Podcast RCast Research

RCast 36: Science and Governance

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Greg Meredith is joined by Isaac DeFrain and Christian Williams to talk about the future of governance.


Greg: One of the things about the RChain research efforts is that they’re a little bit broader than just process calculi or types or category theory. We have research efforts tending toward hardware, looking at various ways to realize a consensus on a quantum protocol layer, and looking at governance. There are lots of governance models besides monarchy and oligarchy and democracy that we utilize regularly in modern society. One of those—and I am not sure that everyone recognizes it as such—is the scientific process and the mathematical process.

I distinguish the two because in science you can never prove a theory. You can only falsify a theory. Whereas in mathematics, the rules of the game are set up so that you can actually prove things. Communities respond to various utterances by essentially validating or verifying certain kinds of assertions. 

The way I think about the governance process in science and mathematics is as a form of behavior modification. When one makes an assertion to the community, it needs to be consensually validatable. People can go and check for themselves whether or not the assertion a scientist or mathematician has made is true or stands up to scrutiny. 

It’s open to all. In that sense, it shares something with democracy, but it is not like democracy, at least in as much as popular opinion doesn’t really matter. You can have lots and lots of opinions about whether or not P equals NP, but at the end of the day, either it’s going to be true or false or independent of the axioms that you’re using to establish the veracity of such a statement.

There’s an interesting question here. What can the blockchain community take away or learn from scientific governance and mathematical governance? That’s my opening volley. Let me check in and see if my statements make sense. 

Christian: It generally makes sense. There also seems to be a difference, not just in opinion versus facts, but whether the utterances under scrutiny pertain to the behavior of the community in question or simply the state of their world. It seems like there may be some scientific results that have consequences for people’s behavior, but then there are some that simply state that things are the way they are. 

Greg: That’s an important and interesting observation because it touches on many things. Just one example where there are some twisted loops in this: even just to go after the validation of certain proposals requires coordination at scale.

The kind of examples that I have in mind is the large Hadron collider. There are proposals about the standard model in physics that needed to be verified or validated. They couldn’t be verified or validated without a considerable investment by the scientific community to go after those questions. I don’t believe it’s the case, but someone might argue that questions about the Higgs boson are not necessarily going to address the behavior of the community. I think that that turns out not to be true. 

Isaac: I just want to clarify. When you say something like the scientific method as a form of governance, you’re suggesting that the implications from our scientific inquiry having some sort of effect on our behavior collectively, right? 

Greg: No, it’s not as simple as that. It’s not just that science informs a political process, but that science is, in fact, itself a political process. Mathematics is a political process. In particular, if you have a physicist who regularly makes proposals that are outside the pale (in the sense that no one can validate their experiments and the math doesn’t check out), eventually the community ceases to pay attention to this physicist’s proposals. 

It might be entertaining or gather attention for another reason, but they don’t gather attention from the point of view of being scientific proposals. As such, if the community turns their attention away from a member of the community because of their behavior, that members’ behavior will typically become modified because they’re actually seeking to participate in the community. Either they modify their behavior or they don’t participate in the community anymore. As such, it’s a form of governance. 

Christian: I’m trying to get a feel for how the analogy works. Somebody is making proposals in a field. Are their proposals like bills? 

Greg: That’s a really interesting question. How are they like bills? Except in scientific fields like sociology or psychology, the proposals are not normative. They’re not of the form “we should.” However, even that comes into question, when you talk about how the community organizes itself to answer certain questions. Statements of the form, “we should,” begin to occur when the community says, “we want to verify this aspect of the standard model as relates to the Higgs boson.” And so we should pool together our resources in order to be able to conduct the following experiments. 

There are some loops in here that are complex and interesting. I would go further. I would say that markets are really good at evaluating the opinion of a community and, in particular, opinions about the relative valuation of resources and resource distribution. I would argue that science and mathematics are about cultivating a working relationship to truth. That’s what those processes optimize for.

I think it’s important to have both of those kinds of tools. If we have drifted so far in our discourse that there’s no working relationship to truth, that’s dangerous for society for all kinds of reasons. We need processes that will cultivate a working relationship to truth, but we also need to be able to ascertain opinions. Even though opinions are not the same as truth, they help us understand sentiment, pulse, and feel, and those kinds of things. They’re not truth, but they provide a provisional basis for action. An opinion connected to a working relationship to truth has more efficacy than either of them do on their own. Does that make sense? 

Christian: Yeah, definitely. That’s one of the really interesting things about the practice of science starting to go into research. It’s interesting to see how it really happens in the community. The practice of science is not always as scientific as one might hope. Each individual is generally doing their best to approach things scientifically. But the general progress of the community can sometimes be largely driven by whatever is hot at the time because somebody had a particularly powerful result. Similarly, if somebody has good evidence that a certain physical experiment is potentially important for a certain subject and that’s proposing a bill and people vote for it by supporting those experiments.

Similarly, in math, if somebody shows, “I found this really cool result,” and then people start building around that, there’s a balance there between people exploring what they enjoy and are interested in and then also paying attention to the larger progress. I’ve been surprised that there isn’t more large-scale infrastructure to guide the progress of these fields. Maybe the virtual world can help with that. 

Greg: That’s a very interesting perspective. My experience bears out what you’re saying. I’m curious, Isaac, do you have any thoughts? 

Isaac: This interplay between facts and opinions, especially in a scientific or mathematical setting, I think all of us as investigators or researchers have our own opinions or beliefs about how we expect things to work and that guides our interests or explorations to some extent. Of course, we’re all subject to all of the previous results that are already known to be true. Certainly, they have their own special and important roles to play in the process. 

Greg: There’s such an attention deficit in the culture at large. I’ve recently heard figures that suggest that the number of peer-reviewed published proofs that are erroneous has jumped above 50 percent. One researcher suggested that it was closer to 80 percent. I’ve seen published results where it’s in the 40 percent range. Even at that sort of error rate, we have a fake news problem in science and math. 

Isaac: We didn’t even need Facebook to interject here.

Greg: There is something really interesting is going on here. There was a crisis that was recently reported like over the last three to five years. People have been talking about how many results and science are not reproducible. 

Christian: Was that mainly in the social sciences or was it actually throughout science? 

Greg: It was throughout science. It was first noticed in psychology and sociology, then people began to ask, “Well, what’s the scope of this?” 

Isaac: On one hand it’s very surprising and on another hand, maybe it’s not so surprising. 

Greg: Call me idealistic, but I see blockchain as enabling communities to reinvent or reboot governance. If we’re going to take that idea seriously, then I think we have to look at all of the different governance models that are available and shake up our beliefs about them. It’s really easy to get stale and stodgy and think, “We’ve looked at all of these and democracy is the worst except for all the others.” 

Isaac: I think those are basically Ralph Merkle’s words.

Greg: We can take that approach, but I wonder if maybe there’s something fresh that comes from a governance process that is more like the scientific governance process where anyone can make a proposal, but then there are consensual validation criteria that the entire community goes through rigorously. 

I remember when I first saw Kickstarter. I thought, “If we did this at scale, why couldn’t we just get rid of whole swaths of what Congress does by just doing this all online? Why can’t we have Kickstarter funding for public works?” Of course, there are all kinds of problems with it. But if it were coupled with a governance process that was more science- or math-like, that might open the door for something like that. These are questions that have been bubbling around in my head for a long time now. 

This is also what inspired so many people about the Dao, right? The reason so many people gave so much money to the DAO was this kind of vision of a much more egalitarian and open process to allocate public funds to projects where people feel things need to get done. 

Isaac: More of a true alignment of incentives. 

Greg: Being someone who is more mathematically- or scientifically-inclined, I want to test the idea. I want to run some thought experiments at a minimum before rolling this out at scale. I also want to check and see how good the scientific process is. In the fields of medicine and engineering and computation and physics and astronomy, there has been astonishing progress, in the sense of our being able to make really fine-grain predictions about how things will unfold and have those verified.

As a result, being able to formulate plans of action, whether they are therapies or construction projects or things like the large Hadron collider, come out of this common understanding that we built up. Obviously, there’s progress—and I hate to use that word—in some sense, there’s measurable efficacy. There’s unreasonable effectiveness of reason, so to speak. On the other hand, there are ways in which it hasn’t worked out very well. One is the error rate for science and the other is that science and engineering and mathematics coupled to societal action at scale in this way seems to be culpable when we talk about climate change.

When you have an unbridled application of science to agriculture without other values to balance things out, industrial agriculture is one of the major culprits in climate change. Another example is aviation. The carbon output of flying is really a problem. It’s not clear to me how the scientific process, without some other kind of tempering, is a success. 

Christian: There is this an “unreasonable effectiveness of reason.” I don’t think it’s that unreasonable, but we just don’t understand it yet. It hasn’t been sufficiently understood. We need to integrate science and economics and ecology and governance. They can’t operate separately. We have too much power now that we can’t keep doing things ad hoc; we don’t have an excuse anymore to be doing things as ad hoc as we are. We have more than enough conceptual and physical technology to start being responsible and formalizing all of this stuff and making it rational and at least pointed toward the ethical. It’s not as impossible as people think, but it’s going to take a new kind of concerted effort. 

Greg: This is why I wanted to have a conversation like this and I’d like to have a lot more of them. Across the RChain community and across the blockchain community and ultimately with policymakers and other aspects of society. We have to take a fresh look at the governance processes that are in operation in our lives and culture and ask what the results have been. Then we need to be really honest and sober with the evidence.

It’s not okay to get into a discussion and say, “Science has been the be-all and end-all.” Likewise, we can’t say that markets are the be-all and end-all of how to tap into collective intelligence or collective wisdom. I don’t think either of them works so well on their own. 

I also think that they are intrinsically coupled. At the end of the day, every mathematician has got to get her funding from somewhere. Usually, if you trace that funding, it generally lands in the marketplace somewhere. Even if it comes through government or institutional grants. If you go behind those grants and whatever’s behind that you land into markets. Those kinds of things are absolutely coupled. Being aware of how they can be coupled so that we can ask whether or not they should be coupled in the way that they are is really important. It’s a part of this process of brushing the cobwebs off of how we think about governance.

Christian: A huge thing that blockchain will offer is transparency as to the interconnections of those systems. Hopefully, it’s going to make all of this explicit rather than everyone being hazy about how this is all working. 

Isaac: What we’re all working toward with blockchain is increased transparency and the availability of information that people have agreed is true, which goes back to this whole scientific process that we’re talking about, which is essentially a consensus mechanism. We’re agreeing that the results of these experiments are true because these independent researchers can all go do their own experiments and reproduce these results. That’s one of the biggest issues with our information infrastructure as it stands today is that we have so much information that we have access to, but no real discernible way to say whether or not it’s good information. That’s one area I would love to see improved by blockchain technology.

Greg: I agree. Just the other day, Nora Germain was proposing a tool to disseminate information about the climate where people could put reports, news, or other kinds of data. For example, report that Chennai is out of water or that we’ve had the hottest summer on record in Europe, then have the behavior appropriately incentivized. 

Stories that turn out to be valued by the community and accurate are incentivized. Those people who curate stories to determine their veracity, whether they verify a valued story or they defend against a story that could be misleading or provide misinformation, that behavior could also be incentivized. A tool like that could be of considerable value and sit on top of a blockchain quite easily.

Isaac: Certainly. That’s one of the biggest issues with people’s willingness to accept the idea of climate change and our role in that process. We’re all so small and our views are localized. How could we possibly make this humongous impact? But it’s a collective effort; it’s not just one person or one organization that’s doing it. That would give us more of a global perspective.

Greg: Yes, exactly. I mean 140 characters isn’t interesting, but if you make a stream of a billion 140-character utterances, you start to get some interesting signal. 

Blockchain can help with those kinds of things. That’s obvious. For those of us who are in the blockchain space, we’ve contemplated those kinds of tools for quite some time now. The blockchain infrastructure itself is a massive engineering undertaking. It’s a massive social undertaking. It will require governance in order to get it done; it will also require governance in order to maintain it. 

There really is such a thing as bit rot. That happens in part because there’s volatility in hardware and it happens in part because systems are made of multiple components and one component may evolve at a different rate than another. There’s a considerable maintenance effort for any blockchain infrastructure, and that will also require governance. There’s a meta-circular loop here where it would be really nice to use the blockchain to help out with the governance of the blockchain.

Isaac: It’s a bootstrapping effort. 

Greg: That’s exactly right. Because it’s a technologically-based offering and infrastructure, the methods of science and engineering become particularly interesting. They’re worth looking at as a form of adjudication on various proposals. We can argue from a math, engineering, and science point of view about a particular consensus protocol—and we should. And that is not a democratic process. We don’t vote on whether or not the Paxos algorithm works. We prove it and then we test implementations of it. So far we haven’t given it a good enough shot. 

Isaac: We can build the technology, but if we don’t govern it properly, then what exactly are we building?

Greg: Exactly right. 

Christian: What do you think of the blockchain community’s thoughts on governance so far? 

Greg: It’s really interesting. We can take the Ethereum community as just one example. There’s a spirit of being more egalitarian, more open, more free, and yet if you look at the actual forms that play out, Vitalik is a benevolent dictator. There’s a kind of “say one thing out of the side of one’s mouth and do another.” 

Even within RChain, I’ve found enormous pressure because I want to be able to listen to all these voices, but I also know that the information disseminating through the community is disseminating at really uneven and unequal rates. People will be making proposals, which I know to be deleterious to the cooperative. What do I do as someone who holds a certain fiduciary responsibility to the cooperative? 

I don’t want to act like a dictator. I also know that many people are operating without the same information I’m operating with. How do I balance all of that? These are really important and interesting questions. I don’t think that there’s enough dialogue going on. I also know that it’s hard to have that dialogue going on while you’re feverishly building the infrastructure. 

The bitcoin community is fascinating to watch. I think it’s decidedly libertarian. They often end up getting stymied. They can’t make forward progress because the balance of decision-making authority is not weighed out well in a particular way. You can get certain communities holding the rest of the community hostage. 

Christian: Holding them hostage how? 

Greg: It’s difficult to make certain rollouts and certain changes to the protocol that a wide swath of a community thinks would be good. 

Isaac: Like bigger blocks. 

Greg: Exactly. These kinds of questions oftentimes ground to a halt inside the community because there isn’t a good balance of power or decision-making authority.

Isaac: Or literally led to a bifurcation or a fork of the network. 

Greg: That’s exactly right. It’s interesting because that definitely happens in nature. I constantly look toward the governance processes that arise in nature without human cognition, without interference from Homo sapiens. What are some governance processes that seem to work at scale? 

For example, if you look at decision-making capacity in honeybees, what does that look like? If you look at the decision-making capacity inside an individual brain, what does that look like? We should carefully pay attention to those as well because one thing nature gets right is it knows how to scale.

Christian: A huge difference between virtual governance and normal governance is that we have so much more flexibility in the virtual world to try different structures. These local communities are free to experiment and if it works, then more people join it. It opens up a much more explorative approach to governance.

Greg: There’s a sense in which we can reintroduce play. The notion of play and the notion of game is essential for effective decision-making and good social processes. Human beings learn by playing from the beginning. Children play. Tons of studies suggest that executives who can retain a sense of play, even in high-risk situations, are far more effective. If you look at a lot of cultural shifts, moving from warfare to the Olympics (or other kinds of games) is a big win—a lot less loss of blood and a lot more possibility for achieving excellence. 

Even in mathematics, I’m aware of three distinct notions of games. There are the Von Neumann-Nash games. There are the Conway games, and I’m not talking about the game of Life,  I’m talking about the structures on numbers and games. Then there are Abramsky-Highland games. 

Each one of these different notions has led to groundbreaking results and kicked open problems that we were stuck on for quite some time. That’s no accident. Human cognition is pre-organized to use the notion of game and play. We do better under those conditions. 

When you talk about the flexibility of the virtual and online setting, part of that is it allows us to excel at what we eat excel at, which is play. To use a Gregory Bateson’ language, the nip denotes the bite, but does not denote what the bite denotes. In this playful setting, we can engage in behavior that would otherwise be too risky and thereby learn things faster without falling off the cliff.

Christian: Does any of those notions of game accommodate for games in which it’s not one entity versus an opponent, but rather just an entity in an environment trying to achieve some goal within constraints? 

Greg: Ambrasky generalizes the Abramsky-Highland games to situations like that—multiplayer games, not just zero-sum. Certainly, in the Von Neumann-Nash games, you can contemplate games that are not zero-sum as well. 

Those are really important games to explore when we’re talking about forms of governance that are going to yield different outcomes. A lot of focus on zero-sum kinds of activities have resulted in the situation that we’re currently facing. That’s an opinion. It would be hard to formulate that in a way that we can prove. It’s a gut feeling that if we look at coordinating games that are not zero-sum, where you can have this local-global view and allow people to get a sense of participating in something larger than themselves, that is a real win.