Steven Weinberg on Education

A few of my posts have been about education, and about starving workers; so I was happy to come across a 1988 interview (by Bill Moyers with the Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg) that brings the two ideas together.  In the middle of the interview, Weinberg explains how the nanny state starves high school students intellectually, and the warfare state does the same to research scientists.

MOYERS: Why are we doing so poorly in educating ourselves scientifically?  So few kids take math today and so few college students are interested in science.

WEINBERG: Yes, I don’t understand it.  Students sometimes manage to get straight A’s in high school mathematics, and then come to college and can’t solve simple word problems.  I’m not a professional in the field, and I wouldn’t presume to say what they’re doing wrong.  But I can think of a few things that I’d like to see done.  One is to open up high school science teaching – and perhaps teaching in general – to scholars who have decided they’re more interested in teaching than in doing research.

MOYERS: Without certification?

WEINBERG: Without teacher’s college certification.  Break the grip of the teacher’s college certification in high school education.  I remember that when I was on the faculty of MIT, we had a young theoretical physicist who decided he was more interested in teaching than in doing research.  He could not get a job teaching physics in the Boston city public high schools because he didn’t have the teacher’s certification.  But Andover, a private high school, was willing to hire him, so they had a Ph.D. teaching high school physics, and he did a wonderful job.  I think there’s a great pool of potential high school teachers, but they avoid teaching in the public schools.  I would advise the society to make the job of the high school teacher more palatable, not only in terms of salary but in terms of independence.  Public school teachers should be given a lot more intellectual independence than they have in choosing their course materials, choosing their textbooks, choosing the syllabus so they can feel the same sense of intellectual creativity in teaching that we at the college level are fortunate to feel.  If someone has a missionary spirit and wants to help save America, I think it would be a wonderful thing to go teach in high school.  But it’s not as satisfying as teaching in college because of the lack of independence.

MOYERS: Unless we can somehow bring a sense of wonder and excitement and passion to science, what’s going to happen to us?

WEINBERG: We may wind up making a living by showing the Grand Canyon to tourists from Germany and Japan.  And we can always sell soybeans when the drought ends.  I think we’re in terrible trouble, not only because of science education, but because of the general pattern of spending on scientific research.  We now spend less on non-defense research as a fraction of our gross national product than Japan or France or Germany.  Roughly seventy-five percent of our federal research money goes to defense research.  That’s up from fifty percent about a decade ago.

MOYERS: And the implications of that?

WEINBERG: The research scientists are beginning to compete with each other, like castaways competing for the last few crumbs of food.  Very, very important scientific projects are going unfunded, or are being spaced out over such long periods that by the time they’re completed, history will have passed them by.

Of course, the brilliant Weinberg hits the nail on the head: “open up,” “break the grip,” “independence,” “intellectual independence,” “choosing,” “intellectual creativity” versus “like castaways competing for the last few crumbs of food.”  What a great picture of education under the authoritarian state. 

Inefficient by Design

Those that lean to the left of the political spectrum (Green Party members in particular), readily agree that the profligate waste of, and the laying waste to, the environment constitutes a moral failing.  Certainly they agree that the grinding of mahogany forests in the Amazon basin for the manufacture of luxury toothpicks would be a moral outrage.  Thus they agree that the choice to use resources efficiently has a (large) moral component.

I was just reading Adam Smith the other day, specifically chapter eight of book one of his Wealth of Nations.  More than two hundred years ago, Adam realized that per-capita GDP growth is the driver for rising wage rates: “It is not the actual greatness of national wealth, but its continual increase, which occasions a rise in the wages of labour. It is not, accordingly, in the richest countries, but in the most thriving, or in those which are growing rich the fastest, that the wages of labour are highest. … The liberal reward of labour, therefore, as it is the necessary effect, so it is the natural symptom of increasing national weath. The scanty maintenance of the labouring poor, on the other hand, is the natural symptom that things are at a stand, and their starving condition that they are going fast backwards.” 

Those on the left readily agree that a nation full of starving laborers also constitutes a moral failing. Since a rise in real per-capita GNP is a rise in economic efficiency, the left once again agree that the choice to use resources efficiently has a moral component.

Now the immense geniuses that were our founding fathers designed our federal government to be supremely inefficient, ruthlessly inefficient, because efficient governments are the bane of individual liberty. (Dictatorships are efficient, for example.) The founding geniuses realized that for liberty’s sake, you want the design of your government to include equally opposing forces; you want it to drive down the road with one foot on the accelerator while the other stomps on the brake.

And thus those on the left must agree that a moral failing also occurs when a nation hands a large chunk of its GDP to the federal government, and another to the states, which are the most inefficient institutions of our time by design

ISO 9000 and Meta-Law

I need to apologize; my last post was such an obtuse mess that even I didn’t understand it when I wrote it.  Let me try again, now that Rob Dailey’s great comment to my last post has enlightened me a little. (Thanks Rob!)

Peter Pronovost’s list, ISO guidelines, Carnegie Mellon’s Capability Maturity Model (CMM), the initial ruleset in Nomic, etc., are much less about the result that is produced and much more about the process used to produce the result.  Let’s take the CMM, specifically: its basic premise is that if the software that a software engineering organization produces does not meet the software requirements, then the organization itself needs to change. The organization needs to raise its “Capability Maturity.”

The way in which the CMM suggests raising an organization’s maturity is through successive iterations of process improvement.  And thus the CMM requires all processes used by the organization to be written down and constantly re-evaluated and revised. Basically, the CMM looks at software production as a factory; if the products pumped out by the factory don’t meet the need, then the factory needs to change its assembly-line processes somehow. The factory’s “intelligence” is raised through process improvement.

It seems obvious to me that the process of government (all over the world) needs a huge dose of CMM.  In analogy to Dr. Pronovost’s intensive care unit, governments all over the world are killing their patients.  The CMM, applied to government, would mandate that all government processes be written down and then (heavily) revised.  This mandate would apply especially to all the unwritten processes of government: the logrolling, the constant 24/7 fundraising, the lobbying, the campaigning.

If we consider the current structure and processes of US government, they seem guaranteed to produce socialism. A quote from Mises is a great case in point: “Whether we like it or not, it is a fact that economics cannot remain an esoteric branch of knowledge accessible only to small groups of scholars and specialists. Economics deals with society’s fundamental problems; it concerns everyone and belongs to all. It is the main and proper study of every citizen.” (Human Action, p. 879)

I infer from the Mises quote that to avoid a result of socialism from a system of government like the one in the US, you must have the electorate trained in (basic) Austrian economics.  In the words of George Stephanopoulos to Ron Paul: “That ain’t going to happen.”

So what is the solution?  Have a “Linus Torvalds of law” (and a few other specialists) control all changes to a law code? Or at least the kernel of a law code? That seems to work for the (complex!) Linux kernel code. Or is the problem a problem with humans ourselves? Is the problem not solvable by (“irrational”) humans? Do we actually need an artificial intelligence to keep track of the complexity, and the process, as rationally as possible?

(Side note: For those interested in AI, the inherent reflexivity of “meta-law,” i.e., laws about laws, raises interesting questions about how an AI handles the consistency of a law code.  Zeno’s paradox enters in here, with abominations akin to “This is not a law.”)

Nomic: A Self-Modifying Game Based on Reflexivity in Law

The current issue of the New Yorker magazine (Dec. 10) contains an article (“The Checklist”) about Peter Pronovost’s checklist, which is like a pre-flight checklist for intensive care units in hospitals.  The checklist is specific to one task: inserting a line into a patient. Peter thought that the probability of infection in a patient might be diminished by following a standard five-step process for inserting a line.  So he instituted a five-point checklist for inserting lines into patients at Johns Hopkins, and the infection rate in the ICU plummeted to near zero.  All the five steps were already well-known for years, yet they just weren’t being followed.  Peter is now working to institute his checklist in inner-city hospitals across the nation, with similar results.

The article reminded me of my first job in software engineering, which was writing the graphics software for the FAA’s AAS program in the 1990s.  The AAS program is the biggest poster child for failed software projects; it burned through billions(!) of taxpayer dollars before being shut down with little to show for it.  Management tried to save the program by doing basically what Peter did for ICUs: institute standard software engineering procedures and checklists. The goal was to achieve some sort of ISO 9000 certification for the project by following Carnegie Mellon’s Capability Maturity Model.

Both intensive patient care and large software projects involve much more complexity than the average human can handle; both fields are hardly understood today. This is why both fields have specialists and even super-specialists, because the techniques employed are much more an art rather than a science.  So while reading the works of Mises (Human Action, Socialism, etc.), I wonder: what chance do we have with human government?  We tend to elect the most average of men and women to craft our law codes, so don’t we need at least some standard of excellence for them to follow?  Is there a way to institute ISO 9000-like standards for a law code?   A law code that is much more complex than, say, the Linux kernel? Will we need artificial intelligence to do it?

Artificial intelligence is another topic for another blog, but in the meantime thinking about the Linux kernel suggests one idea: Open Law. Now that we have the works of Mises and the communications of the internet, maybe we just need the “Linus Torvalds of law” to step forward and start the kernel of a rational legal code.  The kernel might look much like the initial rules of Nomic, with its two-tiered system (like “kernel space” and “user space”).  And various specialists in various types of law would need to review changes submitted to different modules of the law before the changes were accepted for the current “release.”

Of course, the initial kernel release from “law-Linus” would be an entire new constitution, so adoption (never mind enforcement!) of such a code are probably impossible in human time scales.