31 July 2007

Laws from the people?

According to this Mother Jones article, Mike Gravel's Democracy Foundation is working to promote a "National Initiative for Democracy", essentially a nationwide initiative and referendum that would operate as a second federal legislative branch.  So instead of trying to vote in representatives that you agree with and waiting for them to pass laws and budgets you like, you can propose and vote on them directly.  Sounds great, huh?

Unfortunately, this approach solves the wrong problem.  We don't really have a shortage of good laws—we have way too many bad ones.  And the proposed scheme would make laws independently of Congress; the two lawmaking bodies would not work together to pass a bill, as the House and Senate do.  They would constantly trump each other, perhaps overruling the other by passing a different bill.  In the worst case, we'd end up with twice as many laws.  Instead, what we really need is another check on Congress's power.  How about a nationwide veto power?  Any bill passed by Congress would be able to be overturned by a number of vetoes (cast by registered voters nationwide) greater than half the number of votes in the last presidential election.  Also, how about adding an automatic sunset provision to every bill passed by Congress, which repeals any law ten years after it goes into effect?  A sunsetted law could only be saved or resurrected by a majority of voters nationwide.

24 July 2007

My blog is rated G

What a disgrace.  Maybe this is the right time to announce that I recently discovered that I am a sapiosexual.

10 July 2007

Hardwired for faith

Matt Ridley's fascinating book The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature explores the reasons that sexual reproduction evolved (why don't we just have baby clones?), the differences between male and female minds and the sex games they play, monogamy and polygamy through human history and why and how we fall in love.  It's full of insights, but I think its most interesting argument is that human intelligence primarily evolved to understand and outwit not other species, nor nature itself, but other humans, specifically rivals for potential mates (and often the potential mates themselves).

So it's no surprise that, when searching for patterns and explanations, our brains tend to look for conscious, humanlike entities.  Even when trying to explain natural phenomena, it's easy to assume subconsciously that intelligent agents are at work.  Ancient humans fell into that trap, inventing gods, astrology, palm-reading and so forth, and today's children often do until they learn more about the modern view of the world.

I think that's the main reason theistic beliefs are so seductive.  It's natural for us to see the world as if there's an overall intelligence behind it all, even though, from a scientific point of view, it doesn't really add up.  Explaining the structure of the universe by hypothesizing a powerful creator just introduces more to explain:  What created the creator?  If you assume that the creator always existed, it'd be simpler just to assume that the universe itself always existed.  Theistic beliefs violate Ockham's razor, but most of us find them hard to resist anyway.

Unfortunately, the religions that have survived to the present day are the ones that prescribe passing their beliefs on to children while their brains are still soft, teaching them to be loyal believers, to feel fear and guilt and then to pass the same beliefs on to the next generation.  Any rigid belief system that didn't do something similar would quickly die out and be replaced by better religious memes.  A scientific philosophy, on the other hand, rejects crystalline thinking in favor of keeping an open mind and a healthy skepticism.  I can't help quoting Richard Feynman again:

"I think it is more interesting to live not knowing answers than to have answers that might be wrong.  I have approximate answers, possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I'm not absolutely certain of anything, and there's some things I know nothing about at all—like whether it means anything to ask, 'Why are we here?'  I might think about it for a little while, but if I can't figure it out then I'll go on to something else.  I'm not afraid of being lost in a mysterious universe with no purpose, which is the way it is, possibly.  It doesn't frighten me."

I also recommend the following essays by Richard Dawkins, some of which were incorporated into his book The God Delusion, which I just finished reading: Viruses of the Mind, The Emptiness of Theology, Snake Oil and Holy Water, What Use Is Religion? and Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.

On a distantly related note, one of this year's Cubs' outfielders has the delightfully quasi-oxymoronic name Ángel Pagán.

05 July 2007

The math of voting, part 2

In a previous post I introduced an example election in which the voters have the following sincere preferences:

45% Reagan > Anderson > Carter
20% Anderson > Carter > Reagan
35% Carter > Anderson > Reagan

(Whether these preferences reflect the sentiments of the nation during the 1980 presidential election or not is not important.  Think of them as the preferences of the voters in some hypothetical state; the winner gets that state's electoral votes.)

I then asked which candidate most deserves to be the winner; the answer depends on the voting system used and the voting behavior of the voters.

In a plurality election, where each voter is allowed to vote for just one candidate, Reagan would win if every voter is sincere.  But the Anderson voters would do better by insincerely ditching Anderson and voting for Carter instead to keep Reagan from winning.  So the plurality system sometimes encourages insincere voting.  I'm sure you already knew that.

But what if it's an Instant Runoff Voting election, where voters rank the candidates and candidates are eliminated one by one?  If all voters rank sincerely, then Anderson will have the fewest first-place votes and will be eliminated first.  Then Carter would win the election 55% to 45% over Reagan.  At first glance, this result makes sense:  Anderson voters voted sincerely and still helped their compromise defeat their least favorite candidate.  Ah, but now it's the Reagan-first voters who could benefit by voting insincerely—they could rank Anderson in first place, watch Reagan get eliminated and Anderson beat Carter 65% to 35%.  That way they at least get their second choice.

So both plurality and IRV sometimes reward insincere voting.  Which system is better?  Or is there some other system that beats 'em both?  Stay tuned!