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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 21, 2011

The Force of Cluelessness

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Posted by Derek

I would like to heartily recommend the policy outlined in this post: that anyone advocating some political, economic, or social proposal should first be required to write a short essay explaining what the hell it is, and thus demonstrating that they have some minimal idea of what they're talking about. We will never see such a thing in this world, but a man can dream.

In an open forum, there is generally a good correlation between the passion with which some idea is advanced and the ignorance of the person advocating it. The comments section of any blog - this one not excepted - will demonstrate this to anyone with doubts. (That's also why I support this worthwhile initiative), one of many proposed by its parent web site. Yeats had it right: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."

And so it has always been. In the purview of this blog, for example, no one in my experience ever offers the tentative conclusion that the drug companies might possibly be an evil conspiracy to poison the public. No, that view is delivered with powerful conviction, accompanied by an equally strong belief that anyone who thinks differently is either a moron or a bought-and-paid-for tool.

Correcting for ignorance, were it possible, would change the world. I recall this insight hitting me with some force about 25 years ago. I was watching TV coverage of the House debating a bill that would have provided aid to the Nicaraguan contras. A graphic came up on the screen of a public opinion poll on the issue - this many people thought we should give them money, this many didn't. But then a follow-up question was shown, where they asked the same sample who these contras were. And an alarming number of people answered either "don't know" or thought that they were part of the Nicaraguan government forces, which made me realize that no weight whatsoever should have been given to the answers to that earlier question. If you don't know who the contras are, in other words, why should anyone care what you think should be done about them?

Allow me to wander off topic a bit - anyone who wants can bail out at this point; the rest of this post will be idle political speculation. OK, that line of thought leads one to several interesting conclusions about voting. I've long thought very much like this. I think that strenuous efforts to get people to vote are misguided - if someone is not motivated enough to get out and vote in an election, then society is better off if they do, in fact, stay home. And I'm not advocated some sort of closed-off elite; the doors are always wide open. There are thousands upon thousands of ways for someone to become more informed about any issue or any candidate, and if a person does not avail themselves of any of them, they have (in my view) disqualified themselves from voting.

That, though, leads us back to Yeats and that passionate intensity problem. Doesn't this mean that a lot of strongly motivated voters will, in fact, be ignorant? My solution to that, which I've been advocating since I was about seventeen, is for all voting booths to have two doors. The inner one can be the usual curtain. The outer one, though, presents the prospective voter with a few questions on general political and social knowledge, randomly selected from a larger pool. How often is your state's governor elected - every two years, every four, every six? Which of these names is the name of your state's other senator, the one who's not up for re-election this time? Who writes budget bills, the House or the Senate? That sort of thing. But if you can't get a majority of these high-school-civics questions right, the outer door does not open, and you must go home. When I'm in a bad mood, I toy with the idea of rigging up some sort of trap door system as well, but that's harder to implement.

Oh, I'm just full of improving ideas. I'd also like to see "None of the above" be an option on all ballots. What if NOTA wins? Well, new election in sixty days, and none of the previous candidates can run. It's been pointed out to me that had this system actually been in force that we might be behind by several presidential elections by this point, but I'm still not convinced if that's a bug or a feature. And another reform that's often occurred to me would probably only be possible in a much smaller country than the US. I could imagine, though, getting everyone in such a state together and asking which of them really, really wanted to be President. Whoever raises their hand is disqualified. There really should be some way to weed out candidates whose life's burning ambition is to Be In Charge. I'm reading The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius and Gibbon's Decline and Fall these days, and you can't help but think that the Roman Empire ran things the exact opposite way: the people who climbed to the top were the ones who were willing to make it the organizing principle of their entire lives. The same goes for any autocracy.

And in fact, just to drag things back by force to the usual topics of this site, it often goes for large companies. Recall this stuff - Tiberius would have nodded and smiled. And you didn't want to see what made him smile.

Comments (68) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. Alex on October 21, 2011 9:18 AM writes...

I would add another dimension to that: I consider myself to be a well informed and balanced person, but the first two times I voted in national elections I made what I subsequently realised were poor choices. I now attribute these to youthful naivety and an undeveloped tradeoff between the right amounts of idealism & cynicism.

So apart from the basic civics questions, I propose that the minimum voting age be raised to 30, and a _maximum_ voting age of 40 introduced.

Young people can't vote because they think they're way smarter than they really are, and also they typically don't have much invested in the status quo. Mature people have too many established interests and are too likely to vote in a crony-ish way, for whichever crook is likely to give them a boost at the expense of the public in general.

People in the middle of that range have, on average, a bit of both.

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2. Neil on October 21, 2011 9:27 AM writes...

Hang on, if the people without strongly held beliefs are more likely to be the rational ones, surely the people who DON'T go out to vote are the only ones whose votes should count?

One could cynically argue that anyone who (a) believes what politicians are promising enough to go and vote and (b) believes that their one vote out of millions makes a difference really shouldn't be trusted with it!

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3. Wile E. Coyote on October 21, 2011 9:30 AM writes...

It's a bad system, but the best one that we have, to paraphrase Churchill. The issue with setting limits based on "education", "intelligence", "smarts", or whatever the questions presented are supposed to sort out prior to being allowed to vote (Derek's door before the curtain)is: Who gets to decide the questions to ask? Doesn't this setup the system for an elitist, central planning plutocracy? Maybe not in the first election or two, but a generation down the road? This to me is scary 1984 type stuff. If a person isn't treated as equal under the law for voting, then what other rights could be taken away capriciously? I think we saw some of that in the late 30's and early 40's last century. What if you, Derek, got the fluke question on your doorway quiz that you couldn't answer? I'd be pissed as hell for being disenfranchised. Lots of rhertorical questions here that I just want to be thought about; I'm not looking for answers. My bottom line: you can't protect a political system against stupidity.

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4. bbooooooya on October 21, 2011 9:34 AM writes...

Sounds like a nice idea, actually understanding what/who it is you're voting for, and one I actually agree with.

Didn't something like this get tried in the south pre-1965 or so? How's that work out?

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5. lynn on October 21, 2011 9:34 AM writes...

I gather that we don't agree politically, Derek, but I have often thought along the same lines as you about the double-door voting booth.

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6. CatCube on October 21, 2011 9:35 AM writes...

...willing to make it the organizing principle of their entire lives.

This doesn't just go for autocrats. It's alive and well in the US today. Think about what a presidential candidate has to go through, especially these days in a 24 hour news cycle. It's basically a public proctological exam. President Obama has to contend with people screeching about how he's secretly a Muslim, President Bush had all the chimp comparisons, and his daughters getting nailed for underage drinking was a worldwide news story.

And this is just people who have a problem with the particular occupant. There is also the howling-at-the-moon insanity that the Presidency attracts. During President Clinton's tenure, a dude wanted to kill himself, and drove to a hotel in West Virginia to do the deed. However, he missed his exit, and decided to drive on into Washington, D.C., and kill the President instead. He sat on a park bench for a few days by President Clinton's daily run route before seeing a newspaper and realizing the President was in Russia that week. He then called the thing off, went back home and told his neighbor this story.

All of this is a part of being the president today. Nobody, of any party, whether Republican, Democrat, Communist, Libertarian, American Nazi, People Who Know Nothing, etc, will become president unless they want power so bad that they can taste it.

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7. ZZ on October 21, 2011 9:37 AM writes...

Interesting thoughts about election systems, but my opinion is that it is pointless. The representatives never represent the voters anyway, they are bought and fully paid for by "campaign contributors".

With today's technology there is really no need for representatives anyway. Full democracy could be implemented using the internet. Every issue can be put up for vote by all citizens -- that would make corruption (sorry I should call it lobbying to be PC) nearly impossible. On the voting web page, you could also implement the qualification questions to filter for eligibility based on knowledge of the actual topic to be voted on. I.e. the questions would be different for each bill.

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8. wave124 on October 21, 2011 9:38 AM writes...

It looks like 60 Minutes has a replacement for Andy Rooney.

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9. Hap on October 21, 2011 9:42 AM writes...

I think it's a good idea to ask oneself those kind of questions, but as a policy, to exclude people from voting because they don't know what they're doing seems problematic because the policies we vote on apply to everyone, whether or not he votes. The legitimacy of our form of government rests on the ability of all to have a stake in choosing the policies that they will be subject to - once only a few have the ability to vote on those policies, the shenanigans likely to come from that will probably not be good.

In addition, no one seems to require such deliberation from the people who make the laws.

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10. Hap on October 21, 2011 9:45 AM writes...

"Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups."

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11. PharmaHeretic on October 21, 2011 9:46 AM writes...

Many people don't trust pharma for a few reasons-

1. Companies exist to make profit, for a few, by any means necessary and laws to control the worse aspects of corporate behavior have been rendered toothless during the last 20-30 odd years. While the above mentioned phenomena is not restricted to any sector, the ill-will from one sector bleeds into another.

2. Heavily promoted drugs of questionable therapeutic value such as such as COX-2 inhibitors, atypical anti-psychotics and cholesterol lowering drugs other than statins have made the public skeptical of both doctors and pharma.

3. Doctors in many developed countries are increasingly seen as greedy, paternalistic, dishonest and often less than competent professionals indulging in mafia-cartel type behavior. Since most drugs are prescribed by doctors, it is not hard to imagine that their negative halo rubs on to things associated with them.

4. Many of the newer and most heavily promoted drugs offer little to no clear advance over older ones. For example- newer drugs to treat Hepatitis C are real advances, but yet another serotonin-noradrenaline uptake inhibitor to treat atypical depression is not.

5. Many of the newer drugs offer poor value for money and people feel ripped off and abused. Once again- a new Hepatitis C drug which costs a few thousand dollar per patient is still OK because it can stop far more expensive complications down the line. On the other hand- dropping 90k for a new anti-cancer drug which 'might' extend your survival by 1 month is not.

While there will always be a core vocal group that does not trust pharma, many who are in that growing category today have good reasons to be so.

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12. luysii on October 21, 2011 9:52 AM writes...

Exactly -- It's why I prefer to blog anonymously.

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13. Derek Lowe on October 21, 2011 10:04 AM writes...

#3 Wile - you're probably right that stupidity will find a way; it certainly has throughout recorded history. But to come to the defense of my double-door plan, I always envisioned it as having a dozen questions or so, to keep from being fluked out by any particular one. Six out of twelve as the cutoff, maybe? Seven? But yes, as you mention, this really just kicks the can down the road a bit when you get to what questions should be allowed, and who gets to allow them. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? We still don't have an answer to that one.

#4 boo - Every time I mention this idea, I can usually count the seconds (as if I'm waiting for thunder) before someone brings up Jim Crow voting practices. Glad you could fill in this time. I freely admit to discriminating against the willfully uninformed.

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14. SP on October 21, 2011 10:18 AM writes...

"I can usually count the seconds (as if I'm waiting for thunder) before someone brings up Jim Crow voting practices."
Gee, maybe there's a reason for that. Given the current efforts of one political party to restrict voting access by setting up criteria that, gee shucks, just happen to disproportionately affect groups of people who vote for the other political party, I'm pretty certain that restrictions like you describe will be manipulated for political gain. Whether that motivation is racial like it was 50 years ago or economic like it is today doesn't really matter- if you have a system to restrict voting, people in power are going to use it to enhance their power.

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15. barry on October 21, 2011 10:27 AM writes...

An ignorant electorate can't be expected to guide a democracy wisely, but not all of it is willful. We (well, about half of us) voted in a presidential election in 2004 without knowing that the candidate for one major political party was and had been running a major criminal enterprise, spying on citizens. Only in 2005 did the New York Times break the story of warrantless wiretaps; Dick Cheney had persuaded Bill Keller to suppress it, although he had had the story before the election of '04.
Had that election been contested against a backdrop of impeachment hearings, the outcome might have been quite different. Or not--the Pentagon Papers came out in '71 and didn't stop Nixon's re-election in '72

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16. Graduate Student on October 21, 2011 10:31 AM writes...

The civics quiz seems like a good idea on the surface, but if you think more deeply about it sounds dangerously like the literacy tests given at a much worse time in our country's history. They're not the same, but I think it would probably have the same net effect. And declaring every uninformed person willfully ignorant ignores a lot of structural factors that, despite many well-intentioned efforts (of varying efficacy) undertaken over the years still play a pretty important role in who is well educated and who isn't.

That said, voting is not exactly a good way to make decisions anyway, so I'm not even sure more informed voters would matter. The same sorts of people would still think that they should have political power, and those are universally the sorts of people who cannot be trusted with it. I have long advocated that we replace elections with Thunderdome. We wouldn't get better leaders, but some folks who probably deserved it would die.

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17. Nate on October 21, 2011 10:39 AM writes...

What if instead we changed the voting system such that each candidate fills out a form that says what they are going to do while in office. Then the ballot is worded such that people vote for what they feel should be the solution to a questions and then the rank questions by personal importance.

should we raise taxes to pay for better school systems. (Yes by 10%) (yes by 5%) (yes by 2%) (no) (no reduce funds to schools).

How important is this topic to you (1-not at all to 10-most important)

Then your answers are compared to the officials being elected and your vote goes to whichever one your answers are closest to.

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18. NoDrugsNoJobs on October 21, 2011 10:42 AM writes...

I remember the first time I went to vote, I walked up to the table and had my Driver's License out, assuming that one would have to produce at least some kind of ID to make sure people didn't fill in and vote for others who didn't show up - they laughed at me and told me the ID wasn't necessary, I couldn't believe it. Getting a video from blockbuster or a book from the library requires more than what you need to vote. I think if we cannot even ask for proof of identification lest we be racist or whatever, any sort of civics quiz would be way out of the realm.

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19. pete on October 21, 2011 10:58 AM writes...

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." - Yeats

In the context of US Presidential candidates, I don't think the 'best' lack conviction. Quite the opposite. Many of the best wouldn't touch the requisite personal sacrifice (given our current state of political dysfunction) with a 10-foot pole. That's a depressing thought.

As for the double-door, in an ideal world, isn't that what the 'doors' from Middle School ==> High School ==> graduation should do?

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20. MattF on October 21, 2011 11:06 AM writes...

Certainly, those who are the most vocal have the strongest opinions-- but the basic paradox in a democracy is that close elections are decided by the group of people who can't make up their minds. Which... at least arguably... is a plausible way of doing things.

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21. SP on October 21, 2011 11:14 AM writes...

"Getting a video from blockbuster or a book from the library requires more than what you need to vote"
Oh, that must be the lesser known third and a quarter amendment, the part where people's right to rent movies shall not be infringed. ~11% of adult citizens do not have government issued ID and there are almost no cases of people voting under someone else's name (those that have been reported are things like a spouse voting for their partner because the person couldn't make it to the polls).

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22. MTK on October 21, 2011 11:27 AM writes...

I didn't read the original article (ironic, huh?), but I think I'm getting the gist.

I'll go contrarian just for the sake of argument and say that the ignorant voting is fine. Since they don't know what the heck they're doing, they'll probably fall 50:50. This then continues the illusion that their vote is just as important as anyone else's therefore not disenfranchising them. The result then will come down to the more informed.

Do I really believe that? Maybe.

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23. Athenian on October 21, 2011 11:39 AM writes...

We should set some kind of threshold for who can hold office (age, civics proficiency, etc.), and then we should just randomly select people from that population to be our politicians - kind of like it's jury duty. This would be the most democratic and fair way to run things.

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24. NoDrugsNoJobs on October 21, 2011 11:47 AM writes...

SP - which amendment dictates that ID cannot be required for voting, I must have missed that one. With regard to requiring ID at local libraries, there is a right of free speech and by proxy, a right to read what others have written. Libraries are public institutions so the amendments do apply to them so maybe I am missing something here but afraid I am not. But, if you say that others do not vote for people that don't show up then I guess vote fraud isn't an issue after all. Thanks for clearing that up, I feel much better now.

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25. SP on October 21, 2011 12:02 PM writes...

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

You can not make a law that indirectly provide unequal protection of the law, which includes requiring ID when such a requirement disproportionately affects a "suspect class"
Anyone is allowed to enter a library and access their materials, no ID required.
As for preventing voter fraud, I think you're agreeing with me that it's a solution in search of a problem.

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26. bbooooooya on October 21, 2011 12:04 PM writes...

"I freely admit to discriminating against the willfully uninformed."

Which I agree with. Just implementation is the tricky part.....

My hope is that the votes of the thundering masses of stupid cancel each other out like so many random waves. That ppl like Louis Gomert and Michelle Bachman get elected to congress, however, suggests that this is also fallible.

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27. Hap on October 21, 2011 12:09 PM writes...

Jim Crow is not an unreasonable example because people use control of voting as a proxy for controlling the governnment (and depending on the area, the economic order as well) - it was certainly used as such in that case. People also phrase such restrictions as being in the good of all (or the people being deprived of the ability to vote), but generally it doesn't work that way (Jim Crow didn't work out well for the black people being "protected", for example).

Another inconsistency is that in even more important responsibilities, we don't require intelligence. You don't have to pass a test to use money for example, and you don't have to have a (good) reason to buy something - you simply have to have the money (yours or someone else's). You are also held responsible for the consequences - whether you are smart or stupid, knowledgeable or not, or lucky or not, doesn't matter. If we are willing to uphold the consequences and outcomes of people's handling of money, with not much (bankruptcy, hospital admission) mitigation, I don't see why people should be excluded from voting for intelligence (or the willingness to use intelligence).

NDNJ - ID checks are in theory OK, but there is a long and ignoble tradition of trying to keep people from voting of which ID checking has a position. Given history, it is not reasonable to assume that ID checking is simply intended to prevent voter fraud.

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28. Rich Rostrom on October 21, 2011 12:14 PM writes...

There are a couple of different issues here.

The obvious one is the "Rational ignorance" problem.

As an average citizen, I am unlikely to be affected in any significant way by the actions of a particular officeholder. Or to be precise, it is unlikely that the difference between the probable actions of two candidates for an office will affect me personally.

But to become fully informed about the two candidates and the issues their actions might affect could take a fair amount of my time; and in many cases my vote is unlikely to affect the selection of the officeholder.

In most of the U.S., voters have too many offices to vote for. (Illinois: U.S. Senator & Representative, Governor, Sec of State, Attorney General, Treasurer, Comptroller, Supreme Court Justice, State Senator & Representative, County Board President, Sheriff, Assessor, Treasurer, Clerk, Circuit Court Clerk, Recorder, County Commissioner, Tax Appeal Commission