Philanthropist George Soros has not communicated his opinion of state laws that restrict telephone use by automobile drivers. But his latest essay, “My Philanthropy” (New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011, Vol. LVIII No. 11), offers a hint of how this fascinating wealthy man would prefer to see scientific research driving public policy.
As I see it, mankind’s ability to understand and control the forces of nature greatly exceeds our ability to govern ourselves. Our economy has become global; our governance has not. Our future and, in some respects, our survival depend on our ability to develop the appropriate global governance. This applies to a variety of fields: global warming and nuclear proliferation are the most obvious, but the threats of terrorism and infectious diseases also qualify; so do global financial markets.
Global governance could improve our response to infections disease, and to public health more broadly, no doubt. But mere national governance, in the United States, would go a long way toward, say, making our highways safer by prohibiting cell-phone use by drivers. As it stands now, according to recent research sponsored by Public Health Law Research,
Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have at least one form of restriction on the use of MCDs [mobile communications devices] in effect. The laws vary in the types of communication activities and categories of driver regulated, as well as enforcement mechanisms and punishments. No state completely bans use of MCDs by all drivers.
(A map accompanies this paper. I have tried to map cell-phone driving laws by state, and it is neither simple nor clear, because the laws are a mess. Feel free to create a better map: the data that Ibrahim, Anderson, Burris and Wagenaaer collected are freely available there and here.)
Ibrahim, Anderson, Burris and Wagenaaer conclude that
State distracted-driving policy is diverging from evidence on the risks of MCD use by drivers.
despite the availability of data. This is where I turn to Soros, whose essay is as much about “why I love humanity” as it is “why I give away money.” Soros, like many of us, once learned that ” free speech and critical thinking would lead to better laws and a better understanding of reality than any dogma.” But…
If thinking has a manipulative function as well as a cognitive one, then it may not be necessary to gain a better understanding of reality in order to obtain the laws one wants. There is a shortcut: “spinning” arguments and manipulating public opinion to get the desired results. Today our political discourse is primarily concerned with getting elected and staying in power. [The] hidden assumption that freedom of speech and thought will produce a better understanding of reality is valid only for the study of natural phenomena. Extending it to human affairs is part of what I have called the “Enlightenment fallacy.”
Soros, notorious for his distaste for George W. Bush, FOX News, and Karl “We create our own reality” Rove, explicitly calls out the Republicans for their manipulation of the public, but recognizes that it’s a bigger problem. He concludes that the message he is trying to communicate is “a profound rethinking of the workings of our political system.” He could invest some millions in the dautning task of changing the public attitude toward public health and public policy.
Ibrahim, J., Anderson, E., Burris, S., & Wagenaar, A. (2011). State Laws Restricting Driver Use of Mobile Communications Devices American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 40 (6), 659-665 DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2011.02.024