J.D. Trout is a professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, and an adjunct professor at the Parmly Sensory Sciences Institute. He writes on the nature of scientific and intellectual progress, as well as on the contribution that social science can make to human well-being. He is the author of Measuring the Intentional World, and co-author of Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment. His most recent book is The Empathy Gap: Building Bridges to the Good Life and the Good Society.
In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, J. D. Trout argues for using science to engineer society in ways that help people overcome their natural cognitive biases. He notes that whether or not we know it, we are always participants in social experiments, which are often conducted by unqualified elected officials. He details a number of successful small experiments that have public policy implications, such as using social science to trick people into keeping hospitals more germ-free, public bathrooms cleaner, and prescriptions from being filled erroneously. He explores the tensions between the unfettered free market and governmental regulation in this regard, and argues that in many cases it is merely an empirical question as to whether the free market can solve a particular problem. He discusses the anti-vax movement, and the best strategies to adopt in order to overcome suspicions of public health measures such as widespread vaccination programs.
He argues that the evidence is overwhelming that the general public lacks the cognitive resources to consistently make good decisions about its well-being, and he defends this view from charges that it is “Big Brother.” He makes a distinction between the public making good decisions about what priorities to pursue, and making good decisions about the means to pursue them. He tells why he thinks the U.S. Government should create something like a House Committee on Social Science, and how such a Committee would offer an alternative to failed “Blue Ribbon” panels such as the Meese Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. He contends that the United States Government should have tax-payer funded “well being programs,” similar to programs in some European countries, as a public health measure, because happy people are healthier people. He he explains how the Obama Administration is allied with such proposals to use science to better engineer society, because Obama is an “Enlightenment President,” who believes in the power of science to transform society for the better. And he describes what science activists can do to advance such an agenda.