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What should be humanity’s top priority?

I saw a quora article by this title back in February. In it, there were various suggestions split into two main camps: either social or technological. I think humanity’s top priority is probably the intersection of the two.

Specifically, humanity’s top priority is almost certainly is the predictive ability of economics, and thereby, the application of science to government.

Many ideas were suggested in the quora article, including space colonies. How can we know which is best? Economics should come to the rescue, but it’s the “dismal science.” We cannot predict with any repeatable certainty which actions will lead to “improvement.” To make matters worse, there is serious disagreement over what to improve. Should we minimize the maximum unhappiness? Should we maximize average happiness? Should we do whatever it takes to propagate our genome, our ideas, or our individual freedoms? Should we all just seek inner enlightenment, as one person suggested?

The truth is we have only a vague idea. Our limited history gives us incomplete empirical data, very little of which was designed for statistical analysis or recorded in adequate detail. Our theories can explain some concepts and some trends very well, but when it comes to Trump’s election or ISIS we are easily blind-sided. And unlike our endeavors in the similarly complex medical sciences, we have no economic “clinical trials.” There is almost no deliberate experimentation in government or society. There is little candor in evaluating the results of what little we try.

I suspect that we will be able to decide the next “top priority” — and eliminate political divisiveness in the process — if we can first beef up economics. There are two components to this: economic “clinical trials” and better predictive modeling.

Imagine you could take a proposed law and run it forward 100 years in a simulator. What does that do to the target objective? What externalities do we see? Does the simulation suggest a refinement or an altogether different approach?

Meanwhile, for things that are harder to predict, can we voluntarily enlist 100,000 people in an economic trial? One group is a control, the other group lives under slightly different circumstances.

With either approach, there are daunting implementation details to be worked out. Modeling is sharply limited by our understanding of human behavior and our computational inability to simulate anything as complex as a society. And economic trials are going to be befuddled by selection bias, and double-blind issues, and all the ethical questions delineating the degree to which we experiment on ourselves.

But in principle, this is the approach. We have used it with astonishing success in mechanical engineering, which is the application of science to solving hard physical problems. We should apply similar methods to social engineering. Politics as a method leaves me feeling misdirected, to say the least.

My hope is that we can — with modeling and economic trials — expand the scientific method to the work of government. Rallied around an objective reality, anything will be possible. Divided along untestable ideological lines, we can only hope to muddle our way forward.

So science in government first. Space colonies later, if that’s what makes sense.


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