger, and that's regardless of whether pollution is to blame for it or not. Burst oil pipelines are a local nuisance at worst, and we have multiple examples that human efforts as well as natural forces clean it up fairly quickly. Runaway immigration and an aging population are good examples of your slow-moving disaster theory, and by their own nature they pretty much take care of themselves with a little bit more time anyway.

Sudden unexpected large meteor strike, sudden economic collapse, and Iranian nuclear attack are viable as pending doom candidates.
Aug 12, 2013
I'm a pessimist about super-big problems, and fully expect to see one in the next 2-3 years. I'm predicting it will be a terrorist and/or financial attack, and will target US water, power, banking, or stock trading. I think cyber criminals are just warming up...
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