The Oxford Protocol : Modules

Threshold Effects

(relates to Stuckness and Dedisciplinarity)

If knowledge is “stuck” today, maybe it’s because of reasons similar to those in Francis Bacon’s day.  Established ways of knowing (e.g., scholasticism for Bacon) were not so much wrong as incomplete.  Today, hypothesis testing is problematic; temporality matters (time and timing, that is); and we often misunderstand constraints and non-linear behavior.  Maybe getting “unstuck” requires making knowledge more complete, and that means using what we know how to use.

Hypothesis testing, like all testing, gives you “answers” to what you test for.  Too often this is what you hope for.  Critics of the Reagan Administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) in the waning years of the Cold War said SDI’s software testing could not be made realistic, so SDI could not be a credible deterrent.  The River of Time that swept away the Cold War swept away criticism of SDI as well.  Temporality is important: Einstein treated time as a variable instead of a constant in the early 20th Century, helping create the concept of space-time. Winston Churchill said that a letter he was writing would have been shorter if he’d had more time. Douglas MacArthur said that most of the history of military failure could be summed up in two words: “Too late.”  In love and war, timing is all.  Maybe in all, timing is all.  The recent concept of heterochrony suggests that understanding some things requires multiple time perspectives.  Testing is too limited, and temporality does not seem to be attended to as it should be.

Similar problems arise around getting the parameters of problems right. Statistical techniques for parameter estimation help, but the need is broader.  Sometimes genuine understanding means forgetting the objectives: operations research allows choice among objectives if constraints are understood.  But they often are not.  Supply constraints dominated 20th Century energy debates, but the real constraint was having someplace to dump the by-products of combustion.  This kind of mistake is to some extent a disciplinary problem.  The Stern Report characterized climate change as the worst market failure the world has ever seen.  Why this perspective? Markets do not pre-exist other forms of human endeavor, and alternative forms of action do not follow “market failure.” Faith in markets was the problem.  It focused attention on fuel supply, despite input/output problems that have been understood since the late 19th Century (e.g., sewage and drinking water).  Moreover, such problems have been addressed mainly by “hierarchical” mechanisms such as regulation, not “market” mechanisms.  Why the faith in markets? Non-linear behavior makes things more complicated.  Acting after the threshold effects – the “tipping points” – is often “too late.”   Some practical examples might help.

Start with Detroit, the world’s largest Ghost City.  It had 2.2 million people in 139 square miles in 1958; it has 750,000 people in 139 square miles today.  Detroit won’t “go away;” it is one of three global centers of the automobile industry, the largest industrial enterprise on Earth.  There won’t be four and there won’t be two.  Its border crossing between Canada and the U.S. is one of the most valuable on Earth due to the automobile industry.  Can “market forces” fix Detroit?  No.  Property prices cannot go “negative” (e.g., sellers pay buyers) and the “soft infrastructure” of laws and administrative procedures are designed to extend infrastructure (gas, water, sewer, transport, electricity, communications) when the need is to contract.  Detroit is trapped in the mistaken ideology of economic growth.  Taking what we want and throwing the rest away is no longer realistic.   Threshold effects also matter.  The U.S. Department of Defense insisted in the 1950s that the great Arsenal of Democracy of Southeastern Michigan “disperse” to avoid being wiped out in a Soviet nuclear strike.  This was the beginning of Detroit’s woes.  Maybe this should not have happened.  Many cities are like Detroit; more will be.

A biologist at McMurdo Station in Antarctica said to me that he could imagine a world with no polar ice and human beings, but not 7 billion human beings; maybe 3 billion. The last time the world had 3 billion people was 1960.  We got from 3 billion to 7 billion by having sex and babies.  We’ll get from 7 billion to 3 billion by dying.  Which do people like more?   This biologist’s forecast might be wrong, but suppose it is not. To go from 7 billion to 3 billion we’d have to double the CIA’s “crude death rate” from 57million/year to 114 million/year for 75 years.  Can this change be linear?  Probably not.  The thresholds will be “entertaining.” Thomas Malthus at the end of the 18th Century famously predicted the population would run out of food, but it has not. There appears to be enough food to provide for a population larger than 7 billion. Most of the problems of malnutrition are distributional.  What, exactly, are the constraints?

The only “agency” ready for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was Wal-Mart.  Large hurricanes destroy or damage waterworks, so potable water is a sore need.  Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retailer. It has sophisticated supply chain management systems and has moved inventory from “stocks” to “flows.”  Bottled water on large trucks was moving toward more than 10,000 Wal-Mart stores.  It was redirected toward New Orleans. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, refused to let the water in.  The constraint was not getting potable water to New Orleans; it was getting water that was already moving to go to New Orleans instead of where it was originally headed.  Wal-Mart could do this; FEMA could not.  Critics say it’s not Wal-Mart’s job to help victims of emergencies – it’s FEMA’s job. Really?  Even when the government is no longer the primary representative of the commonweal?

“Unsticking” knowledge requires that we use things we know to use, irrespective of transgressions against established disciplinary perspectives.

Oxford Group, January 2014: Academy Turned Inside Out | Apotheosis | Core Technology | The Dedisciplinary Environment | Explanatory/Descriptive? | Fiction | Good Explanation | Mediation | Platform | Polemic | Portal | Problems | Protocol | Protocol (II) | Search*/Know* | Sciences/Humanities | Stuckness | Threshold Effects | Topology | Touchstones