OK, so I usually leave politics off this blog. I am very much in favor of universal health care; I'm willing to leave the insurance companies alive if that's what it takes to get it in America. I don't hide this opinion, but I don't use this blog to flog it.
What is relevant is the disastrous turn the debates have taken. In the typical congressional recess, American congressmen hold lightly attended town hall meetings to discuss issues with the more engaged fraction of their constituencies. This tradition has been badly disrupted by concerted efforts to disrupt these meetings with loudly and urgently repeated misrepresentations of the legislation.
There was an incident here in Austin, one among many, apparently centrally organized, apparently funded in part by Republicans and in part by insurance interests, although drawing upon genuine backwoods fear and paranoia, as well as whatever racism might be handy to the purpose. (Despite the fascist methods, one common disruptive claim is to accuse Obama of being like Hitler. It's an interesting defense; brownshirts accusing the establishment of being brownshirts.)
The lies extend to absurd extremes.
This turn of events is now a crisis in itself. Obama is hamstrung: there's very little he can to to quell it. The press tries to handle it without "taking sides" validating the disruption; the weird skew the press seems to have decided to take (thanks to King of the Road for the link; I heard a very similar spin on NPR) is that the "country" is "terrified" of "too much change", which is horseshit so far but may end up a self-fulfilling prophecy soon enough. There's little alternative for concerned people other than to show up at these events and scream back, which in now way repairs the problem.
I gave a talk last month making an equivalence between policy and a feedback control mechanism. I am still planning to write it up, but things have been too interesting of late. It was already in my mind that the function of organized misrepresentation in a feedback mechanism is essentially the equivalent of introducing a large volume of noise into the feedback loop. In most engineering situations, that is not a good idea.
Meanwhile, in other news. Twitter was down for several hours yesterday. (One fellow lamented "I don't know what to do. It's like all the voices in my head have gone away.") Various other large web services had problems. It was what is called a "distributed denial of service attack", and here is how it goes. Over time, via various methods, various unobtrusive viruses are inserted into people's computers. Then, at the time of the denial of service, the viruses are invoked and make what looks like legitimate requests to the targeted service. But the requests are not real, and so do not complete, sending various protocols into various fallbacks. Ultimately the system itself breaks down and cannot provide the intended service.
As we see this DDoS happening to the town hall process, it is interesting to reflect on what is happening to the various branches of science that are under attack as well. The analogy is clear. Every bogus argument not only weakens the effectiveness of the communication between science and policy loop but also wastes the resources of the scientific community on defending itself. Bogus argumentation is distributed denial of service.
Consider another alarming fact for us Americaphiles:
Treehugger argues that this ridiculous circumstance is due to the prevalence of funded denialism in the US. (Other countries with strong denial movements, notably Australia and Canada, are not represented, unfortunately.) I think this is right. And it comes from people deliberately injecting noise into the social systems that used to be adequate to make reasoned decisions.
Ultimately these are difficult areas for law but easy ones for common decency. In a civilized world, people do not abuse systems for purposes other than those for which they are designed. The obvious decline of civilization has as one of its key causes the breakdown of purpose under an onslaught of cynicism. Promoting lies to a gullible public may not be illegal, but if there is a Hell (unlikely, alas) there's a special circle there for those who do it.
Update: The NYTimes has a thoughtful article about the collapse of the town hall mechanism under assault by partisan groups. There seems little question that the left has engaged in similar tactics in the past, though perhaps with less success. It's denial of service either way. Swamping information channels defeats nuanced governance, of societies as much as of machines.