Quantophrenia

Five of us Meadowcreekers took a trek into the Big Woods yesterday.  The White River, Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers come together there and flood regularly into each other.  Hard to tell where one starts and the other begins.  The whole area is protected National Wildlife Refuge and Nature Conservancy land.  Huge trees.  One is the biggest bald cypress you’ve ever seen and probably will ever see.  It was our goal.  On the way we found shittakes, oysters and the best mushroom of them all: Lion’s Mane.  We were in a hurry to get to “the Tree” and somehow got off the path and ended up fake-lost.  We followed the slough back down till we found the overgrown path that not many take.  A huge oak had fallen and covered the USFS bench placed for weary hikers like us to sit and gaze at “the Tree.”

quantitative ecological resilienceBy that time the rain had started to come down heavily and we still had a good mile hike out.  That didn’t stop us from several detours to look at more oysters and shittakes.  Russians would have picked a bunch, started a fire and boiled them up for dinner.  But we wanted frog legs and knew where to find them.  So we didn’t follow the Russian tradition.

One other Russian tradition I really like is their dismissal of standard scientific and mathematical shibboleths.  For example, the term ‘quantophrenia’ was coined by Pitrim Sorokin who worked in Soviet Russia in the 50s.  It refers to the cult founded on the belief that quantification is the most, or even the only, valid form of knowledge.  As with other cults, we must expose the perverse and irrational consequences that follow from this belief system – and try to understand how it is maintained and accepted as credible.

Sorokin was not anti-measurement; in fact, he acknowledged, a basic grasp of statistics can help you understanding lots of stuff.  Understanding the normal distribution is crucial to interpreting all kinds of phenomena.  Understanding variance and levels of significance helps keep all silly health and psychological studies at bay.

What’s important is to ask is exactly what is being counted and how does it relate to the goals of the project.  Unless these are clear, counting numbers is silly.  For example, look at death registration in France, England and the USA. Vast scientific edifices are built on these mortality records. However, the three countries collect the data in such different ways that they are really not comparable. For example, the apparently poor performance of the England’s National Health Service in cancer mortality may well result from more open diagnosis and honest recording in England than in France. If the UK has more cancer deaths because they count them differently, rather than because they treat patients badly, then focusing on matching European or American death rates is chasing moonbeams.  As the management guru, Peter Drucker, once said: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

The new fashion for playing with ‘Big Data’ is no more likely to lead to a social physics than it was in the nineteenth century when social statisticians first began to analyze the large-scale data sets newly created by state bureaucracies. It’s easy to get tired of empirical presentations on social networks which produce elegant maps and are unable to answer the question: ‘so what does this mean?’

Paraphrasing Charles Babbage, designer of the first programmable computing device, “garbage in, garbage out.”  But when policy wonks and the elected officials they serve are corrupted by the cult of quantophrenia . . .

In our Resilience Project, we love to generate numbers and do statistical analyses.  But they are just tools to understanding the qualitative factors which condition resilience.  Abstract quantitative analysis alone will never reach what we seek.

A recent study on resilience illustrates how the cult of quantophrenia has invaded ecological resilience research.  The paper starts with a hugely important point: “The ubiquity of dynamical systems exhibiting multistability can hardly be further exaggerated. The human brain1, ecosystems2, ice sheets3, optical ring cavities4, time-delay systems5, synthetic genetic networks6, chemical oscillators7, etc. constitute notable examples among a large body of multistable systems8“.

But then they go astray, lured by the siren song of abstract, divorced-from-reaility mathematics.  They fail to understand the basic difference between stability and resilience.  And try to model all resilience as stability.  They say they are focused on ecological resilience when ecological resilience is the opposite of stability as a paper they cite (Holling, 1973), but have not absorbed, makes clear.

They want to figure out how to keep systems stable when ecological resilience is all about change.  Ecologically resilient system are constantly changing and adapting.  No farm long survives unless its managers are ready to change the system whenever needed.  Markets, input supply prices, weather, labor supply and a myriad of other factors mean stability and equilibrium can never be achieved.

Searching for measures of how a system moves from one stable state to another, though quantifiable in some model systems with few variables, will never lead to understanding ecological resilience.  Mathematical treatments based on faulty assumptions will never result in useful outcomes.

For a boy with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  A mathematician afflicted with quantophrenia tries to quantify everything, even if two phenomenon are qualitatively different.  Until researchers realize that stability and ecological resilience are qualitatively different, they are lost.  The mathematical tools which engineers use so well to predict stability and resistance simply don’t work with systems continually shifting, adapting and changing.  All living systems fall into the latter category,

It’s fun to see articles on ecological resilience published in prestigious journals.  Too bad this one was based on faulty assumptions.  Not that it really matters in the long run.  Or even the short run.  I just split open a delicious wild mushroom and its time to eat.

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Read the paper for yourself and see if you agree: Mitra, C., Kurths, J. & Donner, R. V., 2015.  An integrative quantifier of multistability in complex systems based on ecological resilience   http://www.nature.com/articles/srep16196

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One thought on “Quantophrenia

  1. Pingback: IF/THEN conditionals and other nonlinear interactions | Meadowcreek

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