I decided to refresh my blog appearance, and come forth with my identity. Therefore, it’s ironically apropos for today’s entry, written by a reader who would like to remain anonymous.
I am delighted that someone wanted to use this space for thoughtful analysis. I am totally open to anyone who would be interested in providing relevant analysis and stories, in addition to short comments and feedback. I do reserve the right to edit; however, I will not publish the edited version without consulting with you first.
Here is today’s entry on Modern Thought, by anonymous:
By “modern thought” I mean the commitment to eschew superstition, prejudice, dogma, the “Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature” and other preconceptions, and to review all reports with a calm balance of
(a) skepticism (the report might be wrong, and indeed the more sensational the report or its consequences the greater the probability that it is wrong);
(b) optimism or willingness to suspend disbelief (most actual discoveries were at first reports of something potentially sensational, later proven to be right);
(c) curiosity and education (an interest in examining the report, and the ability to do so critically to develop an informed opinion as to what constitutes proper proof of it being right or wrong); and
(d) maturity (the acceptance of what is proven right and the self-driven search for educated responses).
Sadly, this commitment was “modern” back in the Age of Enlightenment, and ever since its dawn has been confronted by Mysticism, Romanticism, and countless other Isms spawned in three centuries of counter-enlightenment backlash. So fast-forward to 2012 and please bear with me as I dive into meditation upon a style of thinking, a “thought-world” perhaps, that I believe is one of the more dangerous manifestations of counter-enlightenment backlash.
The role of government and governmental authority in combating, reducing and eventually nearly eliminating the horrific health and safety impact of the industrial age crystallized during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who imposed federal regulation upon, among other interests, the meat packing industry, financial trusts, and monopolies. (By way of acknowledging Mr. Roosevelt’s monumental accomplishments, a generation after his presidency his likeness was carved onto Mount Rushmore. Of course, three generations after that his name has ceased being mentioned in American political discourse.) And over the years since, governmental regulators have evolved from being heroic protectors against massively widespread abuse to being mindless enforcers of abusive masses of microregulations (which may in part explain our present politicians’ eagerness to forget the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt). But let me switch this train of thought onto the track of what I really wanted to write about: how modern regulatory thinking diverges from the commitments of what used to be modern thought, to the point where regulatory thinking is now an ugly and unnecessary blight upon our technical and scientific enterprise. I write here about two particular dimensions of this divergence.
Failing to understand “clustering.”
When bad things of a certain class happen at the rate of, say, 12000 per year, regulators charged with preventing this class of bad things are naturally working on ways to reduce their frequency. Our preconceived notion is that these bad things should happen at a frequency of about 1000 per month, and if next month 2000 of these bad things were to happen, we and the regulators would be especially concerned, not just with how to reduce the overall frequency but even more urgently with what caused this frightening increase in the frequency; clearly, what was bad before is now suddenly twice as bad. Such is our prejudice, our preconception; and luckily for us all, this preconception is correct: if proven to be right, the report of a sudden doubling of cases from 1000 per month to 2000 per month is far beyond statistically probable variability and indicates something systematic has changed.
As modern thinkers our maturity requires us to find out what has changed, or at least support those charged with finding out what has changed, and change it back to minimize future harm. We might even support the use of legal compulsion to find out what has changed.
But suppose now another category of bad things has been happening at the rate of 1 per month, and next month 2 of these bad things happen. The most common regulatory thinking views this report as a bad situation suddenly becoming twice as bad, and regulators rush forth to identify what has changed, and feel empowered to use legal compulsion to find it. As you the reader will have correctly guessed, the doubling of cases from one per month to two, so long as it does not persist for additional months, is well within statistically probable variability, and does not indicate that anything systematic has changed. Modern thought as I believe in it would commit us to set aside our preconception that “doubling indicates something systematic has changed.” Modern thought would have us use our education to figure out or, for those of us not so nimble with mathematics, to learn from our statisticians’ formulas, that when the average is 1 per month, having only 1 per month is only 37% probable and having 2 in one month is 19% probable. Modern thought would have us exercise due diligence in checking for any systematic change but also to refrain from excessive or abusive measures when it can’t be found, knowing that it is statistically quite likely such systematic change doesn’t exist.
For completeness’ sake, having 0 in any month, or having 3 in any month, are 36% and 6% probable respectively, and by common regulatory thinking might be construed respectively as triumphs and abject failures of regulatory oversight. I submit that such common regulatory thinking has driven our regulators to ignore and even deny modern thought and the very tenants of Enlightenment. It is especially ironic, and tragic, that those who regulate aspects of our scientific and technical enterprise are using a mode of thinking that defies the enlightenment hard-won by that very enterprise, and is driving the enterprise to failure (or perhaps even worse, to India and China).
It is sadly true that the one bad event per month in 37% of the months, and the two per month in 19% of the months, can have unpleasant or even tragic impact upon the people involved. I am not opposed to finding effective ways to minimize occurrences of events having tragic consequences. I am opposed to the bureaucratically abusive refusal to recognize the difference between what is statistical and what is systematic.
Please note also, if three months from now these events are still occurring at a rate of 2 or more per month, then we are indeed outside the usual statistical variability, and the modern thinker would very correctly determine that something systematic has probably changed. Isolated departures from statistical norms are statistically inevitable. Prolonged and persistent departures from statistical norms are oxymorons, because by definition the behavior of any system cannot exhibit persistent departures from statistical norms, and believing that a system can is to deny modern thought. There can be no paradox; something systematic has changed the statistical norm from what it “used to be” and the modern thinker should be looking for what that is.
Section summary: When the occurrences of events are summed over the same time period that gives them unit probability, they will give the appearance of occasional clustering. There probably isn’t a guilty participant, and attempts to identify the guilty or to punish all participants as if they were guilty is a Kafkaesque hybrid of the medieval and the insane. Persistent and prolonged clustering, however, does indicate a systematic change arising from a cause or a potentially guilty participant, and the modern thinker will be curious about who or what it is.
Denying the Third Law of Thermodynamics.
The Third Law of Thermodynamics is another of the many triumphs of the Age of Enlightenment. The most common statement of the Third Law is that entropy approaches zero as absolute temperature approaches zero. What is more relevant here is the corollary: entropy of a material system is positive whenever absolute temperature is above zero. What is even more relevant emerges when we replace “entropy” with “imperfections” and “temperature” with “energy,” and restate this corollary as: Whenever there is enough energy present in a system to accomplish anything, then there are accompanying imperfections in that same system. So, point 1: Imperfection inevitably accompanies the ability to accomplish.
Two additional corollaries of the Third Law: Absolute zero temperature cannot be reached in a finite number of operations, therefore eliminating every imperfection is impossible without expending infinite effort (point 2), and, because reducing entropy is inherently connected with lowering the temperature, attempts to eliminate imperfections will also cut back on the amount of energy available to accomplish anything (point 3).
Taken together, points 1, 2, and 3 drive a message that may be unwelcome to those who think perfection can be achieved by more burdensome regulation or more aggressive enforcement. Indeed anyone, be (s)he a scientist or a citizen, who thinks that perfection is achievable or that imperfect systems or organizations should be disbanded because perfection has not been achieved, is at best indulging in superstition.
Here again I’ll interject a personal sentiment: The Third Law dictates that imperfections will exist in any system having the energy to make accomplishments. It does not dictate that imperfections be deadly, nor even particularly harmful. We can, and up to a sensible point we should, make our gadgets, our governments, our workplaces, our organizations, our homes, better. Eliminating deadly imperfections should have our highest priority. But we need not disband, and probably shouldn’t even punish, an organization for the reason that it has not eliminated all error and has not achieved perfection. (We should be less tolerant of an organization that has refused to combat outright criminal behavior.) But every step we take in redirecting energy (tangible or figurative) away from accomplishments toward attempting to eliminate imperfections, takes us further on the path to exhaustion and bankruptcy in futile denial of the Third Law of Thermodynamics.
Section summary: Every organization, every system, has only finite energy (resources) available to it, and while we can invest this energy (these resources) in tangible accomplishments and/or attempts to achieve perfection, the Third Law of Thermodynamics informs us that the organization can only be perfect when resources are exhausted and the organization is no longer doing anything. When we receive reports that our organizations or systems are imperfect, modern thought calls for us to exercise our curiosity and maturity, and to seek an allocation of resources that is a sensible balance between tangible accomplishment and imperfection minimization. Today’s regulatory thinking denies that there can be a sensible balance, ignores the Third Law, forces all available resources to be expended on imperfection elimination, renames this expense as “accomplishment,” and proceeds with cynical confidence that modern thought won’t catch on.
Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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