Irreversible Fads vs The Precautionary Principle

Of the two greatest sources of knowledge for how society should function, the first is tradition. After all, if a norm has has been practiced for countless generations, doesn’t that count for something? The modern man may scoff at this. Why should we defer to the way people have done things in the past? Tradition was developed at a time before modern science. Besides, modern man has “reason;” to him, the only true source of knowledge is the second one: scientific research.

This view fails to grasp the dynamic nature of tradition. If a tradition didn’t work in any respect, it probably would have been either modified or abandoned in the past. As a result, traditions were subject to a survival of the fittest style contest of incremental improvement. This makes the test of time a valid credit.

There is the fundamental question of practicality, or the difference between theory and practice. How do most people learn to golf? They try a few swings, getting better each time. Their golfing friends teach them a few tips, or heuristics. You do not see a beginner golfer read a physics book and plug math variables into equations in an attempt to engineer the perfect golf swing from first principles.

Although golf is a physical system, the latter approach may not be possible in any sense. There are many variables that effect the path of a golf ball (wind, humidity, whatever), and the failure to account for any one of them will throw your equations off completely. We do not live in a theoretical world where every dependent and independent variable can be accounted for.

Much has been said of the intellectual corruption within the social sciences in the modern academy. The problem of theory vs practice, though, seems inherent. This is why most of the smartest people prefer the hard sciences, when variables can be isolated.

Hopefully, many people are aware of this challenge. There is, however, still a problem to contend with: intellectual traditions become gripped by fads. If an economic bubble is a lemming like dynamic with money, intellectual bubbles are lemming like devotions to social crazes. Humans are mimetic beings, something Peter Thiel has emphasized.

The “wisdom of crowds” only occurs when each actor is allowed to arrive at a position independently. In real life, people look to first movers for cues of correctness, an act that compounds on itself when others look to them. This is called “the madness of crowds,” Each trend sees time in the sun before its correction, much like this:

Social networks are the example being used because, as I explain here, they take advantage of network externalities, and so their adoption is (among other things) mimetic and zero sum. The rise of one network corresponds to the fall of another.

This pattern is generalizable. So you can ignore the labels. Just imagine that each curve is a different trend.

In itself, fads aren’t that bad. With a strong exception. On this website, I have made frequent reference to a phenomenon I call zip ties. I define zip ties here, and this post is meant to be a extension of that one. (I’ll link to this one going forward). Again: zip ties are trends that are difficult or impossible to reverse, because they can only change in one direction, and not be corrected. I’ll call them by another name, “irreversible fads.”

Fads are healthy if they are allowed to fail. But consider what happens when one asserts itself, like this:

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 10.40.58 PM.png
Normally, fads are transient, and are allowed to run their course. Harmless, and easy to abandon. This graph shows a worrying situation: a fad is irreversible or not easily correctable. What really should have been relegated to a fleeting idea is now a dominating force in culture.

This state of events is “fragile” in the Nassim Taleb sense. That is, a system which allows itself to be influenced by fads will make itself very vulnerable to short events causing disproportionate harm.

For example, let us suppose that the latest social science fad is to assert that nuclear families have no utility and should be abandoned. After all, what is the point of traditional institutions against modern skepticism? This view could be based on some reading of incomplete data. By the time good data emerges to affirm the value of the nuclear family, it’s too late; the cycle of broken families is difficult to reverse.

You may respond that the best solution is to simply not make that kind of mistake to begin with. But what a tenuous position: the value of the nuclear family needs to be found empirically and re-asserted every generation. The failure to do so will deny it to each subsequent generation! Each success is temporary, each failure is endless!

Which leads me to the problem, in general, with basing social policy on empiricism, and justifying sweeping social changes at the mercy of data. While data collection is good, the evidence will have cracks, and data on any cutting-edge issue will be filled with noise. Though empirical truth may (or may not!) emerge eventually, in the meantime our positions will change year-after-year, like fads.

If you dogmatically base your view on the second source of knowledge, science, you will flip flop like a sine wave. This is fine for questions of purely theoretical nature, but recall the distinction between theory and practice. What if you implement your “evidence-based” policy recommendations in the wrong year for the data? What if, by waiting a mere decade, we could have learned that your proposed policies are civilization-destroying? Where science is uncertain, proceed with caution.

If that is what a fragile society looks like, what does an antifragile society look like? This brings us to the precautionary principle. A good version of the principle:

Where there are threats of serious and irreversible damage, place the burden of proof on those who argue that a proposed activity will not cause significant harm.

I have thought poorly of the precautionary principle in the past, but only for the following two reasons. First, it is in many instances poorly formulated. The key word here is “irreversible;” the principle should only apply to such cases. Second, the precautionary principle as it stands is incomplete. It only works when it is paired with deference to tradition.

That is to say, when the burden of proof is not met, we should base action on traditional knowledge. Tradition buys you, at very least, consistency, or that which didn’t destroy civilization in the past.

With those two objections addressed, I have two clarifying caveats. First, the precautionary principle is not meant (as it is frequently formulated), to be an impossible barrier. Sometimes, the burden of proof is met.

Second, this should not be confused with the incrementalist approach, which is faulty, for reasons I give here. Once the burden of proof is met, we can go “all-in” on the proposed initiative.

How do we force the implementation of these principles? Our ancestors knew the answer. It is only our latest generations that are at a deficit of wisdom- real, classical wisdom. Just as you learn to golf from practice, not by studying Newton’s laws of motion, we should look to how people in the past have successfully governed society. This is what we gave up when we replaced the true humanities with what’s become of “social science.”