Monday, December 24, 2018

Bounded Rationality

It is fairly well known that the first World War brought the end of four great empires, the Ottoman Empire, Australia-Hungary, German, and Russian. In 1918, amidst the struggles for political power that ignited in the debris left by the fallen empires, sociologist Max Weber gave a lecture entitled "Politics as a Vocation", which explored the legitimate basis for authority. He cited three: Tradition, Charisma, or Legal. Tradition being the "mores sanctified through the unimaginably ancient recognition and habitual orientation to conform." Charisma was the "absolutely personal devotion and personal confidence in revelation, heroism, or other qualities of individual leadership." Legal was "the belief in the validity of legal statute and functional ‘competence’ based on rationally created rules."
Sadly, we do not find any reference to a fourth legitimate basis for authority: Knowledge, or its derivatives understanding and wisdom. Even if it were recognized, we are witnesses to an insurrection, coup d'etat, revolution, a rebellion against informed authority. The marchers throwing increasingly larger rocks at each other carry posters that say, "Down with Book Learnin".
A few decades later it came to this: Some of the elderly still in circulation may recall talk of famine in China during the 1950's and 1960's. In many minds, China became synonymous with famine. During that time period, when a child would not finish his meal, parents and grandparents would say something like, “Eat your supper, there are people starving in China.” The scraps would be thrown out to the birds.
There is a bird in black spruce bogs named White-throated Sparrow. Black spruce bogs are an acid peatland found in northern reaches of North America. They developed in ice block depressions of pitted outwash plains and moraines that were formed by continental glaciers during the Wisconsonian Ice Age. In addition to black spruce, they support tamarack, leatherleaf, cranberry, Labrador tea, and wire sedge. During the spring and early summer, it is possible to hear the plaintive call of the White-throated Sparrows in these bogs. Some say it sounds like, "Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody", others say it sounds like, "Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada." It is the song of the northern bogs, capturing sunny days in a vast, spiced wilderness. But the bogs are getting quieter as of late, as we see the rise of the silent forest. Reports say that White-throated Sparrows number about 140 million in North America but they are declining in numbers and range; it is reported that there has been a 63% decline in population and 35% decline in range since 1966. Primary causes are habitat loss, domestic cats, and window collisions. 
Birds have regional dialects and their songs change over time - in fact, many are adapting their songs to compete with urban noise pollution (Nemeth 2010). The White-throated Sparrow has regional dialects. Those from Quebec seem to be saying, "Seize the bird property, property, property", those from Minnesota sound as if they are saying, "Hey, why's the cat, the glass, the saw, out here?", and those from Michigan sound like, "You idiot, big idiot, idiot, idiot" (Cornell 2018).
But one-hundred and forty million sounds like a lot of sparrows. American Tree Sparrows number about 20 million, Field Sparrows about 7 million, Song Sparrows about 130 million, House Sparrows about 540 million, Eurasian Tree Sparrow currently number about 50-100 million birds. There are perhaps a hundred species of Old World and American Sparrows. There may seem to be an endless supply. This could explain why in Palestine some 2000 years ago, two sparrows sold for less than 5 cents and five sparrows sold for less than 10 cents. Purchased in bulk, one would save 20%. A dime a dozen.
The Ecology of Scapegoats
During the 1940’s, just prior to the Chinese famine, humans in China numbered in the hundreds of millions. There seemed to be an endless supply. At the same time, food production was struggling and it wasn’t meeting the needs of the Chinese populace. Someone saw sparrows eating grain. Someone concluded that sparrows were the cause of the shortfalls in food production. Chairman Mao was informed about it. Few dared to speak up and say that the shortage could be attributed to collectivization, grain procurement, or Lysenkoism.
So, having pinned crop failures on a two-cent bird, in 1958, Mao launched the Four Pests campaign, a nationwide effort to completely eradicate flies, mosquitoes, rats, and, yes, the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. "No warrior shall be withdrawn until the battle is won," declared the Peking People's Daily. "All must join battle ardently and courageously; we must persevere with the doggedness of revolutionaries." 
"Eliminating the Last Sparrow", 1959
Hundreds of millions of citizens of all ages took up the battle with slingshots, flyswatters, guns, pots, pans, drums, stones, and snares. Sparrows were trapped, shot, and harassed until they fell from the sky out of sheer exhaustion. The campaign was one of the most successful public health initiatives in history. By 1962, the people had killed 1 billion Eurasian Tree Sparrows.
It was also one of the most successful public health disasters in history. Their heroic efforts to bring death upon 1 billion sparrows also brought death upon 45 million Chinese citizens, death by starvation. This campaign revealed exact exchange rate, about 22 sparrows per human, meaning one human would be worth a little over 20 cents if China were Palestine. While Mao was told that sparrows ate grains, apparently, he did not know that Eurasian Tree Sparrows also ate locusts and were essential in their control. Thus, as the sparrow declined, locust populations increased, free to prowl the farmlands with impunity. As locust populations increased, crops were devastated, yields declined, food became scarce, famine swept the land, and 45 million humans starved to death. They might have been better off eating the sparrows. 
We Hurt Because It's What We Don't Know
Yes, the connectivity of nature, who would have known? Kill a wolf in Yellowstone, and aspen trees die. Bring zebra mussels into the Great Lakes and loons die of botulism. Kill the sparrows in China and people starve to death. Everything is connected to everything, a web of life. There are ecological niches to be filled and predator/prey relationships to maintain. It is a tightly choreographed ballet: remove one performer and others will stumble and fall flat. 
As it is, humans, when armed with shovels and drums and lacking the knowledge and understanding of the interecology of life and the outcomes of their actions, can become a natural disaster, a force that can reshape the planet. This is repeated on an ecosystem level every day. We have yet another list: Kudzu, Bisphenol A, cats on Macquarie Island, rosy wolfsnail in Hawaii, possum shrimp in Flathead Lake, rabbits in New Zealand, ballast in the Great Lakes, fungus on spelunkers, algae on hip waders, brown snakes in airplane wheels, antibiotic-resistant microbes, Caulerpa taxifolia in the Mediterranean, fracturing wells in Oklahoma, desert irrigation, cities on floodplains, hydroelectric dams, plowing the shortgrass prairie. A long list of environmental actions with unforeseen and unintended bad consequences, naturally disastrous human behavior. This reveals something about our nature: We exhibit bounded rationality; our knowledge has limited scope, we don't have the breadth of vision. 
On a Clear Day, I Can See Statistics
To combat this problem, humans conduct research, sweeping the literature and living sources for data, especially concerning the projected impacts of a proposed action upon the environment. In some quarters, these sweeps are called, "Effects Analysis.” Ideally, we attempt to anticipate all possible negative impacts, effects, or outcomes of a given action upon species or their habitat. In reality, we try to see all likely and unacceptable possible outcomes. That shrinks the possibility pool considerably. But, inevitably, we miss something, like locust plagues.
To see all possible outcomes, good, bad, or indifferent, is impossible. But we come closer to this ideal as we assign more minds to the task, registering more possible outcomes - the effect of magnesium deficiency on soybeans, the effect of calcium deficiency on soybeans, the effect of nitrogen deficiency on soybeans. Go through all 118 of the elements on the periodic table, from Hydrogen to Ununoctium. Then go through all 80,000 edible plants. Then the rest of the plants. Then all mammals. Birds. Fish. Mollusks. Arthropods. Dinosaurs. Eventually, we run out of time, scientists, funding, imagination, and access.
Here is where Mathematicians save the day. We also approach this ideal through statistics, where we take a representative sample of the whole and make inferences about the whole. The greater and more random the sample, the more confidence there is in the conclusions about the whole. Through our finite data, we generate a statistical probability of something in immeasurable, infinite reality. Sort of like finding the address of an electron. Or like gazing at the stars; we only perceive points of light, while those points, in actuality, are blinding spheres that dwarf our sun. We don’t have the perspective, the breadth of vision, but we can use statistics to describe what is beyond our knowledge.
Hire that firm to work at the OMB
Unfortunately, Math doesn't always add up. There are various reasons for this, including sampling error, design flaws, response bias, and unmeasured factors. In fact, conclusions are given a margin of error. In negative findings, we can only say that it is unlikely that the project will have negative environmental impacts. There are degrees of unlikelihood; legal environmental documents use the terms, “discountable” or “insignificant”. In the end, recognition of these inherent deficiencies brings us to the conclusion that we cannot disprove the existence of negative outcomes, only tell the probability of existence. We could call a low probability a "Dawkin’s Toaster", after Richard Dawkins, who discusses a theoretical toaster that may exist in space between the earth and the moon but has yet to be disproved. History is full of surprises.
So, in a more or less benign way, what plagued Mao plagues all of us. He was unaware, unable, or unwilling to see both the connections in nature and the future effects of his actions upon the environment. This is our nature.
Thus, having exhausted all efforts to attain complete knowledge of potential impacts, a negative finding is considered the final word, and the project proceeds apace. Gentlemen, start your bulldozers. At this point the project becomes an experiment, poking the earth to see how it reacts. We stand by and cringe. Somewhere in the forest, a sparrow falls to the ground and nobody hears it.
Wanted: An Infinite Number of Scientists
All of this would be irrelevant if, individually or collectively, we had the ability to consider all factors and possible outcomes. Ah, to have an infinite number of minds working on a 16,000-acre site where a nuclear weapons facility was proposed, each considering a different factor or outcome. Or better yet, for one person to have an infinite amount of time to think about the project, for this would enable us to gather all data and make statements of absolute certainty about the outcomes of the proposed project and, being an eternal study, the radioactive material would decay into simple lead and the project would be scrapped - and the marchers would put down their rocks, stop marching, and just stand there holding signs that say, "World Peace by Doin Nuthin". The business community cringes. This is going to cost us. Maybe a better idea is to save the time and manpower and just find one infinite scientist.
Was fired a year later, replaced by a computer
A Finite History
Nah. Projecting from thousands of years of human ecological history, it can be said that the majority would reject an absolutely informed authority and that this conclusion has a margin of error of zero percent.
If knowledge is a legitimate basis of authority, and humans are bounded by a lack of critical or absolute knowledge, then humans have been overstepping their bounds. Outrunning their headlights. It works well for those exercising this authority to have social support by the growing crowd that rejects informed authority. We have been reduced to the other three justifications. It is our tradition to authorize charismatic figures and to write it into law.  


Gerth, H.H. and C. Wright Mills. 1946. (Translated and edited) From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Oxford University Press, New York.

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-throated_Sparrow/sounds

Nemeth, Irwin and Henrik Brumm. 2010. Birds and Anthropogenic Noise: Are Urban Songs Adaptive? Am Nat. 2010 Oct;176(4):465-75

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