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Why Socrates Hated Democracy, and What We Can Do about It.
Socrates: what a dummy.
Around the world, people of all ages are finding reason to be wary of democratic government. While the western world places a high value on democracy today, this wasn’t always the case. Some of the greatest minds in the history of western civilization had strong critiques of democracy. Critiques that we would be idiots to ignore.
In the Republic, Plato writes that Socrates was debating (well, more so lecturing about) the nature of the ideal state. At one point he asks his associate, Adeimantus, who he would rather have managing a voyage on the sea. Some random passenger, or a well-trained, educated, and experienced captain? After the captain is selected as the obvious choice, Socrates then extends the metaphor to the state, asking why we would let just anybody try to manage the ship of state. He then goes on to propose a totalitarian regime as the ideal state, where the rulers have all been educated in ruling for decades before taking absolute power.
Socrates’ objections to democratic government can be found in other works as well. He praised Spartan monarchy as being well managed, and in several dialogues about the virtues he laments that so few people have them and how even fewer people are capable of understanding that. It is doubtless that he didn’t consider the general population as smart enough to manage things.
This is not the only criticism of the intelligence of the voting population we have from the cradle of democracy. In the later parts of the Republic, Plato suggests that democracy is one of the later stages in the decline of the ideal state. One which is so bad that people ultimately cry out for a dictator to save them from it. This idea was big for Plato, democracy would lead to tyrants.
Aristotle, for his part, listed democracy as the failed version of rule by the multitudes. “Timocracy”, rule by the propertied class or even just a more constitutional form of republican government was the ideal kind of rule by the many, in his mind. He would have seen Athens as an ever-decaying city, moving away from its original timocratic constitution as laid out by Solon.
The idea that democracy is fundamentally flawed even had sponsors in later, more liberal, thinkers. Voltaire, who supported all of the liberal freedoms of speech and religion, told Catharine the Great of Russia that, “Almost nothing great has ever been done in the world except by the genius and firmness of a single man combating the prejudices of the multitude”. His understanding of liberalism was separated almost completely from democracy.
If democracy was so bad then, why do we have it now? Why repeat the mistake?
Now, it is important to understand that the democracy in Athens was much different than the kind we have today Athens was much closer to a direct democracy than most of us would be comfortable with. It was also very restricted; only twenty percent of the population was ever enfranchised at the same time, all of them free white males over the age of 18 with parents who were also citizens.
Certain offices had a minimum wealth requirement. The quorum for the Assembly was 6000 citizens, so to increase attendance slaves with a red-dyed rope would herd people there from the agora, anyone caught with red dye on their clothes was fined. Many posts in the government were held by citizens selected at random to serve in them.
Socrates himself held office in this way once, and witnessed what amounted to an angry mob illegally putting generals to death on his watch. Then, of course, a jury decided by a slim majority to put him to death on flimsy charges. Plato tells us that a mere 30 votes, out of a jury of 500, killed him.
The Death of Socrates
But, why do the critiques still matter if we don’t have Athenian Democracy?
Well, the fact that we have a different government than Athens doesn’t mean we don’t share similar problems. Socrates was worried about the problems posed by an uneducated and easily lead population having power over the state. A problem which continues to trouble thinkers like Richard Dawkins.
In the United States voters can be a little less than informed about what they are voting for. Half of American adults don’t know that each state gets two senators, two thirds don’t know what the FDA does. Jimmy Kimmel shows us how people don’t know much about Obamacare, and the results of the lack of information voters have is demonstrably negative for them. These facts, combined the power of the offices in the hands of the voting public, would make Socrates reach for the hemlock.
What can we do?
“There is one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance”. Thus spoke the anti-democratic Socrates. Education is the best hope for a democracy. A population which understands the traits needed in a leader, knows the difference between a con artist and a legitimate leader, and knows which path forward to take is the difference between an effective democracy and Socrates’ nightmare. While in our democracy the typical voter doesn’t need to worry about being placed in a position of power by lottery, they do need to understand enough to select the right person to have in power in their stead.
For the Greeks this was an education in grammar, logic, and rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. All things seen as vital to taking part in public life and living the life of a free citizen, it was later the foundation of our modern Liberal Arts education. While the idea that “the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter” may still ring true, improving the education of the average voter weakens that argument.
“Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms”, so said Winston Churchill, noted champion of democratic ideals. Any government is only as good as its rulers. In a democracy, this means that the general population must be properly educated to rule themselves. Will the critiques of democracy given from its cradle be acknowledged? Or will we end up like Athens? A democracy in name, but in fact ruled by the unwashed mob?
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.