A scientific approach to government

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NOTE: this is a work in progress. Feedback is welcome - comments, questions, or pointers to related stuff. Please email me.


Governments around the world are failing us. They haven't adequately addressed the most dire problem: climate change. Most people are poor and/or miserable. In the U.S., democracy has been subverted by billionaires. Systems designed 200 years ago don't work in the presence of concentrated wealth and ubiquitous social media.

Suppose we could start from scratch and design a brand new kind of government. What might we do differently?

I argue for government based on ideas borrowed from science, namely:

  • Scientific theories are judged on the basis of experiments. To the extent possible, government policies should be evaluated and selected using the same "scientific method". We should use policies that can be proven to work, rather than ones based on traditional beliefs and prejudices, or on the economic interests of a minority.
  • Science has developed an organizational structure - a tripartite system of journals, research institutions, and funding agencies - that has done a good job of enabling and implementing the scientific method, and has been remarkably resistant to corruption. The organizational structure of government should be modeled on this - and in fact should be built on top of it.

Current government systems are based on the idea of "leader" or "representative". We elect leaders, and they select and implement policies. I think this is a flawed model - it's like letting the Pope decide the laws of planetary motion. In the system I propose, there are no leaders of this sort. Policy decisions are made on the basis of experimental results, not prejudice and intuition.

Note: I'm interested here in long-term government policies, like taxes, health care, and environmental regulation. There will always be unexpected short-term crises; for those we need competent leaders who can make good decisions. That's outside of the scope of this essay (though some of its ideas apply there as well).

The scientific method

The scientific method was developed to explain the physical world. It involves several related ideas:

  • Instruments that make quantitative measurements, with known precision and error.
  • Theories that try to explain measurements, typically mathematically. Theories are predictive.
  • Experiments that use instruments to test theories. Theories are disproven if they fail to predict the result of an experiment. If there is no possibly experiment that could disprove a theory, the theory has little value.

New theories may meet resistance - organized religion tries to suppress science that contradicts its belief systems; oil and tobacco companies fight science that threatens their profits. The scientific community itself can form internal power structures that suppress research that threatens dominant paradigms. The scientific method is designed to resist these pressures. Disproven theories must be discarded, no matter how entrenched and powerful their supporters. The truth - even if there's initially overwhelming opposition to it - eventually wins.

It's worth noting that:

  • The scientific method is stable; it's existed with the same basic principles for hundreds or thousands of years.
  • Science is the same in all cultures. There is no separate "Bolivian Physics" or "Hindu Chemistry".
The scientific method is an abstraction. In the last century or so, it has been implemented by an organizational structure consisting of funding agencies, institutions, and journals. This structure is interesting and important in its own right; I'll return to it later.

The scientific method in the social sciences

The scientific method has been successful in a range of "hard science" domains: physics, chemistry, astronomy, engineering, biology, medicine, and so on. It has converged to universally accepted core theories in these areas.

In other areas - economics, psychology, sociology, humanities - there have been efforts to use the scientific method. The results have been less successful, because in the social domain it's hard to:

  • make accurate quantitative measurements;
  • design experiments that control for factors other than the one being studied;
  • design experiments that don't harm human or animal subjects.

Using science in government will face these same difficulties.

The state of government

Governmental systems may include electoral, legislative, and executive structures. Governments define economic systems: regulation of industry and commerce, who owns what, taxes and distribution of wealth, access to natural resources, and so on. So by "government system" I include the economic system.

Many forms of government have been tried: democracy, oligarchy, dictatorship, monarchy. With a few exceptions, they've all failed in various ways.

They've chosen bad policies, with bad results. They haven't addressed the overwhelmingly most important issue: climate change (or the related issue of overpopulation). They've allowed an ever-increasing wealth gap. Most countries, including the U.S., have policies that maximize the short-term wealth of a few Plutocrats, at the expense of everyone else and of the future of the Earth. The majority of human beings lead unsatisfying and hopeless lives. Stress, anxiety, depression, and societal discord are rampant.

The systems themselves often are unstable - they often don't work as originally designed for more than a few decades. All communist governments have quickly been taken over by opportunists and transformed into dictatorships or oligarchies. In the U.S., corporations and billionaires have figured out how to buy the electoral process, and have created an oligarchy with the facade of a democracy.

The American founding fathers did their best to define a stable system. But they couldn't anticipate that wealth would become so concentrated, that the negative effects of economic activity could be so extreme, and that information systems would become so centralized.

Governments and the processes behind them - even in democracies - often damage societies. This is particularly acute in the U.S., where one of political parties has adopted a strategy of manipulating their supporters a) to hate people of other races, other countries, and other opinions; b) to distrust science, and to be unable to distinguish facts from lies; c) to put personal short-term interests ahead of everything else. America is an angry, unhappy place. I think that scientific government can change this.

Scientific government

Can we borrow and adapt ideas from science to create governmental systems that work better - that make people happier, and that adapt to changes in the world?

Science has theories, government has policies. In the same way that we can use (objective, quantitative) experiments to evaluate theories, we can (in many cases) use experiments to evaluate policies. The general idea:

  • Define a "figure of merit" - a quantitative measurement of how well the government as a whole is working.
  • Develop alternative policies designed to increase the figure of merit.
  • Perform experiments that test these policies - i.e. that see how they affect the figure of merit.
  • Based on experimental results, use the policies that work best.

My thinking about this was inspired by the documentary Sex, Drugs, and Democracy, which describes Holland's approach to social issues such as sex education, drug use and prostitution. They identified figures of merit: the rates of drug abuse, crime, teen pregnancy, STDs, violence against women, poverty, and so on. They experimented with novel policies, such as legalizing and regulating drug use instead of criminalizing it. They found that these policies greatly improved the figures of merit; for many of them, Holland is the best in the world. Sadly, few other countries learned from this success story; American social policies are still rooted in Old Testament principles of punishment and revenge, which exacerbate the problems they try to solve.

Inspired by Holland's example, I propose a new form of government - "Scientific Government" - which uses scientific principles to find effective policies. In the U.S., Scientific Government would largely replace the executive and legislative branches, at the national, state, and local levels.

Figure of merit

At the core of Scientific Government is a "figure of merit" M(t) - a single quantitative time-varying measure of how well governmental policies are working. M(t) might include components such as

  • Health (physical and mental).
  • Happiness.
  • Poverty, and wealth distribution in general.
  • Crime.
  • The health of the environment (for humans and other species).

The definition of M(t) must specify precisely how each component is measured. For example, for happiness we'd need to specify

  • which people are included (i.e. only people above a certain age);
  • how the happiness of an individual is measured;
  • how these numbers are aggregated: probably a robust statistic like median or RMS, rather than the mean.

We then must specify how these components are combined; some sort of weighted average, again with a robustness mechanism. We never try to optimize its components separately - e.g. a policy might reduce crime to zero but decrease happiness.

It could be argued that M(t) should have only one component, happiness. Perhaps the other components are all reflected in this, and measuring them separately is counter-productive. This is possible, but I suspect that measuring a subjective quantity like happiness is noisy compared to other components, and would make it difficult to perform experiments.

The "figure of merit" idea is inspired by the "gross national happiness" concept articulated by Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972. He proposed an index based on nine factors; see https://ophi.org.uk/policy/national-policy/gross-national-happiness-index/.

Democratic selection of the figure of merit

An ideal government gives people what they want, and it can't tell them what they want. So it must include a democractic component.

In the current U.S. government, the democratic component involves voting for candidates and for ballot measures (i.e. policies). Both of these are fundamentally flawed. Voting for candidates devolves into name recognition and identity politics; voting for policies perpetuates bad policies.

In Scientific Government, the democratic component is the selection of M(t): it's decided via periodic popular elections. There must be constraints on how M(t) is defined:

  • The definition must be simple enough that the average person can understand it.
  • Policies can't be directly included in it. For example, we can't have "availability of guns" as a component of M(t). If gun proponents think that guns make people safer, they can propose weighting safety more heavily in M(t). Experiments would then decide how changing the availability of guns affects M(t).

Any society will inevitably have disagreement and contentious discourse. One of the goals of scientific government is to move this discourse to the highest level - well-defined differences of opinion about what society should be - rather than personalities, identity politics, lies, and propaganda.

Policies and experiments

Once M(t) has been established, the general flow of scientific government is:

  • People (or groups, or companies) can propose a new policy P.
  • A government agency made up of scientists (see below) decides whether it is feasible that P could significantly increase M(t), and whether it is possible to design an experiment to prove this.
  • If so, the government carries out this experiment.
  • If the experiment shows that P increases M(t), the policy is adopted (possibly replacing existing policies).

If other countries or societies have previously adopted P, it may not be necessary to do an experiment; it may be possible to estimate P's effect on M(t) from the exiting data.

There are a number of potential problems in doing social experiments:

  • The experiment's subjects may have a prejudice about P.
  • It may be hard to control other factors.
  • The experiment may create hardship for some of the subjects. But letting people opt out of experiments would undermine them. Scientific government need global buy-in; people need to be willing to make sacrifices for the common and future good.
  • Some policies may not impact M(t) right away (or may impact it negatively), but will increase it in 20 years. How to evaluate such policies?


Some areas of government policy that might be addressed by the scientific approach:

  • Medical care.
  • Other potentially nationalized services, e.g. car insurance.
  • Safety nets: social security, welfare.
  • Minimum wage.
  • Environmental regulation.
  • Anti-trust regulation.
  • Foreign trade policy (tariffs).
  • Taxation structure.
  • Gun control.
  • Drug policy.
  • Immigration policy.

Implementing scientific government

The organizational structure of science

The "scientific method" described earlier is an ideal. In practice, scientists needs money for salaries and equipment. Most modern societies, recognizing the economic value of science, have created organizational structures to support science.

These structures have three main pieces, which provide a form of "checks and balances":

  • Journals publish papers. Papers cite other papers. The number of citations to a paper measures its "impact". The "impact factor" of a journal is the average impact of its papers. A reputation of a scientist is estimated by the number and impact of their publications. Journals are owned by companies and professional societies. Each one has an editor-in-chief and an editorial board, who generally are well-connected scientists with good reputations. When a paper is submitted to a journal, the editors pick a set of reviewers who have expertise in the area.
  • Research institutions such as universities and research labs provide a framework for training scientists and for conducting research. Hiring and tenure decisions are based largely on publication record, and on reputation in the scientific community.
  • Funding agencies (such as the NSF and NIH in the U.S.) fund research. Typically the funding agencies have "program managers", who are academic researchers. They are have limited terms (2-3) years. Grant proposals are reviewed by researchers selected by the program managers. Funding agencies check for conflicts of interest - for example, research that might benefit a company in which the researcher has ownership. The criteria for funding generally emphasize novelty. Other countries have somewhat different structures: for example, Germany has a set of "Max Planck Institutes", each of which receives long-term funding, and each institute has a permanent director. Both the U.S. and German systems have worked fairly well.

The scientific organization has been more corruption-resistant than government. Why is this?

  • Meritocracy. It's hard to get a foothold in science without being smart and doing something good and useful. There have been a few charlatans, and a few great scientists who became nut-cases later in life, but there have been no Donald Trumps.
  • Transparency. Major processes - like hiring decisions at universities and grant proposal decisions - are carefully documented and these documents are public.
  • Power is distributed across a lot of people.
  • Positions of power - like department chairman and NSF program officer - are held for limited periods.
  • The general public is involved only indirectly.

There have been attempts to corrupt the scientific structure.

  • The Koch brothers have undermined climate research by creating a propaganda mill (Fox News) and electing an anti-scientific president.
  • Monsanto has given lots of money to universities in return for power that enabled them to suppress research that conflicted with their economic goals.
  • There is a certain class of academic (I can think of a few) who do lousy research, but they do just enough of it to get into positions of some power (conference organizing, journal editorship, funding agency activity).
But by and large these efforts have had only limited effect.

The structure of scientific government

What are the functions of scientific government?

  • Conduct elections for figures of merit. Decide what goes on the ballot. Run elections in such a way that they can't be bought: no advertising? Keep the figures of merit short and simple enough that people can understand them.
  • Decide what policies will be considered.
  • Design and conduct experiments, interpret the results of experiments, select winning policies.
  • Enforce policies.

How to implement Scientific Government?

What is a plausible organizational structure for Scientific Government? I think a good starting point is to 1) piggyback on the existing organizational structure of science; 2) in extending this to a government, use the same underlying principles: meritocracy, distribution of power, transparency, etc.

Here's a possible structure for scientific government:

  • There is a "policy experiment agency" (PEA). It is analogous to a research lab. Its staff includes permanent "researchers", analogous to professors, who have PhDs in political science, statistics, or related fields. Researchers carry out policy experiments and write up the results in research papers, which can be published in peer-reviewed journals. Hiring and promotion of researchers is based on their publication-based reputation.
  • There is a "policy decision agency" (PDA). Its task: given a budget for experiments, decide which policy proposals to study. This is a complex problem; proposals may differ greatly in the cost of studying them, and in their potential payoff. The PDA is analogous to a funding agency. It is divided into "directorates" for different policy areas. Each directorate is staffed by rotating "program managers" with limited-term appointments. Program managers can be academics or PEA researchers, and are chosen on the basis of their reputation.
  • Anyone (e.g. special interest groups) can policy proposals to the PDA. These proposals are analogous to grant proposals. They are expected to make a compelling argument that the proposed policy would increase M(t), and to outline a plausible experiment that would prove this.
  • Proposals are evaluated similarly to NSF grant proposals. The relevant program manager identifies 3-5 blind reviewers (academics or PEA researchers).
  • On the basis of these reviews, the PDA decides which proposals to accept. Each accepted proposal is passed to the PEA, where it is assigned to a group of researchers. These researchers design an experiment to test the policy change (usually but not necessarily based on the proposed experiment). They conduct this experiment (which may take months or years) and they write a paper describing the results.
  • When the results paper for a proposal has been completed, the PDA reviews it and decides what policy to implement.

In designing the above structure, we need to anticipate various kinds of corruption.

  • People in the PDA and PEA may have opinions and prejudices about policies. We need to prevent these from unduly affecting funding decisions, the design and execution of experiments, and the final decisions.

Note: it's possible and desirable that a new academic field of "government studies" arise, which would focus on how to conduct policy experiments. People who want to go into government could major in this.

How can we get there from here?

A continuous transition would have to start small. One idea is to identify an area of state or national government policy that's not highly political, and that's amenable to experiments. Set up a small version of the above structure, and use it optimize policy in the area. Maybe when people see how well it works they'll think about expanding the domain.

Another way of starting small would be for a community or small town (of enlightened people) to jointly agree to govern themselves scientifically. Their success would spread to other towns and eventually to larger scale.

But maybe it's more feasible that scientific government could rise out of the ruins of a completely failed existing government.

In any case, scientific government will have a hard time getting started in a society where lost of people hate each other, hate government, and don't understand or trust science. These conditions currently exist in the U.S. So a necessary first step is to reduce these factors in the context of existing government (if that's possible).

World government

The most important government issues are now global. Dealing with them on a national level doesn't work - e.g. no country is willing to drastically reduce its carbon emissions because doing so would place it at an economic disadvantage. For such issues, scientific government at the national level is insufficient, especially if it's adopted only by a few countries.

So ideally we should have a global scientific government, whose domain is global issues: resource usage, environment, population, immigration, trade etc.

I'm on the fence about whether the idea of "nation" has any place in the future. I don't think we need national governments to preserve cultural diversity (which I view as a good thing). In any case, national governments can continue to exist separately from the global government, and could determine policies that are purely internal to that country.

Copyright 2020 © David P. Anderson