Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ergodic Catastrophe and Moral Intuition: EE and Genetic Tinkering.

My man Adam G., longtime EE booster and all-around great guy wades hip deep into a tussle over the role of genetic modifications (a weird term, don't you think?). He pits the always-excellent Virginia Postrel against the irascible Nassim Taleb. The OP on The Umlaut (sorry Eli, Adam, and Angie, I can't be bothered to open my character map) can be found here: The Risks and Rewards of Genetically Modified Organisms [Edit]: Postrel's Time opening salvo article here.

Since it was a Postrel tweet that prompted Adam's musings, it should come as no surprise that the subsequent discussion unfolded there. Here's what he posted later, following a discussion with both Postrel and Taleb (and some minor side commentary from a few spectators): GMOs Rehashed with Virginia Postrel and Nassim Taleb. If you're confused after trying to wind your way through that Storify thread, you're not alone. The threading is kind of ragged, but as I read it, here's the gist of the dialog:

Postrel: Kickstarter is a cabal of Luddites. GMOs are the future. Standing athwart history impoverishes people yet born. Opposing them is monstrous.

Gurri: Hang on a tic. You're right about the potential upsides, but isn't there a corresponding downside risk? Taleb warns us that long-tail events are catastrophic and that the tails are thick.

Taleb: Yes Adam, and when Mother Nature shakes off her fleas, "catastrophic" is gently understated.

Dr. Phil: Not risk, ergodicity.

Taleb: Exactly. Not only are the potential downside outcomes unknown, but they're unknowable. Furthermore, they're irreversible AND they're tightly wound. A rogue GMO could wipe out all agriculture dudes. A perfectly reasonable application of the Precautionary Principle insists on some prophylactic prohibition.

Postrel: Ridiculous. By your logic, all of the great social changes we've had from ending slavery to the liberation of women to the gay rights revolution we're seeing right now should have been prohibited. They're all tightly wound, irreversible, and unknowable. Will you argue that ex ante, they were ill-advised?

[Several People]: B-but, that's not the same thing.

Postrel: Apply your principles consistently, people. Postrel out. *drops mic*

Gurri: Well that was certainly enlightening. I have more to think about.

It's that last line from Adam I want you to pay close attention to. For those of you who don't know him, Adam is one of the most thoughtful, circumspect people it is my privilege to know in real life. He routinely engages thorny topics like this with a toothy grin and joy most people reserve for, I don't know, puppies and caviar or whatever. And he's left with food for thought.

So here's my question: if this dude's ambivalent after talking with luminaries like Virginia Postrel and Nassim Taleb, how do you suppose it might be that ordinary folks are to form their attenuated policy positions grounded in common-sense moral intuition? How do people approach non-ergodic catastrophe? What does that imply for the Median Voter Theorem? For expected policy?

Look, we already know about cognitive biases that magnify rare, visible risks and ignore common, boring risks. That's why we see kids in homes with swimming pools alongside school bus terrorist drills. But it also may be empirically true that a substantial political upheaval can result in the untimely deaths of tens of millions of people and interminable oppression for generations. Not all ex post regret is equal, dudes.

My point isn't so much to ask if GMOs are euvoluntary or not, but to ask whether the casual voter, after mulling arguments for and against would think that they are. We know that there are a lot of crunchy granola types that oppose gene swapping for reasons that may not always be purely instrumental, but how closely do the opinion margins hew to the Taleb objections? And how much could we be giving up by yielding rein leather to puckerishness?

As Adam says, it's a lot to think about.

1 comment:

  1. Now I know why Adam recommended this article.

    I love these summaries, especially when they involve mic drops.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?