Inescapable Truth #4: Nothing is Perfect

Right off the bat, let me clarify that I’m talking about the physical world that you and I inhabit. This post is not a theological exploration of whether or not God can create an immovable object.

Instead, I want to explore some things regarding which I believe people have unreasonably high expectations, namely:

  • Justice
  • Elections
  • Science

There’s probably others that are similar; things that we expect to work perfectly and are shocked when they don’t.

It is easy to think of recent trials or other legal proceedings where the judgements have been controversial. Most people think that OJ Simpson killed his wife. Many people believe that Amanda Knox was unfairly convicted in Italy. Obama and many others think the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on campaign financing is wrong. What are we supposed to do about these, however?

Courts exist to determine guilt (or, in the case of civil courts, liability). Should legislative action or public opinion be able to override legal decisions? Do we think politicians are better able to mete out justice? Do we think the opinions of the (relatively) uninformed public should count more than those of a jury? Of course not.

Inevitably, a jury and/or judge can make mistakes. Nevertheless, we have to accept that they are the best that we can do and, after allowing for the appeals system to run its course, we have to accept the imperfections of the legal system given that the alternatives are so much worse.

Our system of electing public officials is subject to similar criticisms and a similar conclusion.

Did Bush reallywin the 2000 election? If Palm Beach County, Florida had not had confusing “butterfly” ballots would Gore have been elected president? Maybe not. Is it possible that Al Franken might have lost the Senatorial election in Minnesota if the state had performed a (3rd) recount? Maybe.

Accurately determining the intent of millions of voters is a difficult thing to do. Hand-marked ballots are sometimes difficult to read, be it by machines or by humans. Electronic ballots are subject to programming “glitches”, are intimidating to older voters and, some argue, are more easily subject to fraud. An accurate election consists of more than counting ballots, it consists of accurately measuring voter intent.  Trying to determine intent is inherently difficult.

Finally, in science, let’s consider the recent controversy regarding the handling of climate change data. As you might have read, some emails were recently leaked that demonstrated how a group of scientists suppressed data that seemed to contradict the generally accepted opinion that we are experiencing global warming. Some groups responded to this incident by suggesting that the excluded data proves that there is no such thing as global warming and that the scientists are collectively conspiring to suppress such data, presumably motivated by their desire to keep receiving grant money.

Let’s not get bogged down in the details of the actual incident. There are arguments that explain the actions of the scientists as nothing more than the typical treatment of data “outliers”. There are others who argue that the scientists are guilty of academic fraud but that this doesn’t prove that global warming isn’t happening. Rather than considering these points, let’s pretend that the scientists had, instead, published only the controversial data and argued that they prove that there is no global warming. Would we then discard all the other data and not worry about carbon footprints? No!

Science is not perfect. One group of scientists can perform an experiment and come up with a conclusion while another group performs another experiment and comes up with another conclusion. Science frequently has to cope with conflicting opinions. This is something that the “lay” public finds difficult to believe but is nevertheless true.

The reason why I have more “faith” in science than the alternatives is because science, at least, has a mechanism to resolve these disputes.

The bedrocks of science are reproducibility and peer review. It does not matter if you design an experiment that demonstrates cold fusion if no one else can reproduce it. Scientists may be excited by a new development reported in Nature magazine, but they don’t believe it until someone else has reproduced the results. If, over time, other labs reproduce the findings of an experiment, the findings are increasingly accepted as fact. The determination of truth in Science is, ultimately, an exercise in developing a consensus view based on peer review and reproducibility of results.

Is it possible that all scientists are conspiring to accept bogus results? No! Why not? Because scientists loveto screwe other scientists! There is no better way to get acclaim in science than by proving that the consensus view is wrong. Einstein proved that Newton was wrong about the invariability of time. John Bell proved that Einstein was wrong about quantum entanglement. There is a Nobel prize waiting for any scientist that can prove that global warming is not occurring. There are many scientists (not to mention, at least one funded research group) trying to do just this.

The scientific process, like the legal system and our electoral process, is not perfect. In all of these endeavors all we can do is to work hard to improve the way we perform them while accepting that, at the end of the day, we may have to settle for doing the best we can. In my business (software development), there is an adage that I love: Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough. While we strive for perfection in all the things we do, let’s keep in mind that the price of perfection can be extremely high. The Minnesota senate election took 8 months to resolve during which the state’s views were underrepresented in Congress. Can we afford to wait the ten or twenty years that it might take for definitive climate data to prove global warming?