by Judith Curry
The minority rule will show us how it all it takes is a small number of intolerant virtuous people with skin in the game, in the form of courage, for society to function properly. – Nassim Taleb
Nassim Taleb is writing a new book Skin in the Game: The Logic of Risk Taking, aimed at popular audiences. He has been making some draft chapters available online, looks pretty interesting.
The topic for today’s post is motivated by his draft chapter entitled The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dominance of the Stubborn Minority. Excerpts:
The best example I know that gives insights into the functioning of a complex system is with the following situation. It suffices for an intransigent minority to reach a minutely small level, say three or four percent of the total population, for the entire population to have to submit to their preferences. Further, an optical illusion comes with the dominance of the minority: a naive observer would be under the impression that the choices and preferences are those of the majority. If it seems absurd, it is because our scientific intuitions aren’t calibrated for that (your standard intellectualization fails with complex systems).
The main idea behind complex systems is that the ensemble behaves in way not predicted by the components. The interactions matter more than the nature of the units. Studying individual ants will never give us an idea on how the ant colony operates. For that, one needs to understand an ant colony as an ant colony, no less, no more, not a collection of ants. This is called an “emergent” property of the whole, by which parts and whole differ because what matters is the interactions between such parts. And interactions can obey very simple rules. The rule we discuss in this chapter is the minority rule.
The minority rule will show us how it all it takes is a small number of intolerant virtuous people with skin in the game, in the form of courage, for society to function properly.
Let us call such minority an intransigent group, and the majority a flexible one. And the rule is an asymmetry in choices.
An honest person will never commit criminal acts but a criminal will readily engage in legal acts.
In promoting genetically modified food via all manner of lobbying, purchasing of congressmen, and overt scientific propaganda, the big agricultural companies foolishly believed that all they needed was to win the majority. No, you idiots. As I said, your snap “scientific” judgment is too naive in these type of decisions. Consider that transgenic-GMO eaters will eat nonGMOs, but not the reverse. So it may suffice to have a tiny, say no more than five percent of evenly spatially distributed population of non-genetically modified eaters for the entire population to have to eat non-GMO food. How? Say you have a corporate event, a wedding, or a lavish party. Do you need to send a questionnaire asking people if they eat or don’t eat transgenic GMOs and reserve special meals accordingly? No. You just select everything non- GMO, provided the price difference is not consequential. And as organic food (and designations such as “natural”) is in higher demand, from the minority rule, distribution costs decrease and the minority rule ends up accelerating in its effect.
Big Ag (the large agricultural firms) did not realize that this is the equivalent of entering a game in which one needed to not just win more points than the adversary, but win ninety-seven percent of the total points just to be safe. It is strange, once again, to see Big Ag who spent hundreds of millions of dollars on research cum smear campaigns, with hundreds of these scientists who think of themselves as more intelligent than the rest of the population, miss such an elementary point about asymmetric choices.
Another example: do not think that the spread of automatic shifting cars is necessarily due to the majority of drivers initially preferring automatic; it can just be because those who can drive manual shifts can always drive automatic, but the reciprocal is not true.
The method of analysis employed here is called renormalization group, a powerful apparatus in mathematical physics that allows us to see how things scale up (or down).
If a meeting is taking place in Germany in the Teutonic-looking conference room of a corporation that is sufficiently international or European, and one of the persons in the room doesn’t speak German, the entire meeting will be run in… English, the brand of inelegant English used in corporations across the world. It all started with the asymmetric rule that those who are nonnative in English know (bad) English, but the reverse (English speakers knowing other languages) is less likely.
How do books get banned? Certainly not because they offend the average person –most persons are passive and don’t really care, or don’t care enough to request the banning. It looks like, from past episodes, that all it takes is a few (motivated) activists for the banning of some books, or the black-listing of some people.
Let us conjecture that the formation of moral values in society doesn’t come from the evolution of the consensus. No, it is the most intolerant person who imposes virtue on others precisely because of that intolerance.
Science acts similarly. We will return later with a discussion of how the minority rule is behind Karl Popper’s approach to science. But let us for now discuss the more entertaining Feynman. What do You Care What Other People Think? is the title of a book of anecdotes by the great Richard Feynman, the most irreverent and playful scientist of his day. As reflected in the title of the book, Feynman conveys in it the idea of the fundamental irreverence of science. How? Science isn’t the sum of what scientists think, but a procedure that is highly skewed. Once you debunk something, it is now wrong. Had science operated by majority consensus we would be still stuck in the Middle Ages and Einstein would have ended as he started, a patent clerk with fruitless side hobbies.
There are some very interesting ideas in Taleb’s essay, although the draft is a bit rough at this point.
I was particularly struck by the role of 97% in Taleb’s argument, given the prominence of this number in the public debate on climate change.
How does Taleb’s argument work for the climate change debate? Well, climate change is the mother of all complex problems, so the asymmetry argument would seem relevant. I can think of three relevant lines of argument related to the climate debate.
The first is the basic science. Taleb alludes to the role of minority rule in Popperian falsification. Popperian falsification is not at all a straightforward endeavour for a complex problem such as climate change, and is probably not a useful concept in this context. However, the basic idea of counter evidence and counter arguments to the theory that humans are the dominant cause of recent (and future) climate change are weighted more heavily owing to the idea of Popperian falsification. In short, the evidence ‘against’ carries more epistemic weight than evidence ‘for.’ Preponderance of evidence is not sufficient to carry the argument for a complex system fraught with uncertainties and unknowns. Two of my papers address concerns about arguing from preponderance of evidence regarding the climate change problem:
The second is the journalistic objective of fairness and balance, which remains a source of contention in context of the climate debate. The Workshop on Ethics of Communicating Scientific Uncertainty provided some interesting insights on this issue. In any event, minority views on climate change get more air time in the media than their number would seem to justify given that this is a minority perspective. I just spotted this recent relevant article on balance in the NYTimes: Why people are confused about what experts really think.
The third is the asymmetry of the policy response. The majority perspective requires drastic changes to energy supply, transportation, agriculture, etc.; however, few strong proponents of AGW and these drastic policy changes are actually ‘walking the talk’ because of difficulty and undesirability of these abstract policies in terms of personal impacts. The minority perspective is not requiring any such changes.
It seems that Taleb’s minority argument could explain the divergence between the alleged 97% consensus of scientists, versus the only 50-60% of the U.S. public that are buying the argument that climate change is caused by humans.
The ‘skin in the game’ part of the argument seems to fit energy companies, whereby their investment in providing fuel and electric power (not to mention their profits) arguably are associated with the most skin in this particular game.
Taleb identifies the minority as an intransigent group, and the majority as a flexible one. Not exactly clear how this plays out in the climate debate.
This issue of asymmetry was touched on in a previous post The Curry factor: 30 to 1, which was motivated by this statement from Victor Venema: “For balance, for every @curryja you would need 30 from mainstream.”
And finally, this statement bears repeating (over and over):
Science isn’t the sum of what scientists think, but exactly as with markets, a procedure that is highly skewed. Once you debunk something, it is now wrong. Had science operated by majority consensus we would be still stuck in the Middle Ages and Einstein would have ended as he started, a patent clerk with fruitless side hobbies.