Archive for the ‘Rationality’ Category

I’m Cold….or Warm

October 2, 2011 1 comment

image Ah…..It’s that time of the year again…uniform switchover time.

You see, back in the day the Army had only only two combinations of physical training uniform: T-shirt/shorts and sweatshirt/sweatpants.  Soldiers wore summers until a designated date (usually 1 October), then switched to winters.

It sucked because Mother Nature failed to abide by the Army’s command sergeant major-approved switchover date.

One day, some smart Army guy saw how civilians were dressing at various levels for working out based on the temperature outside.  Aha!  We should do that too!  The Improved Physical Fitness Uniform (IPFU) was born.  Soldiers could wear any combination they wanted of shorts/pants/short sleeves/long sleeves/jacket – depending on the temperature outside, of course.  Brilliant.

Of course, the idea never caught on.  AR 670-1 clearly states “There are no restrictions on the combination of IPFU items worn, unless the commander has prescribed a particular combination for formation.”  Yeah right.  We still switch from summers to winters on one magic day each autumn, and from winters to summers on another magic day each spring.  And if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate with your switch date….too fucking bad.  Freeze.  Or fry.  Either way, at least we are all wearing the same goddamn thing…and THAT’S the most important thing.

There’s a word for this…stupidity.

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Categories: Rationality

Three Cheers for Nuclear: Why the Japanese Nuclear Crisis Should be a Boon for Nuclear Energy – But Won’t

March 26, 2011 1 comment
Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France

Image via Wikipedia


Imagine two nuclear power plant designers chatting at lunch during the construction of the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

“This is going to be awesome!  Lots of green, carbon-emission free energy!”

“Yeah, but what about nuclear meltdown, like Chernobyl?”

“First of all, it would take a hugely improbable event, like a huge 9.0 earthquake, followed by a tsunami, to damage this place.  And even if that happened, remember that we have a containment structure.  There was no containment structure in Chernobyl.”

Fast forward to today.

Read more…

Afghanistan: “A Paradox in Noncooperative Behavior and Escalation”???

December 7, 2010 1 comment

Recently, Army Colonel Robert M. Cassidy published an article on Small Wars Journal entitled A Precis on the Logic of the Afghan War.  Below is my response to the article, which can also be found in the comments section on SWJ.  Check out the Wikipedia entry for the Dollar Auction Game for more info.


There is a game called “The Dollar Auction.” The rules are simple. The auctioneer puts $1 up for auction, beginning at 1 cent. He will sell to the highest bidder. The catch is that the second highest bidder must also pay his bid – and he doesn’t get anything.

Generally, the game proceeds along, and eventually someone bids $1, leaving someone else with a bid of 95 cents or something similar. Then the fun part starts. The second-highest bidder has an incentive to bid $1.01 because he will only be out 1 cent instead of 95 cents. The original bidder of $1 then has the same incentive to bid, say, $1.10.

The bids continue well beyond $1. Eventually, the game becomes more about winning than profit. Dollar bills have gone for $3-$5 dollars, and sometimes $20. The bidding often becomes heated and emotional.

We’ve been in Afghanistan a while now. COL Cassidy sounds like he is bidding $3 for a $1 bill rather than articulating a viable way ahead for Afghanistan.

A comprehensive COIN strategy in Afghanistan with the aim of transforming that country into a working, non-terrorist democracy is certainly the best outcome we could want. Given enough time, money, and blood, we might be able to achieve it.

The problem is that this strategy will take so long and be so expensive that it won’t be worth the effort. Sure, we’ll end up with a buck, but how much will we have paid for it?

A limited counter-terrorism strategy is certainly not capable of producing the same results as a COIN strategy. However, it is much more efficient. While we may get, say, 75% of the effectiveness, we get it at 10% of the cost. We get more bang for the buck.

The 800lb gorilla in the room is the defense budget. It will shrink, and soon. While COIN is the most effective strategy, it is also the most manpower intensive, ergo, the most expensive. COL Cassidy does not mention this fact.

It is time we opted for a more efficient strategy. While not as effective, a limited counter-terrorism strategy is more sustainable in the long run.

Iconoclastic Observations on Social Science

October 18, 2010 1 comment

A few weeks ago I posted a critique of Human Terrain Teams, or more specifically, the name “Human Terrain.” (see Human Terrain: Are We too Stupid for Big Words like Anthropology? 3 OCT 10).  I also posted this entry on the Small Wars Journal discussion board, which led to an interesting discussion on Social Science and the failings therein.

The failings of Social Science are related to our methods of inquiry.  We are studying sociocultural systems just like we study physical, chemical, and biological systems.  But socioculutral systems are different and need to be studied differently.

Classical science is essentially the development of theories or models which explain behavior in a system, and thus are able to make predictions about future behavior in that system.  This is accomplished by isolating a few variables and testing cause and effect relationships through experimentation.  For example, if I wanted to find out the optimal speed to drive my car in order to get the best gas mileage, I could set up an experiment in which I measured fuel consumption at different speeds.  The independent variable is the speed of the car, and the dependent variable is the observed gas mileage.  Based on the results of this experiment, I can predict what my gas mileage will be in the future.  Barring a significant change in the system (such as a mechanical problem) my prediction will be somewhat accurate.

Why doesn’t classical science work in sociocultural systems?

1. Prediction is difficult or impossible in sociocultural systems in which the agents have a choice, emotions, subjective rationalities, cultural forces, etc…By way of contrast, in the “hard” sciences atoms (above the quantum level), molecules, etc… obey predictable laws. Therefore, constructing models which predict the behavior of variables in these systems (where the variables themselves must follow predictable laws) is a much more appropriate approach than it is with social systems.

2.  We are asking the wrong questions. Often, the answer you get depends on the question you ask. This is the real difference between education and training.  Training focuses on the transmission of answers, i.e. knowledge, whereas education teaches people how to ask the right questions.  Social scientists are asking the wrong questions, which is to say studying sociocultural systems as if they were physical or chemical systems using reductionist, analytical, linear thinking.

For example, if you are doing any type of research you must state your independent and dependent variables. However, social systems are not composed of independent and dependent variables, and applying such a construct is doomed to fail. The construct asks the wrong question, i.e. “What are the cause and effect relationships?”, when in fact there are few cause and effect relationships in social systems because people have choices.

Social systems are composed of interdependent variables. Therefore, we cannot study one or two in isolation, but we must study the system as a whole to understand the interdependency of the variables and the emergent properties of the system.

3. Context is important in sociocultural systems. Classical science attempts to remove context from the equation in order to isolate the cause and effect relationships between variables. However, context is everything in a social system. To study a social system without context is to invite failure. Results of context-free experimentation will not be useful in the “real world” because context exerts a heavy influence on behavior.

I’m reminded of the “Pepsi Challenge” in which (in classical scientific reductionist analytical style) subjects were given a blind taste test of Coke and Pepsi. The majority of subjects preferred the taste of Pepsi.  Of course, Coke continued to dominate the market. Execs at Pepsi puzzled over how they could be losing market share if their product tasted better. The answer, of course, is that in real life people don’t drink soda without labels; in real life people drink from a bottle with Coke or Pepsi displayed prominently.

Subsequent studies discovered that when the subjects were given taste tests with product labels, i.e. they knew whether they were drinking Coke or Pepsi, they preferred Coke, not Pepsi. Furthermore (and this is the really fun part), researchers monitored the brain activity of these tests, and found that Coke actually produced increased activity in the pleasure centers of the brain when subjects could see the label, whereas Pepsi produced more when the labels were concealed.

People didn’t just irrationally believe Coke tasted better. Seeing the label actually changed the activity level of the brain. To them, Coke really did taste better.

In short, sociocultural systems can’t be studied like physical or chemical systems, yet this is what we are doing. As long as we continue to do so, we are unlikely to have much success.

On Insularity and Cognitive Dissonance: An Update

October 8, 2010 6 comments

In my previous post I indicated that the tendency for people to seek out self-reinforcing communities was not unique to right wing conservatives, but was a human tendency.

The authors of the book Connected mapped the connections between political blogs, both left and right wing:


The bottom line is that all people, including conservatives and liberals, seek to reinforce their own preexisting perceptions.  How else could you believe that Pres. Obama is a Muslim or that Pres. Bush planned 9/11?

Climate Change and Cognitive Dissonance: A Brief Study in Critical Thinking

October 7, 2010 2 comments

I came across an article at by David Roberts who believes that right-wingers who question climate change are, in fact, part of a much larger conspiracy to undermine trust in American social and economic institutions.  To support this view, Roberts shows two graphs based on Gallup polling data.  The first shows eroding trust in various institutions.  (Click on the graph for larger versions).


The second shows increasing trust in the police and military.


Roberts writes the following:

The decline in trust in institutions has generated fear and uncertainty, to which people generally respond by placing their trust in protective authorities. And some subset of people respond with tribalism, nationalism, and xenophobia. The right stokes and exploits modern anxiety relentlessly, but that’s not all they do. They also offer a space to huddle in safety among the like-minded. The conservative movement in America has created a self-contained, hermetically sealed epistemological reality — a closed-loop system of cable news, talk radio, and email forwards — designed not just as a source of alternative facts but as an identity. That’s why conservatives catch hell when they’re skeptical of climate skepticism. They’re messing with tribal cohesion and morale.

Roberts has one thing right – humans tend to associate with like-minded people.  People don’t like having their beliefs and values challenged, which creates cognitive dissonance.  People, therefore, avoid dissonance by seeking out others who will reinforce existing beliefs.  This is why conservatives watch Fox News and liberals watch MSNBC.

Disclosure:  I am politically moderate and am not registered with any political party.  I’ve supported candidates from both parties, though I generally find politicians to be spineless kiss asses.  I generally think far right and far left wingers are nutjobs, though I support their constitutional right to be nutjobs.

Sometimes, however, people run into others who do not believe as they do, and beliefs are challenged.  When this happens, more often than not people will seek out selective evidence that supports their viewpoint, while ignoring evidence that undermines it.  This is called confirmation bias.  The author is essentially saying that conservatives are in a self-reinforcing loop of confirmation bias.

Of course they are…but liberals are too.

Take another look at the graphs.  There is an alternate explanation for the data.  The graph without the military or police generally tracks with the economy.  When the economy is good, trust goes up.  When the economy is down (late 1970s, early 1990s, and late 2000s), trust goes down.  Perhaps this data does not indicate the existence a highly organized, covert conspiracy by right wingers to undermine the fabric of American society.  Perhaps this data simply shows periods of time when Americans felt lousy.

Now, take a look at the police data.  Note that it starts in the early 1990s.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, crime in the United States reached its peak in with a crime rate of 5,897.8 per 100K in 1991.  Since then, violent crime has decline every year, reaching a low of 3,465.5 in 2009.  Crime goes down, trust in police goes up.  Pretty simple.  Again, no real conspiracy here.

Take a look at the military data.  The military has always been one of the most respected institutions in the U.S., however, this data starts in 1973, during the latter part of Viet Nam when the war was highly unpopular.  This is the only time in American history veterans were spit on upon returning from war.  Naturally, this probably represents an all-time low for trust in the military.

So, by selectively showing the right data, Roberts was doing exactly what he accused the right wingers of doing on a larger scale – selectively finding data to support a pre-conceived point of view.  Confirmation bias.

Like I said before, it is a human (psychological) phenomenon – ideology is irrelevant.

The Carrot or the Stick?

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment

As a new but now dedicated reader of Small Wars Journal, I came across the following piece regarding the role of armed forces in warfare:


War is about Killing and Destruction, It is Not Armed Social Science

A Short Response to Andrew Mackay and Steve Tatham

by Colonel Gian P. Gentile

I feel sorry for the British Army for they seem to have been taken in by the American Army’s consumption with Counterinsurgency and its theoretical premise that military force can “change entire societies” for the better. Of course this quote is attributed to one of America’s leading Counterinsurgency experts retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl.

The irony is that the American Coin experts in their own campaign to transform the American Army to a Counterinsurgency force from 2005 to 2007 used the British Army as an example of the proper way to do “classic” Coin: e.g., Malaya, and Sir Robert Thompson’s recommendations for the United States in Vietnam. Yet as the Iraq Triumph Narrative is now written, the British Army lost their way and failed in Iraq where the Americans succeeded. Now, just as with the American Army, the British Army based onthis essay by Mackay and Tatham have succumbed to the flawed theories and notions promoted by General Rupert Smith in his hugely influential but deeply flawed book The Utility of Force.

Download the full article: War is about Killing and Destruction

Gian Gentile is a serving American Army Colonel and teaches military history at West Point. He commanded a Cavalry Squadron in West Baghdad in 2006.


The article is worth a read, but I believe the author’s point is flawed.  Here is my take on the subject, portions of which I posted as a comment on SWJ:

The fundamental question is this:  Is war about killing and destruction? Or is it about hearts and minds (i.e. “convincing”)?

I would argue that they are two sides of the same coin (the carrot and the stick, so to speak). In other words, people respond to incentives, and convincing implies offering incentives, while killing and destruction are most certainly disincentives. Our problem here in the American Army (in a general sense) is that we rarely understand what incentives people are likely to respond to and how they are likely to respond.  The reasons for this are numerous, but I would point to two primary reasons:

First, our mechanistic view of warfare as evidenced by our obsession with “effects”. While cause and effect is a good model for a physical, energy-bonded system, it is a poor model for a socio-cultural system. People are not machines – they make choices. Second, we don’t understand why people make choices. We ASSUME they will act rationally in their own best interests, but this view is flawed.

Choices are a confluence of rationality, emotion, and culture. Rationality is a subjective rather than objective calculation.  In other words, the “rational” choice is not necessarily the choice that is in the chooser’s best interests, it is only the one he PERCEIVES to be in his best interests. Emotion speaks to the excitement of choice.  Whereas rationality is concerned with minimizing risk, emotion is not.  Anyone who has jumped out of a perfectly good airplane for “fun” can attest to this fact. Culture has the most influence, yet tends to be understood the least.  This is because to us it appears irrational, stupid, or self-defeating (which it may be, but it doesn’t appear that way to THEM), and because for them it is just the way things are (the problem with unwritten laws is that no one knows where to go to erase them). When they don’t act they way we think they will (cause and effect mentality), we dismiss them as backwards and irrational.

To sum up, killing or convincing, stick or carrot, are complimentary ideas.  However, understanding how and when to apply them effectively is an art few have mastered.  Perhaps few care to, espousing an “all or nothing” approach.