Lately I have been reading Karl Popper’s work on the scientific method in Social Sciences as well as following the German refugee crisis. These are just some of my thoughts on the dangers of thinking you are on the ‘right side of history,’ no matter how right it feels, which come straight out of Karl Popper’s essays. This isn’t a well vetted post, just my trying to sort out what’s been going on in my head.
We all want to be on the right side of history. Our study of the world seems to show a clear trend towards a better world, at least in developed nations. The 20th century stands out to me as both the most optimistic and most efficiently barbaric periods in human history. It was an experimental testing ground not only academically, but also for ideas of human collectivization and government. We take for granted knowledge we gained from these tests as having always been self-evident. In the U.S. we learned that testing diseases on humans without their consent is not worth the cost. This seems really obvious now, but at the time it was often rationalized as being worth it for the greater good. It’s easy to look back and think of these scientists as trivially evil, but they honestly believed what they were doing was right. For example, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment is a black mark in our history in the US. From 1932 to 1972 the U.S. Public Health Service purposefully didn’t treat syphilis in rural African-American men in order to study the disease. Our scientific knowledge in health gained from these experiments. The cost was a profound damage towards trust in government and social cohesion, not to mention individual suffering. It’s challenging to not think of this cost as being obvious at the time. Our view of morality feels mostly invariant to time, but it’s really not.
It is true that many ethical philosophies would have claimed this was unethical prior to the experiment (it wasn’t a controlled experiment, but it was an experiment in that we look back on it and study the outcomes). Of course, many could have claimed it was ethical as well. It wasn’t until all these experiments were done and the results measured that it was decided this type of experiment is unethical, as the negative outcomes outweigh the positive outcomes. Unethical experiments, race based legislation, eugenics, mandatory minimum sentencing, and many more experiments that we now view as unethical took place. Given the information at the time it was not self-evident these were unethical policies, it was only through experiment it became self-evident.
The right side of history could be classified as learning from these experiments, and preventing them from reoccurring. In my experience though it is typically used as a justification for a prediction, based on the view that the ethical choice is self-evident. Arguing that a policy or course of action is on the “right side of history” is claiming that before we even measure the outcome, it is clear that it is and will always be the correct choice. This is a clear distinction between predicting a policy or course of action will be on the “right side of history,” and setting criteria to evaluate the prediction at a future point.
Before the 20th century this same belief system that professed to always be on ‘the right side of history’ existed, but instead with an emphasis on God. Karl Popper wrote “Sinners against God are replaced by ‘criminals who vainly resist the march of history.” Whether it is a prophecy from God, or a progressive ‘march of history,’ these beliefs that social progress, ethics, or morality, are self-evident and have finally revealed themselves have historically failed. Christianity offered to solve the flaws of society, yet the Christian today follows a much different set of rules and values than Christians of the past. It seems then that the solution wasn’t clear. If the solution was clear, we wouldn’t have needed to keep learning throughout time, as the answers would have already been provided. Marx and Engel’s work, building on Hegel’s ethics, unveiled a utopia with promises similar to religion: If only you can follow this text, and follow it properly, the failures of society and humanity will disappear. Yet the failures didn’t disappear, and the dream of a set of rules that leads us to utopia and cures us of our flaws failed once more.
My favorite example focuses on the Soviet Union. The foundation of the Soviet Union found heavy support among the left academic elites in England. Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was initially fascinated by the promises of communism. He wasn’t the only one. The British Fabian society consisted of the modern elites, including George Bernard Shaw (and the founders of where I studied, the LSE). He wrote that when stationed in Moscow as a journalist, he would play a game with other journalists to see who could convince the public intellectuals visiting from England the most outrageous stories. They would routinely convince visitors that the shortage of milk was only due to its being allocated most heavily to nursing mothers, thus making its shortage a good thing. The public intellectuals often believed this stories, because they deeply believed that Communism was the future of society.
George Orwell had a similar story. He essentially wrote the book for the ‘Left Book Club’ and Communist party. The first half of his book was well received by communists and those on the far left. The second half of his book did not prescribe communism as the answer. As Orwell documented the suffering of the working poor in England, his view was that the often one-dimensional and economically illiterate policies of the communist party could not solve these problems. It seems obvious to us now, but at the time he was viewed by many as being on the wrong side of history, and not supporting the cause. Orwell was still cautiously supportive of many policies associated with Socialism. Prior to great social programs, it was hard to completely reject an untested set of policies that pointed out that we ought to take some of the resources spent on the luxuries of the ultra-rich, and instead use them to provide healthcare to poor orphans. After testing various levels of socialism, we integrated some of the best and stand-alone policies.
Martin Malia, author of The Soviet Tragedy, points out that many academics in the 1960s and 70s attempted to explain the Soviet system “as the product of popular action, and hence as democratically legitimate.” This was necessary to preserve belief in communism. In this view Stalin’s rule was an aberration following legitimate rule, and the system could return to a “democratic and humane socialism.” This was the most widely adopted view, and as a result focused on what went wrong in the Soviet Union with Stalin, and how the system could return to its optimistic outlook. The prevailing view now would be that there is no optimistic outlook. Stalin himself wasn’t an aberration, but the mass murder was communism itself. As a result, it would be both ignorant and unethical to advocate for communist rule, as we now know the result.
Popper’s solution was to constantly try new policy experiments, mark our criteria beforehand, and continuously evaluate them. This would also mean we would spend more time analyzing the dynamics of social progress over the past 50 years opposed to trying to outright solve the problems of human ethics. This would create a more efficient way to evaluate our choices. It wouldn’t eliminate the need to make hard choices, as we still need to make uncertain choices. Admitting more refugees into Germany is a hard choice, and the historical evidence can simultaneously support the view that the cultural clash will damage Germany over the long-run, as well as the view that assimilation works and by taking in asylum seekers we are improving the world for everyone. However, we can decide now on the criteria to decide if the choice to admit refugees was correct or not. To start, all those who are in favor of admitting refugees need to set a series of empirical criteria that need to be met to have falsified their prediction. How bad would crime, rape, welfare-burdens, and other key metrics have to be for people like Merkel to admit they made a mistake? Conversely, those who don’t want refugees need to set their own criteria as well for their prediction on the failures of accepting refugees. How bad do they expect it to get, and if it doesn’t become that bad will they admit they were falsified? We could also formulate policy clauses that trigger based on the outcomes of certain predictions. As a very simple example, Germany could accept some refugees permanently, but many others on a potentially temporary permit. Over the next five years Germany could gather data and evaluate how well the program has worked, and as a result choose how many refugees to retain or send back. I offer that only as a toy example, but the greater point being even in the face of extremely challenging and unclear examples, we could create dynamic policies that we update based on pre-defined outcomes.
It’s impossible to agree on all policies, there will always be fierce disagreements. What we can do is try to agree on the right outcomes to measure beforehand. The less emotional and more methodological our debates become, the less prone we are ourselves to confirming our own biases and viewing those who disagree with us as idiots. The recent sexual assaults in Cologne are a big deal. The question now should be what systems can we set up now so as new information unfolds, we agree on what course of action we need to take, instead of having large emotional reactions.