Sunday, January 10, 2010

Are We Headed Towards a Technocracy?

There's a lot of talk about technology and innovation these days from all political parties and both north and south of the border. In the USA, Obama promised to 'listen to the science' and has embarked on numerous scientific endeavors. Before him, George W. Bush heavily backed NASA and spent millions on the development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (setting a goal of 2015 for an affordable version).

North of the border, both the Liberals and Conservatives have tried to spur innovation and technology in the past decade. The Liberals doubled spending on basic sciences between 2000 and 2006. Chretien backed the production of ethanol fuels (then considered revolutionary) and offered billions in loans to help promote Canadian nuclear technology abroad. The Conservatives under Harper introduced tax exemptions for university scholarships and promoted partnerships between business and science students to bring new technology to market.

Increasingly, the topics being addressed by politicians have taken on a technical and highly specialized nature. Global warming, the isotope crisis, the electrical grid, nuclear power and flu vaccines have all come up recently as serious issues facing Canadian politicians within the last year. But few if any of them have any technical knowledge concerning these topics. While there may be a few doctors in the House, those that are there sometimes seem more concerned with playing political games than addressing the Canadian public's lack of basic understanding.

With the levels of misinformation out there its difficult to have a serious political discussion about solutions to things like the isotope crisis, and yet these politicians have enormous power available to them. The power to override a nuclear regulator and order the restart of a nuclear reactor for example.

The tendency for politicians is to be unable to react well to situations where they do not have a full understanding of the technical details behind what is going on. The Liberals have been eager to blame Harper for canceling the MAPLE reactors even though Harper's decision came only after the project was several years late and hundreds of millions over budget. And even then, only when some of the scientists involved began to openly wonder if they could ever fix the problems associated with it. After this, they seem content to blame Harper whenever there is a problem with the Chalk River isotope reactor, regardless of who's fault it really is and the fact that they helped him order the reactor restarted.

What this highlights though (beyond the political dysfunction) is our increased reliance on 'experts' to tell us what is or is not true.

But sometimes these experts are wrong. Experts told us that H1N1 could kill millions if we didn't all get flu shots and spread panic to that point that some conservative bloggers accused me of endangering their lives by not getting the flu vaccine. So far, nothing of the sort has happened, something I predicted based on Australia's experience with H1N1 (not that many people cared to listen).

The reason that the experts were wrong in the H1N1 case could be because of a fear of underestimating the situation. They were not being unbiased arbitrators of the facts but were trying to shield themselves from blame by overestimating how bad things could get. A more conspiratorial view would be that they had something to gain by spreading doom and gloom. Without oversight by people with a sufficient technical background their exaggerations of the potential problems couldn't be caught and addressed.

Which leads me to a conclusion of sorts. Politicians today are too busy politicking to be reliable sources of information for the public, nor can we educate the public on the whole range of issues, their nuances and details, to be able to have a decent public discussion. And the experts we do have either can't agree on the details or exaggerate the possible problems in order to manipulate the public.

One solution, which I worry may be coming, is the replacement of much of our democratic system with a form of 'technocracy' where experts are used to replace our elected representatives in order to make decisions regarding the many technical problems facing our country. In theory, it would be a more efficient form of government.

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