Book Corner 2022.20

by John Kay & Mervyn King

How did I like this book? Well, I’m not certain.

HA HA HA. It was OK, but it sure seemed to be saying the same thing over and over again for 433 pages and a lengthy appendix: Most situations in life involve a radical uncertainty, rendering them unsuitable for statistical modeling or probabilistic forecasting.

Of all the chapters basically saying the same thing from different perspectives, my favorite was “Evolution & Decision-Making,” which leads with a quote attributed to SF author Bruce Sterling: “Computation is not thinking… You are much more like hour house cat than you are ever going to be like Siri.”

To quote further the beginning of the chapter, “Behavioural economics has identiifed a raft of ways in which humans depart from axiomatic rationality. These behaviours are described as ‘biases,’ signs of human failure… It is as though God had given us two legs so that we could run or walk, but made on leg shorter than the other so that we could not run or walk very well… We are not defective versions of computers trained to optimise in small-world problems, but human beings with individual and collective intelligence evolved over millennia.”

That’s basically what it’s about, although this is the only chapter with an evolutionary bent; it’s all about how ‘real-world’ problems are nothing like ‘small-world’ problems that researchers come up with in the lab.

So take heart! You aren’t a broken machine. You’re an exceedingly smart house cat!

Also memorable, in the chapter “The Use & Misuse of Models,” was a brief historical overview of the collapse of the cod industry in Newfoundland. “The [Dominion] Fisheries Office developed complex models on which its recommendations [for total allowable catch] were based. But cod stocks continued to decline. For the year 1992, the total allowable catch was set at 145,000 tonnes. That proved to be the last year of commercial cod fishing on the Grand Banks.” The authors do not lay responsibility for this solely with the modelers, of course, but maintain that their ‘evidence’ ended up justifying the policy of “greedy fishermen and mendacious politicians” rather than actually protecting fish stocks. This example of mismanagement by model struck me enough to read up on the subject in Wikipedia, where the sad story can be read in more detail: “Over 35,000 fishermen and plant workers from over 400 coastal communities became unemployed… Newfoundland has since experienced a dramatic environmental, industrial, economic, and social restructuring, including considerable outward migration.”

Something of a detour from the main idea of the book; but one example of how the illustrations and anecdotes chosen by the authors are very powerful and well conveyed. Sorry to detour on the detour, but listen to a “No More Fish, No Fishermen,” a song on this topic I heard long ago on public radio and never forgot.

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