Sunday, May 1, 2016

Predicting, forecasting, and superforecasting

I have expressed a lot of reservation about the feasibility of prediction of large, important outcomes in the social world (link, link, link). Here are a couple of observations drawn from these earlier posts:
We sometimes think that there is fundamental stability in the social world, or at least an orderly pattern of development to the large social changes that occur.... But really, our desire to perceive order in the things we experience often deceives us. The social world at any given time is a conjunction of an enormous number of contingencies, accidents, and conjunctures. So we shouldn't be surprised at the occurrence of crises, unexpected turns, and outbreaks of protest and rebellion. It is continuity rather than change that needs explanation. 
Social processes and causal sequences have a wide range of profiles. Some social processes -- for example, population size -- are continuous and roughly linear. These are the simplest processes to project into the future. Others, like the ebb and flow of popular names, spread of a disease, or mobilization over a social cause, are continuous but non-linear, with sharp turning points (tipping points, critical moments, exponential takeoff, hockey stick). And others, like the stock market, are discontinuous and stochastic, with lots of random events pushing prices up and down. (link)
One reason for the failure of large-scale predictions about social systems is the complexity of causal influences and interactions within the domain of social causation. We may be confident that X causes Z when it occurs in isolated circumstances. But it may be that when U, V, and W are present, the effect of X is unpredictable, because of the complex interactions and causal dynamics of these other influences. This is one of the central findings of complexity studies -- the unpredictability of the interactions of multiple causal powers whose effects are non-linear. 
Another difficulty -- or perhaps a different aspect of the same difficulty -- is the typical fact of path dependency of social processes. Outcomes are importantly influenced by the particulars of the initial conditions, so simply having a good idea of the forces and influences the system will experience over time does not tell us where it will wind up. 
Third, social processes are sensitive to occurrences that are singular and idiosyncratic and not themselves governed by systemic properties. If the winter of 1812 had not been exceptionally cold, perhaps Napoleon's march on Moscow might have succeeded, and the future political course of Europe might have been substantially different. But variations in the weather are not themselves systemically explicable -- or at least not within the parameters of the social sciences.
Fourth, social events and outcomes are influenced by the actions of purposive actors. So it is possible for a social group to undertake actions that avert the outcomes that are otherwise predicted. Take climate change and rising ocean levels as an example. We may be able to predict a substantial rise in ocean levels in the next fifty years, rendering existing coastal cities largely uninhabitable. But what should we predict as a consequence of this fact? Societies may pursue different strategies for evading the bad consequences of these climate changes -- retreat, massive water control projects, efforts at atmospheric engineering to reverse warming. And the social consequences of each of these strategies are widely different. So the acknowledged fact of global warming and rising ocean levels does not allow clear predictions about social development. (link)
When prediction and expectation fail, we are confronted with a "surprise".
So what is a surprise? It is an event that shouldn't have happened, given our best understanding of how things work. It is an event that deviates widely from our most informed expectations, given our best beliefs about the causal environment in which it takes place. A surprise is a deviation between our expectations about the world's behavior, and the events that actually take place. Many of our expectations are based on the idea of continuity: tomorrow will be pretty similar to today; a delta change in the background will create at most an epsilon change in the outcome. A surprise is a circumstance that appears to represent a discontinuity in a historical series. 
It would be a major surprise if the sun suddenly stopped shining, because we understand the physics of fusion that sustains the sun's energy production. It would be a major surprise to discover a population of animals in which acquired traits are passed across generations, given our understanding of the mechanisms of evolution. And it would be a major surprise if a presidential election were decided by a unanimous vote for one candidate, given our understanding of how the voting process works. The natural world doesn't present us with a large number of surprises; but history and social life are full of them. 
The occurrence of major surprises in history and social life is an important reminder that our understanding of the complex processes that are underway in the social world is radically incomplete and inexact. We cannot fully anticipate the behavior of the subsystems that we study -- financial systems, political regimes, ensembles of collective behavior -- and we especially cannot fully anticipate the interactions that arise when processes and systems intersect. Often we cannot even offer reliable approximations of what the effects are likely to be of a given intervention. This has a major implication: we need to be very modest in the predictions we make about the social world, and we need to be cautious about the efforts at social engineering that we engage in. The likelihood of unforeseen and uncalculated consequences is great.  
And in fact commentators are now raising exactly these concerns about the 700 billion dollar rescue plan currently being designed by the Bush administration to save the financial system. "Will it work?" is the headline; "What unforeseen consequences will it produce?" is the subtext; and "Who will benefit?" is the natural followup question. 
It is difficult to reconcile this caution about the limits of our rational expectations about the future based on social science knowledge, with the need for action and policy change in times of crisis. If we cannot rely on our expectations about what effects an intervention is likely to have, then we can't have confidence in the actions and policies that we choose. And yet we must act; if war is looming, if famine is breaking out, if the banking system is teetering, a government needs to adopt policies that are well designed to minimize the bad consequences. It is necessary to make decisions about action that are based on incomplete information and insufficient theory. So it is a major challenge for the theory of public policy, to attempt to incorporate the limits of knowledge about consequences into the design of a policy process. One approach that might be taken is the model of designing for "soft landings" -- designing strategies that are likely to do the least harm if they function differently than expected. Another is to emulate a strategy that safety engineers employ when designing complex, dangerous systems: to attempt to de-link the subsystems to the extent possible, in order to minimize the likelihood of unforeseeable interactions. (link)
One person who has persistently tried to answer the final question posed here -- the conundrum of forming expectations in an uncertain world as a necessary basis for action -- is Philip Tetlock. Tetlock's decades-long research on forecasting and judging is highly relevant to this topic. The recent book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction provides an excellent summary of the primary findings of the research that he and senior collaborators have done on the topic.

Tetlock does a very good job of tracing through the sources of uncertainty that make projections and forecasts of the future so difficult. The uncertainties mentioned above all find discussion in Superforecasting; and he supplements these objective sources of uncertainty with a volume of recent work on cognitive biases leading to over- or under-confidence in a set of expectations. (Both Daniel Kahneman and Scott Page find astute discussions in the book.)

But in spite of these reasons to be dubious about pronouncements about future events, Tetlock finds that there are good theoretical and empirical reasons for believing that a modest amount of forecasting of complex events is nonetheless possible. He takes very seriously the probabilistic nature of social and economic events, so a forecast that "North Korea will perform a nuclear test within six months" must be understood as a probabilistic statement about the world (there is a specific likelihood of such a test in the world); and a Bayesian statement about the forecaster's degree of confidence in the prediction. And good forecasters aim to be specific about both probabilities: for example, "I have a 75% level of confidence that there is a 55% likelihood of a North Korean nuclear test by date X".

Moreover, Tetlock argues that it is possible to evaluate individual forecasters on the basis of their performance on specific tasks of forecasting and observation of the outcome. Tetlock would like to see the field of forecasting to follow medicine in the direction of an evidence-based discipline in which practices and practitioners are constantly assessed and permitted to improve their performance. (As he points out, it is not difficult to assess the weatherman on his or her probabilistic forecasts of rain or sun.) The challenge for evaluation is to set clear standards of specificity of the terms of a forecast, and then to be able to test the forecasts against the observed outcomes once the time has expired. This is the basis for the multiple-year tournaments that the Good Judgment Project has conducted over several decades. The idea of a Brier score serves as a way of measuring the accuracy of a set of probabilistic statements (link). Here is an explanation of "Brier scores" in the context of the Good Judgment Project (link); "standardized Brier scores are calculated so that higher scores denote lower accuracy, and the mean score across all forecasters is zero". As the graph demonstrates, there is a wide difference between the best and the worst forecasters, given their performance over 100 forecasts.

So how is forecasting possible, given all the objective and cognitive barriers that stand in the way? Tetlock's view is that many problems about the future can be broken down into component problems, some of which have more straightforward evidential bases. So instead of asking whether North Korea will test another nuclear device by November 1, 2016, the forecaster may ask a group of somewhat easier questions: how frequent have their tests been in the past? Do they have the capability to do so? Would China's opposition to further tests be decisive?

Tetlock argues that the best forecasters do several things: they avoid getting committed to a single point of view; they consider conflicting evidence freely; they break a problem down into components that would need to be satisfied for the outcome to occur; and they revise their forecasts when new information is available. They are foxes rather than hedgehogs. He doubts that superforecasters are distinguished by being of uniquely superior intelligence or world-class subject experts; instead, they are methodical analysts who gather data and estimates about various components of a problem and assemble their findings into a combined probability estimate.

The author follows his own advice by taking conflicting views seriously. He presents both Daniel Kahneman and Nassim Taleb as experts who have made significant arguments against the program of research involved in the Good Judgment Project. Kahneman consistently raises questions about the forms of reasoning and cognitive processes that are assumed by the GJP. More fundamentally, Taleb raises questions about the project itself. Taleb argues in several books that fundamentally unexpected events are key to historical change; and therefore the incremental forms of forecasting described in the GJP are incapable in principle of keeping up with change (The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility" (Incerto) as well as the more recent Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder). These are arguments that resonate with the view of change presented in earlier posts and quoted above, and I have some sympathy for the view. But Tetlock does a good job of establishing that the situation is not nearly so polarized as Taleb asserts. Many "black swan" events (like the 9/11 attacks) can be treated in a more disaggregated way and are amenable to a degree of forecasting along the lines advocated in the book. So it is a question of degree, whether we think that the in-principle unpredictability of major events is more important or the incremental accumulation of many small causes is a preponderance of historical change. Processes that look like the latter pattern are amenable to piecemeal probabilistic forecasting.

Tetlock is not a fan of pundits, for some very good reasons. Most importantly, he argues that the great majority of commentators and prognosticators in the media and cable news are long on self-assurance and short on specificity and accountability. Tetlock argues several important points: first, that it is possible to form reasonable and grounded judgments about future economic, political, and international events; second, that it is crucial to subject this practice to evidence-based assessment; and third, that it is possible to identify the most important styles, heuristics, and analytical approaches that are used by the best forecasters (superforecasters).

(Here is a good article in the New Yorker on Tetlock's approach; link.)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Samuel Dill on the late Roman Empire

An anonymous reader responds to my short discussion of Patrick Geary's treatment of the late Roman Empire to recommend Samuel Dill's treatment of this process 100 years ago in Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire and Roman Society in Gaul in the Merovingian Age, books written in 1898 and 1926 respectively. In the anonymous reader's opinion, many of Geary's insights are already there in Dill's books.

Surprisingly enough, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire is available in digital editions; so it is easy enough to consult it. (I can't locate a digital copy of the Merovingian Age book.) How sophisticated was the understanding of the late Roman Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century? Does a book of history written over a century ago have the potential for giving us new insights into its subject matter? Or are we always better off turning to the most recent scholarship when it comes to history and historical social science?

The thrust of Dill's Last Century is quite different from Geary's approach one hundred years later (not surprisingly). Dill's approach is more categorical about the abruptness and distinctness of the changes that took place during the century under treatment. His evidence is drawn largely from classical historians, whereas Geary's approach takes advantage of the most recent archaeological evidence. Much of this method and style is expressed in the preface to the first edition:
The limits of the period covered by this study of Roman society have not been arbitrarily chosen. The last hundred years of the Western Empire seem marked off both by momentous events, and, for the student of society, by the authorities at his command. The commencement of the period coincides roughly with the passage of the Gothic hordes across the Danube, the accession of Gratian and Theodosius, the termination of the long truce between paganism and the Christian Empire, and the reopening of the conflict which, within twenty years, ended in the final prohibition of heathen rites. It closes not only with the deposition of the last shadowy Emperor of the West, but with the practical extinction of Roman power in the great prefecture of the Gauls. Perhaps even more obvious are the lines drawn by the fullest authorities for our subject. The earliest extant letters of Symmachus, which describe the relations of the last generation of great pagan nobles, belong to the years 376-390. The literary and political activity of Ausonius coincides with the same years, and from his poems we derive an invaluable picture of a provincial society in the reigns of Gratian and Theodosius. A searching light is thrown on the same generation by some of St. Jerome's letters, by the Saturnalia of Macrobius, and by many Inscriptions. At the other end of our period we are almost equally fortunate in our information. The works of Apollinaris Sidonius of Auvergne are a priceless revelation of the state of society, both in Rome and in Gaul, from the accession of Avitus till the final triumph of the Visigothic power.
As historiography, in other words, Dill's scholarship suffers from the "great men, great dates" problem of nineteenth century historians more generally. His book is very much about the individuals who made this history -- at the top -- and the chronology of their actions and effects. This impression is born out by the extensive table of emperors, kings, and dates that Dill includes in the opening matter of the book:

A related observation is the cultural and normative commitments that are exposed by the narrative. The work is deeply etched by its normative attitude towards Christianity:
In spite of the moral force which ensured the future to the Christian faith, its final triumph was long delayed. Religious conservatism is, of all forms of attachment to the past, probably the most difficult to overcome. It has its seat in the deepest and most powerful instincts of human nature, which, when they have once twined themselves around a sacred symbol of devotion, are only torn away after a long struggle. (3)
This passage illustrates the moral entwinement of Christianity into the historian's apperception of the period; it also reveals a kind of teleological thinking about history that would no longer find support among academic historians. Dill denounces "heathenism" and paganism repeatedly.
In the final stand which paganism made against imperial edicts and the polemic of the Church, many different forces were arrayed. Sensuality and gross superstition in the degraded masses clung to the rites of magic and divination, to the excitement of the circus, and the obscenities of the theatre. (70)
Few inquiries should be more interesting than the attempt to form a conception of the inner tone and life of society in Western Europe on the eve of its collapse. Was society as corrupt and effete as it has been represented? Were its vices, as Salvianus insisted, the cause of the triumph of the barbarians? (115)
But Dill also finds an underlying current of monotheism pushing its way through the thought of the ancient world: "More than five centuries before Christ, Greek speculation had lifted men's minds to the conception of a mysterious Unity behind the phantasmagoria of sense" (8). This seems to illustrate the teleological bent of Dill's thinking.

Dill is centrally preoccupied with the moral and intellectual character of the period about which he writes. He wants to know about the morals, the spirituality, the religious piety, and the poetry of the prominent people who made up Western Europe during these centuries; and he wants to view these characteristics as having crucial causal force in the direction of change that occurred. Here is how he begins a chapter late in the book ("Relations of Romans with the invaders"):
In the previous chapter an attempt has been made to collect the views and feelings of persons, representing various localities and differences of circumstance and character, about the condition and future of the Empire in the face of its assailants. (347)
And earlier he emphasizes the moral decline of Roman civilization:
A careful study of the Code will correct many a popular and antiquated misconception of that great event. It will reveal the fact that, long before the invasions of the reign of Honorius, the fabric of Roman society and administration was honeycombed by moral and economic vices, which made the belief in the eternity of Rome a vain delusion. The municipal system, once the great glory of Roman organising power, had in the fourth century fallen almost into ruin. The governing class of the municipalities, called curiales, on whom the burdens of the Empire had been accumulated, were diminishing in number, and in the ability to bear an ever -increasing load of obligations. (245)
Further, unlike contemporary approaches to history that emphasize obscure social actors, Dill explicitly excludes the plebeian class from his treatment.
Of the three great classes into which Roman society was divided, the plebeian class, composed of traders, free artisans, etc., who possessed no property in land, may, for our present purpose, be left out of consideration. The other two classes must, from their ownership of the land, and from their relations to one another and to the treasury, engage our sole attention. Of the tone and character of the highest order in the social hierarchy we have attempted to give some account in a previous chapter. They have left us literary materials which enable us to form a tolerably clear idea of their spirit and manner of life; but they seldom speak of their material fortunes or of the classes beneath them, and on these subjects our information must be drawn chiefly from the Code. (248)
So social history, and careful documentation of the role of ordinary people in the events of the time period, plays virtually no role in Dill's approach. By contrast, Geary and other contemporary historians of the ancient world pay substantial attention to the material constitutes of governance, migration, taxation, agriculture, and war -- topics which Dill mostly ignores.

Finally, the evidence that constitutes the foundation of Dill's research is entirely textual and literary. Unlike Geary, who gives substantial weight to archeological evidence, but also unlike Theodor Mommsen, who in mid-nineteenth century made innovative use of inscriptions and steles and won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1902 for his historical writing (The History of Rome Vol. 1-5), Dill's account is almost exclusively literary. Dill tells a story, and it is an interesting story; but it has very little of the efforts towards uncovering underlying social structures and realities that are defining features of much contemporary historiography.

So it is hard to see that reading Dill today would enlighten us much about the causes and dynamics of change in the late Roman Empire. The history is antiquarian and personalist, it proceeds with a background commitment to the moral superiority of Christianity, and it provides no insight into the kinds of material and structural factors that are of primary interest today. Reading Mommsen sounds like a much better investment.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Large structures and social change

The relationship between feudalism and the origins of capitalism was of great interest to Marx. Here is one way that Marx puts the idea in The Poverty of Philosophy:
M. Proudhon the economist understands very well that men make cloth, linen, or silk materials in definite relations of production. But what he has not understood is that these definite social relations are just as much produced by men as linen, flax, etc. Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist. (chapter 2)
The question of the transition from feudalism to capitalism remained central for subsequent Marxist thinkers. Consider the view offered by Maurice Dobb in 1946 in Studies In The Development Of Capitalism. Dobb offers an account that corresponds closely to the classical Marxian interpretation offered in Capital: the emergence of the great classes (bourgeoisie and proletariat), primitive accumulation, the dynamics of industrial revolution in England, and the inexorable logic of capital accumulation. Dobb offers a very classical definition of capitalism:
Thus Capitalism was not simply a system of production for the market -- a system of commodity-production as Marx termed it -- but a system under which labour-power had "itself become a commodity" and was bought and sold on the market like any other object of exchange. Its historical prerequisite was the concentration of ownership of the means of production in the hands of a class, consisting of only a minor sector of society, and the consequential emergence of a propertyless class for whom the sale of their labour-power was their only source of livelihood. (7)
Dobb doesn't much care for the notion that there are "many capitalisms" -- many pathways and many institutional variants of market, profit-based economies:
In the case of historians who adopt this nihilistic standpoint, their attitude seems to spring from an emphasis upon the variety and complexity of historical events, so great as to reject any of those general categories which form the texture of most theories of historical interpretation and to deny any validity to frontier-lines between historical epochs. (1)
One thing that is striking about Dobb's book is how "first-generation" the field of economic history is that he consults. So much has been established about European and Eurasian economic history since 1946 that it is unsurprising that Dobb's reconstruction feels a bit monochromatic. New thinking about Europe's population history has emerged (link, link); new ideas about Asian and Chinese economic history have been developed (link, link, link); and a very substantial literature comparing European and Asian economic history has emerged (link, link). So the fairly straight lines that Dobb extends from property relations to technology to capitalist manufacture have a somewhat caricaturist feeling to them. What was schematic and mono-causal in Marx's hands is now substantially more complex and multi-causal in contemporary world economic history.

More recent views of the origins of capitalism have merged Marxism and some of the key ideas of post-colonialism. An interesting current example is Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancıoğlu's How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism, a 2015 book from Pluto Press.

Anievas and Nişancıoğlu offer an account of the transition to capitalism that emphasizes the international character of the transition from the start. Their story differs in some important ways from the classic Marxian account, according to which European feudalism possessed its own dynamic of conflict between forces and relations of production, eventuating in the emergence of a new social order, capitalism. Anievas and Nişancıoğlu reject a "Eurocentric" approach to the emergence of capitalism and industrial revolution; rather, international trade, war, and colonialism were essential components of the emergence of the capitalist mode of production. Here is their description of Eurocentrism:
So what exactly is Eurocentrism? At its core, it represents a distinctive mode of inquiry constituted by three interrelated assumptions about the form and nature of modern development. First, it conceives of the origins and sources of capitalist modernity as a product of developments primarily internal to Europe. Based on the assumption that any given trajectory of development is the product of a society’s own immanent dynamics, Eurocentrism locates the emergence of modernity exclusively within the hermetically sealed and socioculturally coherent geographical confines of Europe. Thus we find in cultural history that the flowering of the Renaissance was a solely intra-European phenomenon. Analyses of absolutism and the origins of the modern state form are similarly conducted entirely on the terrain of Europe, with non-European cases appearing (if at all) comparatively. Dominant accounts of the rise of capitalism as either an economic form or a social system similarly place its origins squarely in Western Europe, while non-Europe is relegated to an exploited and passive periphery. (4)
The second feature they identify as crucial to Eurocentrism is the idea that "Europe is conceived as the permanent 'core' and 'prime mover' of history" (5), and the third is the idea that "the European experience of modernity is a universal stage of development through which all societies must pass" (5).

Their globalism and internationalism derives from their rejection of each of these premises. The development of capitalism is not "internal" to Europe, but instead was influenced by forces and influences from many parts of the world. The "core" of capitalist development is not Britain or Europe. And there is nothing universal about the sequence of developments that led from "feudalism" to "capitalism" (a point Marx himself insisted upon in his correspondence with Vera Zasulich (link)).
How the West Came to Rule challenges these assumptions by examining the ‘extra-European’ geopolitical conditions and forms of agency conducive to capitalism’s emergence as a distinctive mode of production over the longue durée. (5)
They are open to the idea that there are multiple "capitalisms" rather than a single essence (8); but they argue that there is nonetheless such a thing as capitalism:
We argue that there is a certain unity to its functioning that renders necessary the study of the capitalist mode of production as an intelligible (albeit contradictory) object of analysis. (8)
The core they identify has to do with the "ways in which multiple relations of domination, subordination and exploitation intersect with and reproduce each other".
From this perspective we argue that capitalism is best understood as a set of configurations, assemblages, or bundles of social relations and processes oriented around the systematic reproduction of the capital relation. (8-9)
Anievas and Nişancıoğlu describe their book as historical sociology; they are interested in the domestic and international factors that led to the emergence of global capitalism.  Their book is really about the transition from feudalism to capitalism rather than an account of the core features of the medieval social economy itself. They look at feudalism through the lens of its role in the formation of capitalism -- perhaps not the best way of positioning oneself to recognize the distinctive and historically particular characteristics of the medieval social and economic order.

Robert Brenner's treatment of the emergence of English capitalism is particularly instructive (link). (Anievas and Nişancıoğlu offer considerable criticism of Brenner's approach.) In two important articles in the 1970s and 1980s Brenner casts doubt on the classic Marxian derivation of capitalism from feudalism; he argued that it was precisely differences in feudal regimes that accounted for the different trajectories taken by English and French capitalism. Ironically, the social power held by French peasants impeded the emergence of managerial farming, which was itself an important step on the way to industrial revolution. As a consequence the proletarianization of English peasants proceeded much more rapidly than French society.

There is an important historiographical issue here that is illustrated in these works by Dobb, Anievas and Nişancıoğlu, and Brenner: to what extent is it feasible to look for large macro-processes and transitions in history? Should we expect large social and economic factors writing out social change? Or is history more contingent and more multi-pathed than that? My own view is that the latter approach is correct (link). Neither technology (link) nor population (link) nor class conflict (link) suffices to explain large historical change. Rather, large structures and small innovations add up to contingent and variable pathways of historical development. We've gotten past the "agent-structure" debate; but perhaps we still have the "large factor, small factor" debate standing in front of us (link). And the solution may be the same: both large structures and contingent local arrangements are involved in the development of new social systems.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Origins of feudalism in the West

In the grand historical march postulated by historical materialism, ancient slavery and medieval feudalism preceded capitalism as distinct systems of domination and exploitation (e.g. Perry Anderson's Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism). In each social order small elites captured great wealth from the mass of producers, whether enslaved farmers and artisans in the ancient (Roman) world or bonded serfs in the feudal world. And whether we go for "internal contradictions within the forces and relations of production" or other more contingent causes of change, the evolution of European social and economic systems from the Roman Republic through the millennium of Western European feudalism to the "breakthrough" of industrialism in Britain is one of the truly important macro-histories available for study. (China's economic history from its earliest dynasties to the last moments of the Qing is another, and India's longue durée economic history is equally important.)

But how should this story be understood -- as the necessary unfolding of some set of systemic and historical imperatives, or as a process substantially more contingent and piecemeal than that?

Patrick Geary's Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World is a fascinating study of the centuries-long transition from Romanized barbarian Europe to barbarian Roman society. The book is couched as late Roman history, and in fact the words "feudal" and "feudalism" never appear in the book. But what Geary is describing is precisely this: the emergence of a feudal society and economy out of the late Roman Empire in the West.

A big question is, what social forces and circumstances drove the evolution and transition from one social assemblage to another? The reader will note that I've refrained from using the terms "social system," "social order," or "mode of production" in this question because each of these implies a degree of systematicity which begs the question. And in fact much of the evidence offered in Geary's book gives support to the idea that these transitions were not driven by systemic tendencies, but rather the accretion of a number of different forces, playing out differently in different locales. Technical and artisanal practices (pottery, glass, metal-working), economic demand for agricultural products, concentration of land property, military competition, the rigors of European terrain, and many other factors play into the narrative that Geary provides.

During the second through fourth centuries there was a process of gradual "de-Romanization" of the outer reaches of the Roman Empire, as Roman political institutions and cultural norms lost impact on local society. Geary describes this as a process of "barbarization of the West" -- a resurgence of underlying Celtic and Germanic political and cultural forms that had never disappeared through the long centuries of Roman rule.
From the third through fifth centuries these indigenous traditions increasingly reasserted themselves as the Italian monopoly on politics and culture began to decline. (kl 205)
Barbarization was but part of the rapid changes in Roman society, culture, and government that took place during the third and fourth centuries. Partially spurred by such internal problems as plague, a falling birthrate, constitutional instability, and the failure of the Roman world to develop from a labor-intensive system based largely on slavery to a more efficient mercantile or protoindustrial system, and partially by the increased creased external pressures on its overextended frontiers, the Empire had to seek a new equilibrium. (kl 205)
The thirty-thousand-foot impression that Geary gives is one of the simultaneous development of "barbarian" societies, military alliances, and forms of rulership across much of the Western empire even as Roman rule and military strength continued. Vast land grants assigned by the Romans to local elites, clergy, and military leaders ensured great separation between elites and common farmers. A social world consisting of a combination of interpenetrated Roman and barbarian social arrangements persisted for centuries.

A key location from the point of view of later developments was the fifth- and sixth-century Clovis kingdom in what is modern Belgium (kl 1126). This configuration became the genesis of the Merovingian period of European history.
The population of Clovis's kingdom was complex and heterogeneous in its social, cultural, and economic traditions. Not only were the Franks and Gallo-Romans different from each other culturally, but neither of these populations was itself homogeneous.... This society was deeply rooted in the nature of its economic system, which was characterized by the monopoly of landowning in the hands of a small, extraordinarily wealthy elite, with the vast majority of the population, slave and free alike, destitute and often in desperate straits. (kl 1188)
Key institutional arrangements that defined feudalism centuries later can be identified in Geary's account of the late Roman period. A Roman origin of serfdom derives from the taxation system and the powerlessness of peasants:
In the course of the third century, the status of free tenant farmers, or coloni, grew increasingly indistinguishable from that of serru, or serf-slaves.... Such an arrangement benefited landlords, who were thereby assured labor supplies, and the Empire, which could use landlords to enforce tax collection.... Another way for oppressed freemen to obtain tax relief was to place themselves under the protection (patrociniuni) of wealthy, powerful senators or other notables who, through their military power or wealth, could exert more leverage in dealing with local curials and even imperial tax agents. (kl 482, 495)
And the key feudal institution, the manor, seems to have emerged from a much earlier Roman form of land control in Gaul, the villa:
The normal form of agricultural exploitation established by Romans in Gaul, as elsewhere in the Empire, was the villa, that is, the isolated estate of varying size (80 to 180 square meters for small ones to over 300 square meters for large ones). Within the walls of the villa were found the house of the owner and the habitations of his slaves, who provided the labor on the estate. (kl 1333)
Here is Geary's summing up of this early stage of the formation of European feudalism:
Merovingian civilization lived and died within the framework of late antiquity. Its characteristic political structure remained the kingdom of the imperial German military commander who, by absorbing the mechanism of provincial Roman administration, was able to establish his royal family as the legitimate rulers of the western provinces north of the Pyrenees and the Alps. His rule consisted primarily of rendering justice, that is, of enforcing Roman law and Romanized barbarian law where possible or appropriate within the tradition of his people, and of commanding ing the Frankish army. The economic basis for his power was on the one hand the vast Roman fist and on the other the continuing mechanism of Roman taxation. (kl 2739)
The feature that serves most directly to define "infeudation" emerges out of this narrative as well: the parcelization of military power and reach across commanders whose behavior could not be controlled by the central authority.

These observations make clear the central thrust of the book: there was substantial continuity between the institutions and economy of the late Roman Empire in the West and the political and economic institutions of European feudalism which followed it for a thousand years. This continuity is unwelcome to the "modes of production" train of thought, which postulates a sharp break between classical and feudal systems. But Geary points out that perhaps it is unwelcome as well to modern ideas about European identity:
An essential characteristic of Francia was the fluidity of the political and cultural identities of its inhabitants. To many modern French, who identify with the Roman cultural tradition as opposed to Germanic conquest and occupation, the Gallo-Roman Roman aristocracy of the Merovingian period were a disappointing lot. Gallo-Romans were ready to defend their Roman cultural tradition even while opposing any attempt by Roman imperial government to interfere with their local control. (kl 2750)
(It is possibly far-fetched to raise the issue of Roman-centrism against Geary with his use of the terms "barbarian" and "barbarization", but the terms do appear to be value-loaded in a way that post-colonial scholars have criticized in other contexts of cross-cultural description. Geary confronts this issue when he describes the pernicious and lingering effects of classical ethnography concerning the German barbarians (kl 539).)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Defining social phenomena

How does a field of phenomena come into focus as a subject of scientific study? When we want to know about weather, we can identify a relatively small number of variables that represent the whole of the topic -- temperature, air pressure, wind velocity, rainfall. And we can pick out the aspects of physics that seem to be causally relevant to the atmospheric dynamics that give rise to variations in these variables. Weather is a closed system, if a complex one.

Deciding what factors are important and amenable to scientific study in the social world is not so easy. Population size or density? Economic product? Inter-group conflict? Public opinion and values? Political systems? Racial and ethnic identities? All of these factors are of interest to the social sciences, to be sure. But none of this looks like anything like a definition of the whole of the social realm. Rather, there are indefinitely many other research questions that can be posed about the social world -- style and fashion, trends of social media, forms of etiquette, sources of power, and on and on.

For that matter, these don't look much like a macro-set of factors that are generated in some straightforward way by the simple actions of individual persons. These social factors aren't really analogous to macro-level weather factors, emerging from the local cells of temperature-pressure-humidity-direction. Rather, these social concepts or constructs are theorized and developed in a complicated back-and-forth by sociologists or political scientists seeking to identify social-level constructs that seem to give some insight into the ordinary and systematic experiences we have of the social world.

Most particularly, there isn't a natural way of mapping these social concepts into an integrated and comprehensive mental model of the whole of the social world. Instead, these high-level social concepts are partial and perspectival. And this is different from the situation of weather or climate. In the latter domains there are finitely many higher level concepts that serve to characterize the whole of the domain of global climate phenomena. Call this "high-level conceptual closure." There are no questions about climate that cannot be phrased in terms of these concepts. But the social world is not amenable to this kind of closure. We lack high-level conceptual closure for the social world. 

One way of making sense of these observations is to say that there isn't a domain of the social in general. Rather, there are more narrowly specified domains within the undifferentiated social whole. Ethnic conflict is a specifiable domain of social phenomena at the macro level, and it has a fuzzy but plausible set of domains of microfoundations that are scientifically relevant to this domain. For example, we might canvas the kinds of causal factors that students of ethnic conflict have found relevant to the eruption of ethnic conflict: features of actors' mentality; institutions and organizations on the ground; spatial distribution of actors; political framework of contention (government, legislation, police). Research on ethnic conflict will focus on factors at this level. 

A different empirical focus might be population quality of life. Researchers on this topic will consider a very different set of individual-level factors -- form of agriculture, property relations, family structure. Some factors will overlap with the field of study of ethnic conflict, but most will not. And, importantly, the findings of each field are relevant to study of the other topic. The dynamics of ethnic conflict have consequences for population quality of life, and fluctuations in quality of life (food security, for example), will be causally relevant to the dynamics of ethnic conflict. But the research programmes and communities are substantially distinct. 

And there are indefinitely many other social programmes of research, unlimited in principle. The social sciences in general are nothing more than the sum of research in these different research fields. And more controversially, we might say that the social world is the patchwork sum of these qualitatively heterogeneous kinds of social phenomena. 

So there is no general answer to the question, what is the domain of the social; there is no systematic and final definition of the social world. And there is similarly no hope for "unifying" the social sciences under a master set of theoretical premises about social behavior or structure. Significantly, this seems to be Weber's point in "'Objectivity' in social science and social policy" in Methodology of Social Sciences (105) when he writes that topics for social research are novel for each generation.
Accordingly the synthetic concepts used by historians are either imperfectly defined or, as soon as the elimination of ambiguity is sought for, the concept becomes an abstract ideal type and reveals itself therewith as a theoretical and hence "one-sided" viewpoint which illuminates the aspect of reality with which it can be related. But these concepts are shown to be obviously inappropriate as schema into which reality could be completely integrated. For none of those systems of ideas, which are absolutely indispensable in the understanding of those segments of reality which are meaningful at a particular moment, can exhaust its infinite richness.
Contrast this with Marx's effort at conceptual closure by providing an integrated schema for capitalist society of its forces and relations of production; its economic structure; and its political and cultural superstructure (link). Here is a famous passage from Marx's Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.
In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Phase transitions and emergence

Image: Phase diagram of water, Solé. Phase Transitions, 4

I've proposed to understand the concepts of emergence and generativeness as being symmetrical (link). Generative higher-level properties are those that those that can be calculated or inferred based on information about the properties and states of the micro-components. Emergent properties are properties of an ensemble that have substantially different dynamics and characteristics from those of the components. So emergent properties may seem to be non-generative properties. Further, I understand the idea of emergence in a weak and a strong sense: weakly emergent properties of an ensemble are properties that cannot be derived from the characteristics of the components given the limits of observation or computation; and strongly emergent properties are ones that cannot be derived in principle from full knowledge of the properties and states of the components. They must be understood in their own terms.

Conversations with Tarun Menon at the Tata Institute for Social Sciences in Mumbai were very helpful in allowing me to broaden somewhat the way I understand emergence in physical systems. So here I'd like to consider some additional complications for the theory of emergence coming from one specific physical finding, the mathematics of phase transitions. 

Complexity scientists have spent a lot of effort on understanding the properties of complex systems using a different concept, the idea of a phase transition. The transition from liquid water to steam as temperature increases is an example; the transition happens abruptly as the system approaches the critical value of the phase parameter -- 100 degrees centigrade at constant pressure of one atmosphere, in the case of liquid-gas transition. 

Richard Solé presents the current state of complexity theory with respect to the phenomenon of phase transition in Phase Transitions. Here is how he characterizes the core idea:
In the previous sections we used the term critical point to describe the presence of a very narrow transition domain separating two well-defined phases, which are characterized by distinct macroscopic properties that are ultimately linked to changes in the nature of microscopic interactions among the basic units. A critical phase transition is characterized by some order parameter φ( μ) that depends on some external control parameter μ (such as temperature) that can be continuously varied. In critical transitions, φ varies continuously at μc (where it takes a zero value) but the derivatives of φ are discontinuous at criticality. For the so-called first-order transitions (such as the water-ice phase change) there is a discontinuous jump in φ at the critical point. (10)
So what is the connection between "emergent phenomena" and systems that undergo phase transitions? One possible connection is this: when a system undergoes a phase transition, its micro-components get rapidly reconfigured into a qualitatively different macro-structure. And yet the components themselves are unchanged.  So one might be impressed with the fact that the pre- and post-macro states correspond to very close to the same configurations of micro-states. The steaminess of the water molecules is triggered by an external parameter -- change in temperature (or possibly pressure), and their characteristics around the critical point are very similar (their mean kinetic energy is approximately equal before and after transition). The diagram above represents the physical realities of water molecules in the three phase states. 

Solé and other complexity theorists see this "phase-transition" phenomenon in a wide range of systems, including simple physical systems but also biological and social systems as well. Solé offers the phenomenon of flocking as an example. We might consider whether the phenomenon of ethnic violence is a phase transition from a mixed but non-aggressive population of individuals to occasional abrupt outbursts of widespread conflict (link).

The disanalogy here is the fact that "unrest" is not a new equilibrium phase of the substrate of dispersed individuals; rather, it is an occasional abnormal state of brief duration. It is as if water sometimes spontaneously transitioned to steam and then returned to the liquid phase. Solé treats "percolation" phenomena later in the book, and rebellion seems more plausibly treated as a percolation process. Solé treats forest fire this way. But the representation works equally for any process based on contiguous contagion.

What seems to be involved here is a conclusion that is a little bit different from standard ideas about emergent phenomena. The point seems to be that for a certain class of systems, these systems have dynamic characteristics that are formal and abstract and do not require that we understand the micro mechanisms upon which they rest at all. It is enough to know that system S is formally similar to a two-dimensional array of magnetized atoms (the "Ising model"); then we can infer that phase-transition behavior of the system will have specific mathematical properties. This might be summarized with the slogan, "system properties do not require derivation from micro dynamics." Or in other words: systems have properties that don't depend upon the specifics of the individual components -- a statement that is strongly parallel to but distinct from the definition of emergence mentioned above. It is distinct, because the approach leaves it entirely open that the system properties are generated by the dynamics of the components.

This idea is fundamental to Solé's analysis, when he argues that it is possible to understand phase transitions without regard to the particular micro-level mechanisms:
Although it might seem very difficult to design a microscopic model able to provide insight into how phase transitions occur, it turns out that great insight has been achieved by using extremely simplified models of reality. (10)
Here is how Solé treats swarm behavior as a possible instance of phase transition.
In social insects, while colonies behave in complex ways, the capacities of individuals are relatively limited. But then, how do social insects reach such remarkable ends? The answer comes to a large extent from self-organization: insect societies share basic dynamic properties with other complex systems. (157)
Intuitively the idea is that a collection of birds, ants, or bees may be in a state of random movement with respect to each other; and then as some variable changes the ensemble snaps into a coordinated "swarm" of flight or movement. Unfortunately he does not provide a mathematical example illustrating swarm behavior; the closest example he provides has to do with patterns of intense activity and slack activity over time in small to medium colonies of ants. This periodicity is related to density. Mark Millonas attempted such an account of swarming in a Santa Fe Institute paper in 1993, "Swarms, Phase Transitions, and Collective Intelligence; and a Nonequilibrium Statistical Field Theory of Swarms and Other Spatially Extended Complex Systems " (link).

This work is interesting, but I am not sure that it sheds new light on the topic of emergence per se. Fundamentally it demonstrates that the aggregation dynamics of complex systems are often non-linear and amenable to formal mathematical modeling. As a critical variable changes a qualitatively new macro-property "emerges" from the ensemble of micro-components from which it is composed. This approach is consistent with the generativity view -- the new property is generated by the interactions of the micro-components during an interval of change in critical variables. But it also maintains that systems undergoing phase transitions can be studied using a mathematical framework that abstracts from the physical properties of those micro-components. This is the point of the series of differential equation models that Solé provides. Once we have determined that a particular system has formal properties satisfying the assumptions of the DE model, we can then attempt to measure the critical parameters and derive the evolution of the system without further information about particular mechanisms at the micro-level.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Social progress in India?

A few days in Bangalore, Kerala, and Mumbai have been very interesting, from a social-change point of view. There is an election cycle underway, with prospects for a strong showing for the secular Left in several states. There is a resurgence of bigotry of various forms, including both anti-Muslim activism and violence against student activists, cattle herders, and Dalit teenagers. There is the deplorable fact that BJP leadership and Prime Minister Modi are not owning up to their own role in encouraging these forms of inter-group hatred, and certainly are not taking the leadership role that is the responsibility of a governing party to denounce hatred and violence. And there are mounting problems of vehicular traffic, road accidents, drought remediation, garbage removal, and sanitation that absolutely must be solved if ordinary Indians are to have reasonable levels of health, safety, and comfort. It is very interesting to me that the leading appeals coming from Left politicians and candidates in Kerala are for rejecting bigotry and encouraging scientific composting of household trash. These may seem to lie at opposite ends of the spectrum, but they reflect some of India's most pressing challenges today. 

At the same time there are encouraging signs of progress on almost all these issues. For example, the Center for Inclusion and Inclusive Policy at the National Law School University of India in Bangalore brings together a strong cadre of activist scholars committed to ending the persistent low status and opportunity of Dalits. One project in particular is impactful -- bringing the writings of BR Ambedkar, author of Annihilation of Caste, to pre-university students through mobile classes for high school students. More than 50,000 students have been exposed to this course already in Karnataka. Another scholar at the law school has spent his career addressing the continuing problem of bonded labor in India. It is not a problem of the past. He spoke powerfully of the difficulty of suppressing this practice through legislation, given the social power of the landlords and business owners who circumvent these laws. The Center has been at work for about 13 years and provides focus nationally for these important social issues.

The Center for Agrarian Research at the Indian Statistical Institute in Bangalore is another good example of an intellectual force for positive change in rural India (link). Under the leadership of VK Ramachandran and Madhura Swaminathan, the Center organizes a group of young researchers to conduct village-level studies in various parts of India. The scientific directors of the Center work closely with grassroots rural organizations (for example, the All India Agricultural Workers Union and the All India Women's Democratic Organization), to ensure that the focus of the research aligns as well as possible with the knowledge needs of rural people in their struggles for social progress. The journal, Review of Agrarian Studies, is now open-access online, and it is worthwhile for readers of Understanding Society to become frequent visitors. The Center has also published a toolbox presenting the methods of survey and analysis that guides their work, and it has published a valuable series of books and monographs as well. This work serves to highlight features of local village life that are overlooked in national surveys. One important point their work documents is the importance of measuring income directly rather than estimating income through consumption. The range of inequalities in rural society turns out to be much higher than national and international estimates would indicate when this measure is evaluated with precision. 

India is hungry for change. And there is an appetite for large theoretical frameworks that can be used to guide that change. For the right and much of the business leadership of the country the preferred theory is a form of neo-liberalism -- a preference for low state regulation, laissez-faire markets, and unbounded entrepreneurship. The BJP embraces this ideology and adds in a virulent form of Hindu nationalism into the mix. For the left, classical Marxism and an admiration of the progress of China since its revolution are dominant ideas. Many conversations come back to the question of social ownership of the means of production. But perhaps India needs a program for change which is less polarized and less ideological. The political economy of social democracy seems to fit the bill better than either Smith or Marx, USA or China. 

Three points seem apparent. First, social progress in India simply mandates overturning the many forms of inequality and deprivation that exist for many groups in India -- Dalits and the rural poor in particular, but also the tens of millions of migrants who barely survive in India's largest cities. And there are structures of power and privilege that support the current status quo. So a powerful political movement will be required that expresses a strong and realistic program of change when it comes to poverty and systemic discrimination. The Dalit problem is crucial. 

Second, India needs strong institutions at every level of government, from the municipality to state to the national government. Laissez-faire theories of the self-regulating virtues of the market and private activity will simply not solve the problems that exist, from persistent discrimination and violence to environmental pollution to unlicensed development to garbage disposal to traffic safety. Strong and effective regulation of private activity by persons and corporations will be needed or India will be overwhelmed by exploitation, pollution, and inequality. 

Third, these processes of change must move forward through democratic practice. The progressive left must find ways to make its program appealing to the masses of Indian citizens who currently support more conservative approaches to government and greater quiescence about India's underlying structures of oppression. Markets and private ownership of land are not inherently inimical to progress. But they require regulation, and the fruits of economic success need to be shared in an equitable way. Redistributive taxation is morally and socially mandatory -- exactly as it is, in varying degrees, in every democracy in Europe and North America. This means a substantial use of the power of taxation to provide for crucial social services -- health, education, nutrition, housing -- at levels that permit all Indians, rich and poor, to have reasonable chances of success in the resulting economy. Or in other words, India needs a strong welfare state with effective market regulation and voice for the poor and dispossessed. 

Where is Nordic socialism when India most needs it (link)?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

ABM fundamentalism

image: Chernobyl control room

Quite a few recent posts have examined the power and flexibility of ABM models as platforms for simulating a wide range of social phenomena. Joshua Epstein is one of the high-profile contributors to this field, and he is famous for making a particularly strong claim on behalf of ABM methods. He argues that “generative” explanations are the uniquely best form of social explanation. A generative explanation is one that demonstrates how an upper-level structure or causal power comes about as a consequence of the operations of the units that make it up. As an aphorism, here is Epstein's slogan: "If you didn't grow it, you didn't explain it." 

Here is how he puts the point in a Brookings working paper, “Remarks on the foundations of agent-based generative social science” (link; also chapter 1 of Generative Social Science: Studies in Agent-Based Computational Modeling):

"To the generativist, explaining macroscopic social regularities, such as norms, spatial patterns, contagion dynamics, or institutions requires that one answer the following question:
"How could the autonomous local interactions of heterogeneous boundedly rational agents generate the given regularity?
"Accordingly, to explain macroscopic social patterns, we generate—or “grow”—them in agent models." (1)

And Epstein is quite explicit in saying that this formulation represents a necessary condition on all putative social explanations: "In summary, generative sufficiency is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for explanation." (5).

There is an apparent logic to this view of explanation. However, several earlier posts cast doubt on the conclusion. First, we have seen that all ABMs necessarily make abstractive assumptions about the behavioral features of the actors, and they have a difficult time incorporating "structural" factors like organizations. We found that the ABM simulations of ethnic and civil conflict (including Epstein's own model) are radically over-simplified representations of the field of civil conflict (link).  So it is problematic to assume the general applicability and superiority of ABM approaches for all issues of social explanation.

Second, we have also emphasized the importance of distinguishing between "generativeness" and "reducibility" (link). The former is a claim about ontology -- the notion that the features of the lower level suffice to determine the features of the upper level through pathways we may not understand at all. The latter is a claim about inter-theoretic deductive relationships -- relationships between our formalized beliefs about the lower level and the feasibility of deriving the features of the upper level from these beliefs. But I argued in the earlier post that the fact that A is generated by B does not imply that A is reducible to B. 

So there seem to be two distinct ways in which J. Epstein is over-reaching here: he is assuming that agent-based models can be sufficiently detailed to reproduce complex social phenomena like civil unrest; and second, he is assuming without justification that only reductive explanations are scientifically acceptable.

Consider an example that provides an explanation of a collective behavior that has explanatory weight, that is not generative, and that probably could not be fully reproduced as an ABM.  A relevant example is Charles Perrow's analysis of technology failure as a consequence of organizational properties (Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies). An earlier post considered these kinds of examples in more detail (link). Here is my summary of organizational approaches to the explanation of the incidence of accidents and system safety:
However, most safety experts agree that the social and organizational characteristics of the dangerous activity are the most common causes of bad safety performance. Poor supervision and inspection of maintenance operations leads to mechanical failures, potentially harming workers or the public. A workplace culture that discourages disclosure of unsafe conditions makes the likelihood of accidental harm much greater. A communications system that permits ambiguous or unclear messages to occur can lead to air crashes and wrong-site surgeries. (link)
I would say that this organizational approach is a legitimate schema for social explanation of an important effect (the occurrence of large technology failures). Further, it is not a generativist explanation; it does not originate in a simplification of a particular kind of failure and demonstrate through iterated runs that failures occur X% of the time. Rather, it is based on a different kind of scientific reasoning, based on causal analysis grounded in careful analysis and comparison of cases. Process tracing (starting with a failure and working backwards to find the key causal branches that led to the failure) and small-N comparison of cases allows the researcher to arrive at confident judgments about the causes of technology failure. And this kind of analysis can refute competing hypotheses: "operator error generally causes technology failure", "poor technology design generally causes technology failure", or even "technological over-confidence causes technology failure". All these hypotheses have defenders; so it is a substantive empirical hypothesis to argue that certain features of organizational deficiency (training, supervision, communications processes) are the most common causes of technological accidents.

Other examples from sociology could be provided as well: Michael Mann's explanation of the causes of European fascism (Fascists), George Steinmetz's explanation of variations in the characteristics of German colonial rule (The Devil's Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa), or Kathleen Thelen's explanation of the persistence and change in training regimes in capitalist economies (How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan). Each is explanatory, each identifies causal factors that are genuinely explanatory of the phenomena in question, and none is generativist in Epstein's sense. These are examples drawn from historical sociology and institutional sociology; but examples from other parts of the disciplines of sociology are available as well.

I certainly believe that ABMs sometimes provide convincing and scientifically valuable explanations. The fundamentalism that I'm taking issue with here is the idea that all convincing and scientifically valuable social explanations must take this form -- a much stronger view and one that is not well supported by the practice of a range of social science research programs.

Or in other words, the over-reach of the ABM camp comes down to this: the claims of exclusivity and general adequacy of the simulation-based approach to explanation. ABM fundamentalists claim that only simulations from units to wholes will be satisfactory (exclusivity), and they claim that ABM simulations can always be designed for any problem that are generally adequate to grounding an explanation (general adequacy). Neither proposition can be embraced as a general or universal claim. Instead, we need to recognize the plurality of legitimate forms of causal reasoning in the social sciences, and we need to recognize, along with their strengths, some of the common weaknesses of the ABM approach for some kinds of problems.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

What is anchor individualism?

Brian Epstein has attempted to shake up some of our fundamental assumptions about the social world in the past several years by challenging the idea of "ontological individualism" -- the idea that social things consist of facts about individuals in action, thought, and interaction, and nothing else. Here is how he puts the idea in "Ontological Individualism Reconsidered": "Ontological individualism is the thesis that facts about individuals exhaustively determine social facts” (link). He believes this ontological concept is false; he disputes the idea that the social world supervenes upon facts about individuals; and he argues that there are some social facts or circumstances that cannot be parsed in terms of facts about combinations of individuals. His arguments are pulled together in a very coherent way in The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences, but he has made the case in earlier articles as well (link).

Epstein's primary reason for doubting ontological individualism is a notion he shares with John Searle: that social action often involves a setting of law, convention, interpretation, presupposition, implicature, or rule that cannot be "reduced" to facts interior to the individuals involved in an activity. Searle's concept of a "status fact" is an example (link): the fact that John is an Imam is not a purely individual-level fact about John. Instead, it presupposes a structure of religious institutions, rules, procedures, and beliefs, in light of which John's history of interactions with other individuals and settings qualifies him as "Imam".

There is another kind of individualism that Epstein considers as a more adequate version -- what he refers to as "anchor individualism." The diagram below represents his graphical explanation of the relationship between anchor individualism and ontological individualism. What does he mean by this idea?

Here is one of his efforts to explain the point:
What I will call "anchor individualism" is a claim about how frame principles can be anchored. Ontological individualism, in contrast, is best understood as a claim about how social facts can be grounded. (101)
Frames, evidently, are institutional contexts, or contexts of meaning, in the terms of which individual actions are situated. They constitute the difference between a bare set of behaviors and a full-blooded social action. Alfred lifts his right hand to his cap; this is a bodily motion. Alfred salutes his superior officer; this is an institutionally defined action that depends upon a frame of military authority and obligation, in the context of which the behavior constitutes a certain kind of social action. (This sounds rather similar, incidentally, to Ryle and Geertz on the "wink" and the distinction between thin and thick description; Geertz, "Thick Description" in The Interpretation Of Cultures.) A frame principle is a stipulation of how an action, performance, or symbolic artifact is constituted, what makes it the socially meaningful thing that it is -- a hundred dollar bill, a first-degree murder, or an Orthodox rabbi. Plainly a frame principle looks a lot like a rule or a constitutive declaration: "any person who received the degree of Bachelors of Science in Accounting, completed 150 credit hours of study, and passed the CPA exam is counted as a "certified public accountant".)

But a mere stipulation of status is not sufficient. If one person individually decides that a university president shall be henceforward be understood to have the authority to perform marriage ceremonies, this private declaration does not change the status definition of "university president." Rather, the stipulation must itself have some sort of social validity. It must be "anchored". We can say specifically what would be required to anchor the status definition of university president considered here; it would require a valid act of legislation that creates this power, and there would need to be widespread recognition of the political legitimacy and bindingness of the new legislation.

Epstein observes that Searle believes that anchoring of a frame principle always comes down to "collective acceptance" (103). But Epstein notes that other theorists have a broader conception of anchoring: attitudes, conforming behaviors, conventions, shared values about political legitimacy, acts of legislatures, and so on. What anchor individualism asserts is that each of these forms of anchoring can be related to the attitudes, beliefs, and performances of individuals and groups of individuals.

So on Epstein's view, there are two complementary versions of individualism. Ontological individualism is a thesis about what is required for grounding a social fact. Ontological individualism maintains that social facts are grounded in the behaviors and thoughts of individuals. But Epstein thinks there is still something else to represent in our picture of social ontology. We need to be able to specify what circumstances anchor the frame principles themselves. That is the circumstances that make an action or performance the kind of action that it is. To call a performance a "marriage" brings with it a long set of presuppositions about history, status, and validity. These presuppositions constitute a certain kind of frame principle. But we can then ask the question, what makes the frame principle binding in the circumstances? This is where anchoring comes in; anchoring is the set of facts that create or document the "bindingness" of the frame principles in question.

In my reading what makes this a distinctive view from traditional thinking about the relationship between individuals and social facts is the effort it represents to formalize the logical standing of circumstances that are intuitively crucial in social interactions: the significance, rule-abiding-ness, legitimacy, and conventionality of a given individual-level behavior. And these circumstances are necessarily distributed across a large group of people, involving the kinds of socially reflexive ideas that Searle thinks are constitutive of the social world: presuppositions, implicatures, rules, rituals, conventions, meanings, and practices. There is no private language, and there is no private practice. (There are things we do purely individually and privately; but then these do not constitute "practices" in the socially meaningful sense.) So the kinds of things that an anchor analysis calls out are social things.

But it also seems fair to observe that the facts that anchor a practice, convention, or rule are indeed facts that depend upon states of mind and action of individual actors. So anchor individualism remains a coherent kind of individualism. These anchoring facts have microfoundations in the thoughts, behavior, habits, and practices of socially situated individuals.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Wendt's strong claims about quantum consciousness

Alex Wendt takes a provocative step in Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology by proposing that quantum mechanics plays a role in all levels of the human and social world (as well as all life). And he doesn't mean in the trivial sense that all of nature is constituted by quantum-mechanical micro-realities (or unrealities). Instead, he means that we need to treat human beings and social structures as quantum-mechanical wave functions. He wants to see whether some of the peculiarities of social (and individual) phenomena might be explained on the hypothesis that mental phenomena are deeply and actively quantum phenomena. This is a very large pill to swallow, since much considered judgment across the sciences concurs that the macroscopic world — billiard balls, viruses, neurons — are on a physical and temporal scale where quantum effects have undergone “decoherence” and behave as strictly classical entities.

Wendt’s work rests upon a small but serious body of scholarship in physics, the neurosciences, and philosophy on the topics of “quantum consciousness” and “quantum biology”. An earlier post described some tangible but non-controversial progress that has been made on the biology side, where physicists and chemists have explored a possible pathway accounting for birds’ ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field directly through a chemical process that depends upon entangled electrons.

Here I’d like to probe Alex’s argument a bit more deeply by taking an inventory of the strong claims that he considers in the book. (He doesn’t endorse all these claims, but regards them as potentially true and worth investigating.)
  1. Walking wave functions: "I argue that human beings and therefore social life exhibit quantum coherence – in effect, that we are walking wave functions. I intend the argument not as an analogy or metaphor, but as a realist claim about what people really are. (3) ... "My claim is that life is a macroscopic instantiation of quantum coherence. (137) ... "Quantum consciousness theory suggests that human beings are literally walking wave functions. (154)
  2. "The central claim of this book is that all intentional phenomena are quantum mechanical. (149)  ... "The basic directive of a quantum social science, its positive heuristic if you will, is to re-think human behavior through the lens of quantum theory. (32)
  3. "I argued that a very different picture emerges if we imagine ourselves under a quantum constraint with a panpsychist ontology. Quantum Man is physical but not wholly material, conscious, in superposed rather than well-defined states, subject to and also a source of non-local causation, free, purposeful, and very much alive. (207)
  4. "Quantum consciousness theory builds on these intuitions by combining two propositions: (1) the physical claim of quantum brain theory that the brain is capable of sustaining coherent quantum states (Chapter 5), and (2) the metaphysical claim of panpsychism that consciousness inheres in the very structure of matter (Chapter 6). (92)
  5. Quantum decision theory: "[There is] growing experimental evidence that long-standing anomalies of human behavior can be predicted by “quantum decision theory.” (4)
  6. Panpsychism: "Quantum theory actually implies a panpsychist ontology: that consciousness goes “all the way down” to the sub-atomic level. Exploiting this possibility, quantum consciousness theorists have identified mechanisms in the brain that might allow this sub-atomic proto-consciousness to be amplified to the macroscopic level. (5)
  7. Consciousness: "The hard problem, in contrast, is explaining consciousness. (15) ... "As long as the brain is assumed to be a classical system, there is no reason to think even future neuroscience will give us “the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious.” (17) ... "Hence the central question(s) of this book: (a) how might a quantum theoretic approach explain consciousness and by extension intentional phenomena, and thereby unify physical and social ontology, and (b) what are some implications of the result for contemporary debates in social theory? (29)
  8. The quantum brain: "Quantum brain theory hypothesizes that the brain is able to sustain quantum coherence – a wave function – at the macro, whole-organism level. (30) ... "Quantum brain theory challenges this assumption by proposing that the mind is actually a quantum computer. Classical computers are based on binary digits or “bits” with well-defined values (0 or 1), which are transformed in serial operations by a program into an output. Quantum computers in contrast are based on “qubits” that can be in superpositions of 0 and 1 at the same time and also interact non-locally, enabling every qubit to be operated on simultaneously. (95)
  9. Weak and strong quantum minds: "In parsing quantum brain theory an initial distinction should be made between two different arguments that are often discussed under this heading. What might be called the “weak” argument hypothesizes that the firing of individual neurons is affected by quantum processes, but it does not posit quantum effects at the level of the whole brain. (97)
  10. Vitalism: "Principally, because my argument is vitalist, though the issue is complicated by the variety of forms vitalism has taken historically, some of which overlap with other doctrines. (144)
  11. Will and decision: "In Chapter 6, I equated this power with an aspect of wave function collapse, viewed as a process of temporal symmetry-breaking, in which advanced action moves through Will and retarded action through Experience. (174) ... "Will controls the direction of the body's movement over time by harnessing temporal non-locality, potentially over long “distances.” As advanced action, Will projects itself into what will become the future and creates a destiny state there that, through the enforcement of correlations with what will become the past, steers us purposefully toward that end. (182)
  12. Entangled people: "It is the burden of my argument to show that despite its strong intuitive appeal, the separability assumption does not hold in social life. The burden only extends so far, since I am not going to defend the opposite assumption, that human beings are completely inseparable. This is not true even at the sub-atomic level, where entangled particles retain some individuality. Rather, what characterizes people entangled in social structures is that they are not fully separable. (208-209)
  13. Quantum semantics: "This suggests that the “ground state” of a concept may be represented as a superposition of potential meanings, with each of the latter a distinct “vector” within its wave function. (216)
  14. Social structure: "If the physical basis of the mind and language is quantum mechanical, then, given this definition, that is true of social structures as well. Which is to say, what social structures actually are, physically, are superpositions of shared mental states – social wave functions. (258) ...  "A quantum social ontology suggests – as structuration theorists and critical realists alike have long argued – that agents and social structures are “mutually constitutive.” I should emphasize that this does not mean “reciprocal causation” or “co-determination,” with which “mutual constitution” is often conflated in social theory. As quantum entanglement, the relationship of agents and social structures is not a process of causal interaction over time, but a non-local, synchronic state from which both are emergent. (260) ... "First, a social wave function constitutes a different probability distribution for agents’ actions than would exist in its absence. Being entangled in a social structure makes certain practices more likely than others, which I take to involve formal causation. (264-265)
  15. The state and other structures: "The answer is that the state is a kind of hologram. This hologram is different from those created artificially by scientists in the lab, and also from the holographic projection that I argued in Chapter 11 enables us to see ordinary material objects, since in these cases there is something there visible to the naked eye. (271) ... Collective consciousness: "A quantum interpretation of extended consciousness takes us part way toward collective consciousness, but only part, because even extended consciousness is still centered in individual brains and thus solipsistic. A plausible second step therefore would be to invoke the concept of ‘We-feeling,’ which seems to get at something like ‘collective consciousness,’ and is not only widely used by philosophers of collective intentionality, but has been studied empirically by social psychologists as well. (277)
In my view the key premise here is the quantum interpretation of the brain and consciousness that Alex advocates. He wants us to consider that the operations of the brain -- the input-output relations and the intervening mechanisms -- are not "classical" but rather quantum-mechanical. And this is a very, very strong claim. It is vastly stronger than the idea that neurons may be affected by quantum-level events (considered in an earlier post and subject to active research by people interested in how microtubules work within neurons). But Alex would not be satisfied with the idea that "neurons are quantum machines" (point 9 above); he wants to make the vastly stronger argument that "brains are quantum computers". And even stronger than that -- he wants to claim that the brain itself is a wave function, which implies that we cannot understand its working by understanding the workings of its (quantum) components. (I don't think that computer engineers who are designing real quantum computers believe that the device itself is a wave function; only that the components (qubits) behave according to quantum mathematics.) Here is his brain-holism:
Quantum brain theory hypothesizes that quantum processes at the elementary level are amplified and kept in superposition at the level of the organism, and then, through downward causation constrain what is going on deep within the brain. (95)
So the brain as a whole is in superposition, and only resolves with perception or will as a whole in an event of the collapse of its wave function. (He sometimes refers to "a decoherence-free sub-space of the brain within which quantum computational processes are performed" (95), which implies that the brain as a whole is perhaps a classical thing encompassing "quantum sub-regions".) But whether it is the whole brain (implied by "walking wave function") or a relatively voluminous sub-region, the conjurer's move occurs here: extending known though kinky properties of very special isolated systems of micro-entities (a handful of electrons, photons, or atoms) to a description of macro-sized entities maintaining those same kinky properties.

So the "brain as wave function" theory is very implausible given current knowledge. But if this view of the brain and thought cannot be made more credible than it currently is -- both empirically and theoretically -- then Wendt's whole system falls apart: entangled individuals involved in structures and meanings, life as a quantum-vital state, and panpsychism all have no inherent credibility by themselves.

There are many eye-widening claims here -- and yet Alex is clear enough and well-versed enough in relevant areas of research in neuroscience and philosophy of mind to give his case some credibility. He lays out his case with calm good humor and rational care. Alex relies heavily on the fact that there are difficult unresolved problems in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of physics (the nature of consciousness, freedom of the will, the interpretation of the quantum wave function). This gives impetus to his call for a fresh way of approaching the whole field -- as suggested by historians of science like Kuhn and Lakatos. However, failing to reach an answer to the question, "How is freedom of the will possible?", does not warrant us to jump to highly questionable assumptions about neurophysiology.

But really -- in the end this just is not a plausible theory in my mind. I'm not ready to accept the ideas of quantum brains, quantum meanings, or quantum societies. The idea of entanglement has a specific meaning when it comes to electrons and photons; but metaphorical extension of the idea to pairs or groups of individuals seems like a stretch. I'm not persuaded that we are "walking wave functions" or that entanglement accounts for the workings of social institutions. The ideas of structures and meanings as entangled wave functions (individuals) strike me as entirely speculative, depending on granting the possibility that the brain itself is a single extended wave function. And this is a lot to grant.

(Here is a brief description of the engineering goals of developing a quantum computer (link):
Quantum computing differs fundamentally from classical computing, in that it is based on the generation and processing of qubits. Unlike classical bits, which can have a state of either 1 or 0, qubits allow a superposition of the 1 and 0 states (both simultaneously). Strikingly, multiple qubits can be linked in so-called 'entangled' states, in which the manipulation of a single qubit changes the entire system, even if individual qubits are physically distant. This property is the basis for quantum information processing, with the goal of building superfast quantum computers and transferring information in a completely secure way.
See the referenced research article in Science for a current advance in optical quantum computing; link.)

(The image above is from a research report from a team which has succeeded in creating entanglement of a record number of atoms -- 3,000. Compare that to the hundreds of billions of neurons in the brain, and once again the implausibility of the "walking wave function" idea becomes overwhelming. And note the extreme conditions of low temperature that are required to create this entangled group; the atoms were cooled to 10-millionths of a degree Kelvin, trapped between two mirrors, and subjected to exposure by a single photon (link) And yet presumably decoherence occurs if the temperature raises substantially.)

Here is an interesting lecture on quantum computing by Microsoft scientist Krysta Svore, presented at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.