Smart Thoughts

About Designing the Future

A Beam of Dry Light for an Experimenting Society

Written by: Michael J. Saks

If you could create The Guide, what would be in it?  What would be important elements to be included?

Among the essential ingredients for designing the future are reasonably accurate perceptions of the present.  Is an intervention being implemented largely as conceived?  Does it work?   In addition to brilliant ideas, designing the future requires seeing the designedly changing world with sufficient clarity.

These ingredients might seem too obvious to warrant discussion. But they do not seem to be things to which we humans are instinctively drawn.  We cannot readily imagine that our favorite ideas might not work.   Or that they might produce unintended undesirable side effects that (more than) cancel out whatever good the ideas accomplish. When we do examine the effects of our pet interventions, we tend to see the outcomes we hoped for. We have a hard time perceiving the world with what Francis Bacon, 400 years ago, termed a “dry light.”  Instead, our perceptions are suffused with our wishes and hopes.

Worse, once we become committed to an idea, to be persuasive on behalf of it we draw on facts selectively, we edit them, we spin their telling. We behave more as good lawyers and less as good scientists.

Making the challenge greater still, we live in a time when truth, reality, facts, empirical evaluation – call it what you like – has been demoted. It is dismissed with the wave of a hand or a tweet. Increasing numbers of us are unembarrassed to believe whatever we wish to believe on the hollowest of grounds. Our feelings dictate our beliefs. For “evidence” we are content to cite others who share the belief. Social proof is proof enough. Perhaps that is a response to a world of growing hyper-reality: the real and the unreal, information and disinformation, are becoming increasingly intertwined and indistinguishable. Most existing institutions – political, media, legal, sometimes even scientific – have a mixed record of enabling society to sort wheat from chaff, to use the wheat, and use it well. 

Thus, designers of our future need to think about how we can build in an improved societal capacity to obtain sound knowledge about the state of our world, equip the polity to appreciate (not uncritically) knowledge that is well-founded, and collectively to employ that knowledge in the adoption of wise moves forward.

Such design elements could help us build a continually testing, re-evaluating, and ever-improving future – something akin to the idea of an “Experimenting Society,” advanced half a century ago by behavioral scientist Donald Campbell. In the experimenting society we would frankly confess ignorance about how to solve many important societal problems.  We would commit, instead, to an approach to solving them.  Our design ideas would be regarded as tentative.  We would then deploy and test them in real-world contexts, communicate the results broadly, expose them to honest public discourse, and critically assess. If adopted, a design feature would be retained or replaced depending on how it fared in comparison to still newer ideas. Designing a good future requires designing tools and institutions that can help society discover its better future.


About Michael J. Saks 

Michael is a Regents’ Professor in the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law and Department of Psychology at Arizona State University. He is also a faculty fellow with ASU’s Center for Law, Science and Innovation.  Saks’ research focuses on empirical studies of law and the legal system – especially decision-making in the legal process, evidence law, and the law’s use of science.   He has been co-editor/co-author of Modern Scientific Evidence (five volumes).   His article on “The Behavior of the Tort Litigation System,” 140 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1147 (1992), has been the most-cited tort law article in the past 25 years. His work has earned numerous awards and been cited in copious judicial opinions, including those by the U.S. Supreme Court.