Monday, April 07 2008

Engineering Logic and Politics

My error in the last post really bothers me.  I often receive complaints at work for being overly complex when answering questions because I think a simple answer doesn't answer the question.  I want things to be precise because it avoids (or ideally should avoid) confusion.

My degree in Computer Science comes from the engineering college of the school I attended, and I had to take a number of introductory engineering classes in other fields, so I think I think like an engineer.  An engineer wants to solve a given problem with a simple, practical solution.  The first part of this is knowing what the problem is, and this requires precise terminology.

The problem is that precise terminology doesn't necessarily apply to problems of politics, or at least isn't necessarily applied to politics, as those that benefit from politics have an incentive to weasel the terms used to suit their own ends.  Often, the goal of a politician is to implement a specific solution, rather than find the best solution to a problem.  I am thoroughly convinced that this is indeed crazy, and that most problems could be solved, or at least reduced, by application of engineering logic.

Take the fun debate over the recent release of Fitna, the anti-Islamic documentary from Dutch politician Geert Wilders.  As usual, Islamic groups are demanding that laws be passed to ban hate speech, and a lot of reflexively multicultural political groups are at least making noises about agreeing that hate speech is bad.  The engineering solution?  Get written out a precise, objective definition of what exactly constitutes hate speech / defamation of religion / blasphemy.  How would this address the issue (at least in my ideal, logical world)?  It would point out that a lot of the articles in the middle eastern press probably meet the definition of hate speech, and we could probably get a lot of the screeds addressed at the religious right on the same grounds.  Hopefully, the consensus among at least those in the West would be that an objective rule against religious defamation would give the hard edge of the religious right the ability to sue a lot of people into oblivion, and as such the idea is poorly thought out.  Admittedly, there is the chance that the law would be enacted and not enforced objectively, as is the case with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, but that's an implementation problem.

A lot of the more politically motivated law proposals fail the objective and precise test, not because they can't be written objectively but because so much of what is obviously discourse worth protecting (that is, discourse that you agree with) falls into the category when you apply an objective and precise definition, and as such the law is unworkable and dangerous.  The Fairness Doctrine fails this test, as do any laws which treat journalists as a protected class.

Update on 4/8/2008 below the fold
I posted this while tired and exhausted yesterday and I reread this today and realized I'd left out the second point that I wanted to make.

By setting objective terms for the debate, often you've come halfway towards resolving the issue, or at least agreeing to disagree.  If the debate is over media bias, start by asking for an objective way to measure media bias.  If you and your opponent can come up with an objective measure, you're halfway there.  Hopefully the data will answer the question.  If you can't agree on an objective definition, there's little point in debating.

Even if there is no objective way to measure what you are debating, often because no one measure perfectly matches what you are trying to argue over, coming up with a precise definition for your terms means that you are not comparing apples to oranges.  In the debate over the conflict in Iraq, all different measures of casualties have a comparative purpose.  Total number killed, total casualties, total combat casualties, combat casualties per time in theater, and combat casualties per combat strength in theater all have different and equally valuable comparative properties.  Citing 10,000 Soviets killed per day in the Second World War is more honest in debate when you look at the size of the Soviet army and the percentage of non-combat casualties.  If you specify which measure you are using, I can either debate you on those terms or try to persuade you that a different measure is more appropriate.  Either way, we've taken a step from pointless arguing.

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 42 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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