Essentially, my goal is to bring to your attention a potential way of arming an informed public with a much more powerful method of figuring out a very complex world. This is a bit of a long post, but please stick with me - I really think there is something here.
More to come ... ::
In most cases, blogs still do not do direct interviews (except for with fellow bloggers). The mainstream reporters - I am talking real shoe-leather journalists, not paid communicators - also have a couple of advantages. One is the obvious fact that they do this for a living. The other is that they build up contacts throughout all varieties of officialdom, government, non-government and business. Thus, to know the minds of these people (or at least to get enough rope from them for hanging), the newspapers are the places to go. The fact that many diaries use traditional media links shows that there is still definitely a role here.
Where blogs really shine, however, is in the synthesis of official and mainstream information and personal experience. There are some excellent "connect the dots" blog stories out there. And of course, there is that little incident about the outed plagarist. The synthesis of several bits of (often obscure) information can pack a pretty serious punch in terms of understanding reality.
What I really want to talk about, though is how all this collaboration and synthesis relates to coming up with opinions. In my own biased mind, I would say that most policy suggestions made here come either from the gut or perhaps even a study or two that was particularly well-liked. All that great foundation on reality when describing events unfortunately ravels as soon as we start to talk about the future. Yet there is a powerful tool that can be used to extend our great command of the facts into a traceable and transparent trail of reason.
This field of study could leverage the incredible powers of synthesis of this community, and allow us to discuss the future more intelligently. This field is called systems dynamics (with a cousin called systems thinking), and has been used in think tanks, businesses and the like since the 60's. It is thought to be only for specialists, but with modern software, it might just be open to the masses.
Systems dynamics was invented at MIT, originally to study the problems of business - inventory tracking, adjustments of markets to changes and so forth. It also made a large splash in the public view with the publication of the Limits to Growth, a study that challenged the wisdom of having a fundamentally unsustainable economy. Limits, and its follow-ons, created a simplified model of the world showing how resources were consumed, people multiplied, industry grew, pollution was made and how food was produced. It also showed that even the most optimistic beliefs in technology would only buy 30 years at most without stabilizing the world population.
People have been shown to be very poor at understanding large, interconnected systems. Also, most experts are only expert in a small domain of knowledge, without much better understanding than the lay public everywhere else. System dynamics is designed to bring together communities of experts (even from diverse disciplines), sit them down together, and allow them to strap together a whole. It is also meant to force all of the disciplinarians to see each other's concerns, and to highlight all of the interconnections and feedback loops that exist in the real world. Another goal is to flush out all of the hidden costs and "side effects" that occur when one defines the system of interest far too narrowly.
Let's say we wanted to understand how to deal with health care. We could model the insurance companies, hospitals, doctors, patients and the government in their current configuration. Despite the fact that every one of these groups can do dastardly things to one another, each also serves its purpose. It is when this system gets out of balance that we have problems (denial of legitimate treatment, doctor over-use of expensive resources like MRI, too much eagerness to just prescribe a drug). Any policies that are recommended should strive to put the system into balance, but it is hard to know beforehand what that is if you are only arguing on principle. To be practical, we need to have experiments, and the computer is the only ethical place to perform policy experiments.
For all those that call for single payer, I would say that there are likely to be many unintended consequences. However, you will never believe me until we really run the model. And when I say really run the model, I also mean exposing all of the assumptions and properties that are used to generate it. We could probably also experiment with the levels of benevolence in each of the actors - in other words, how much pressure from the system at large needs to be applied to keep them in check.
To show an example:
UK SD study on health care
The best thing about all of this, though, is that there is a variety of knowledge out there. And as diarists like boondad show, there are also quite a number of you that can go and hunt down the appropriate data. It is just a matter of finding a large enough number of individuals with the right background and an interest in finding out the truth.
Originally, system dynamics was arcane enough to only be understood by a few scholars that could actually do the math. Nowadays, there is software that puts most of the worst bits behind the curtain. As an added bonus, some of this software is free. For your edification, check out Vensim from Ventana systems.
Also, for background, I recommend checking out Limits to Growth from a nearby library, and also looking for the assorted research groups.
So consider this a suggestion for open-source politics if you will. This is just my first cut on it - there is a lot of room for revision and suggestions, feedback and so forth is much more than welcome. If there is enough interest, I will try and write on this subject again.