30 September 2009

Cognitive Democracy

It is common, and tedious, to hear people discussing the poor quality of their political representatives. They often think those that represent them are mentally deficient or plain mendacious. They may be right on both counts but how would we know before it was too late?

What attracts people to careers in politics? Why do they appear to abandon deeply held principles once embedded in the system? Why do some turn rotten and steal from the societies that elected them? The structure-centric responses to these questions have been hotly debated for centuries. But, ultimately, the answers must be to do with brains.

When you vote for a representative, particularly when you choose on the basis of what you perceive to be their personality, you should have no reason to believe that you have made a logical choice. What, after all, really formed the basis of your choice? Usually you will not be personally acquainted with the politician in question. You may have seen them on the television a few times. They may represent a Party that you feel an affinity with. He/she may be 'the best of a bad bunch'. It's not much to go on.

People will choose to go into politics for a variety of reasons. Some will be 'conviction' politicians with a real sense of what they believe to be morally correct; others will see politics as a useful (and sometimes easy) career ladder; others will spot an opportunity for power and influence. Their capabilities will vary enormously: some will be from the intellectual elite (although the dearth of scientists in political life makes this less likely); others will struggle to think rationally and coherently. Either could end up running a nation.

It would be useful to have the tools to measure these intentions and capabilities before we cast our vote.

There is, of course, massive debate about how these factors can be reliably measured. For example, IQ tests are often discredited. Emotional intelligence in now given more credence but the markers are hard to identify. Psychometrics of one kind or another are often used as part of job interviews. Intensive psychological evaluations are undertaken on patients in psychiatric institutions. The tools are by no means perfect but perhaps they should utilised on those seeking to be our political representatives, and the results made freely available to us.

'League tables' feature often in the news at present: schools, hospitals (including individual surgeons), police forces and so on. League tables of political performance and consistency, while useful, are not what I am talking about here. If a person chooses to put him/herself forward to represent us and to have a measure of say in our lives at this most intimate level do we not need to know a great deal more about their intentions and capabilities before we are in a position to make a logical choice?

It could be argued that this kind of testing would be invasive or a breach of human rights. I would disagree. Testing would be a voluntary part of the qualification process to stand for elected office. No coercion would be required or involved.

It should be an ambition of an enlightened society to be represented by the right people. Not necessarily the best and brightest but a healthy combination of the brightest, most stable, least corruptible, most logical, most nurturing, least mendacious etc. Good eggs not rotten apples. Effective, understanding and striving voices. Not brutish, memetically infectious demagogues.
Achieving this may require assessment of candidate suitability via the most rigorous scientific testing measures available.

Can we rely on the enlightened intellectual and emotional altruism of the few 'incidentals' to shape our future societies? Or do we need to find a humane and reasoned method of bringing just those candidates to the fore?

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