Biology and the negative associations with the term "rational"
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15-12-2014, 09:28 PM (This post was last modified: 15-12-2014 11:39 PM by le_bard.)
Biology and the negative associations with the term "rational"
So I rocked the shit out of my bio final with a stunning 92. Why's this important? Clearly, I can devise some sort of anti-god theory from that...

Aha but really. So this last month in bio we learn about the formation of planets and ecology, which was cool. We got to a point where we discussed an interesting notion: the tragedy of the commons. While I agree with the theory (given I alter the wording a bit), the tragedy is worded in some interesting ways.

Here's a summary from my bio lecture that my teacher posted for us:

‘The Tragedy of the Commons” When a resource is a commons… Everyone’s sheep graze on grass in the communally owned pasture. However, the sheep are owned by individual shepherds. If a shepherd wants to maximize his profit, what should he do? Add another sheep? Remember, if there are too many sheep, the pasture will suffer from over-grazing.
A rational shepherd will add another sheep, even if it degrades the commons. Why? Because the benefit of the extra sheep goes to the shepherd, but the cost to the pasture is shared by all. A rational shepherd will continue to add sheep, even though he would probably not add a sheep if he owned the pasture.
Which of the Earth’s resources are held as a kind of commons? Consider the Earth’s atmosphere, water supply, fossil fuels, ocean fisheries…Apply this reasoning to industrial polluters. Why do we pollute when we know that CO2 pollution increases global warming and Burning fossil fuels increases CO2 pollution. It would be better for the environment if we could reduce our burning of fossil fuel, but Alternatives to fossil fuels are expensive.
A rational person will continue to use fossil fuels! Why? All the benefits of using fossil fuels (e.g., convenience, lower cost) belong to the individual user. The costs (environmental degradation) are shared by everyone.

So the "tragedy" is certainly a real one to ponder about. And while I agree with the general implication, the idea that the "rational" person would do something as depicted in the commons made me think: How are we describing rational here!?

The idea that someone who simply thinks logically would be selfish to the extent described in the tragedy seems to be a non sequitur; What drives a logical person's actions? The less often stated fact is that the rational person acts in ways that are conducive to his interests. A quick google search sets the stage: "Rationality implies the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons to believe, or of one's actions with one's reasons for action."

With this being the case, the only way someone can be rational and yet fall into the problem the tragedy presents would be if the shepherd had interests in merely temporary profit and did not care about the affects of overgrazing. If anything this point should be more important than the fact that a shepherd is merely rational. Rationality might be the basis, but the actual kicker is that a shepherd whose interests do not include the effects of overgrazing on themselves and their society will act in the way the tragedy of the commons describes. Same for fossil fuel consumption and so forth. If a wise shepherd were in the situation that the tragedy's participants were in, they'd probably have made sure not to overgraze for their OWN self interest as well as everyone else's. The wise shepherd would manage sheep for longevity and maximal profit versus a quick and single payment off of a single piece of land. Hell, a compassionate shepherd would manage sheep for the sake of other shepherds' sheep as well as his own. But that doesn't make the other shepherds irrational, the difference between the two isn't rationality, but interests, values, and desires.

I wouldn't be surprised if the author of the tragedy assumed that humans had selfish (and equally shortsighted) interests like described in the tragedy, which is true to an extent. So instead of making rationality seem negative, we should encourage people to value things like compassion and self control for long term rewards. And so on. Because that's the thing about humans. We can overcome our selfishness and act on other interests we discover.

What's a shame is that my bio teacher missed this and made rationality seem like a problem. Even though I know he's a non believer, it seems that maybe the idea of being rational=being selfish has been par for the course. Hell, the final test had a multiple choice question where he asked about what trait the shepherd from the tragedy of the commons had and the answers choices included ignorant or rational. While rational was the answer that he expected (and I begrudgingly filled out) ignorant speaks much louder to the mindsets of the shepherd in that tragedy. Cold and logical seem to often go together when making a archetype for character design. The man of steel movie invoked evolution as being the same way. I'm noticing an unsettling trend for scientific and logical thinking leading to being selfish and cold hearted when that simply isn't the case.

This goes hand in hand with morality and the moral arguments i make on how people ought to act: There's an objective, logical, and limited number of actions that a person who has an interest in eating chocolate will choose while in a chocolate factory. Same goes for how someone who cares about the life of other people ought to act with a gun. While we can flesh these out more, the actual rules matter less than the qualities people should value based on the effects those qualities have on society. But that's just a side note.

So here's some hearty suggestions for fixing the tragedy:

An ignorant shepherd will add another sheep, even if it degrades the commons.
A selfish shepherd will add another sheep, even if it degrades the commons.
A shortsighted, impatient shepherd will add another sheep, even if it degrades the commons.
But rational? Rationality and logic ain't got shit to do with it.
TL;DR rationality doesn't mean selfish and uncaring, jeez bio teacher get it together amirite?

It's only a debate if both parties are willing to let each other's opinions change their own.
If you aren't willing to change in light of learning more about what you fight for, what the hell are you doing expecting the other party to want to change?
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15-12-2014, 10:43 PM
RE: What bio class taught me about the negative associations with the term "rational"
(15-12-2014 09:28 PM)le_bard Wrote:  So I rocked the shit out of my bio final with a stunning 92. Why's this important? Clearly, I can devise some sort of anti-god theory from that...

Aha but really. So this last month in bio we learn about the formation of planets and ecology, which was cool. We got to a point where we discussed an interesting notion: the tragedy of the commons. While I agree with the theory (given I alter the wording a bit), the tragedy is worded in some interesting ways.

Here's a summary from my bio lecture that my teacher posted for us:

‘The Tragedy of the Commons” When a resource is a commons… Everyone’s sheep graze on grass in the communally owned pasture. However, the sheep are owned by individual shepherds. If a shepherd wants to maximize his profit, what should he do? Add another sheep? Remember, if there are too many sheep, the pasture will suffer from over-grazing.
A rational shepherd will add another sheep, even if it degrades the commons. Why? Because the benefit of the extra sheep goes to the shepherd, but the cost to the pasture is shared by all. A rational shepherd will continue to add sheep, even though he would probably not add a sheep if he owned the pasture.
Which of the Earth’s resources are held as a kind of commons? Consider the Earth’s atmosphere, water supply, fossil fuels, ocean fisheries…Apply this reasoning to industrial polluters. Why do we pollute when we know that CO2 pollution increases global warming and Burning fossil fuels increases CO2 pollution. It would be better for the environment if we could reduce our burning of fossil fuel, but Alternatives to fossil fuels are expensive.
A rational person will continue to use fossil fuels! Why? All the benefits of using fossil fuels (e.g., convenience, lower cost) belong to the individual user. The costs (environmental degradation) are shared by everyone.

So the "tragedy" is certainly a real one to ponder about. And while I agree with the general implication, the idea that the "rational" person would do something as depicted in the commons made me think: How are we describing rational here!?

The idea that someone who simply thinks logically would be selfish to the extent described in the tragedy seems to be a non sequitur; What drives a logical person's actions? The less often stated fact is that the rational person acts in ways that are conducive to his interests. A quick google search sets the stage: "Rationality implies the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons to believe, or of one's actions with one's reasons for action."

With this being the case, the only way someone can be rational and yet fall into the problem the tragedy presents would be if the shepherd had interests in merely temporary profit and did not care about the affects of overgrazing. If anything this point should be more important than the fact that a shepherd is merely rational. Rationality might be the basis, but the actual kicker is that a shepherd whose interests do not include the effects of overgrazing on themselves and their society will act in the way the tragedy of the commons describes. Same for fossil fuel consumption and so forth. If a wise shepherd were in the situation that the tragedy's participants were in, they'd probably have made sure not to overgraze for their OWN self interest as well as everyone else's. The wise shepherd would manage sheep for longevity and maximal profit versus a quick and single payment off of a single piece of land. Hell, a compassionate shepherd would manage sheep for the sake of other shepherds' sheep as well as his own. But that doesn't make the other shepherds irrational, the difference between the two isn't rationality, but interests, values, and desires.

I wouldn't be surprised if the author of the tragedy assumed that humans had selfish (and equally shortsighted) interests like described in the tragedy, which is true to an extent. So instead of making rationality seem negative, we should encourage people to value things like compassion and self control for long term rewards. And so on. Because that's the thing about humans. We can overcome our selfishness and act on other interests we discover.

What's a shame is that my bio teacher missed this and made rationality seem like a problem. Even though I know he's a non believer, it seems that maybe the idea of being rational=being selfish has been par for the course. Hell, the final test had a multiple choice question where he asked about what trait the shepherd from the tragedy of the commons had and the answers choices included ignorant or rational. While rational was the answer that he expected (and I begrudgingly filled out) ignorant speaks much louder to the mindsets of the shepherd in that tragedy. Cold and logical seem to often go together when making a archetype for character design. The man of steel movie invoked evolution as being the same way. I'm noticing an unsettling trend for scientific and logical thinking leading to being selfish and cold hearted when that simply isn't the case.

This goes hand in hand with morality and the moral arguments i make on how people ought to act: There's an objective, logical, and limited number of actions that a person who has an interest in eating chocolate will choose while in a chocolate factory. Same goes for how someone who cares about the life of other people ought to act with a gun. While we can flesh these out more, the actual rules matter less than the qualities people should value based on the effects those qualities have on society. But that's just a side note.

So here's some hearty suggestions for fixing the tragedy:

An ignorant shepherd will add another sheep, even if it degrades the commons.
A selfish shepherd will add another sheep, even if it degrades the commons.
A shortsighted, impatient shepherd will add another sheep, even if it degrades the commons.
But rational? Rationality and logic ain't got shit to do with it.
TL;DR rationality doesn't mean selfish and uncaring, jeez bio teacher get it together amirite?

Ooooh, game theory. I loves me some game theory. And I particularly love picking apart the Prisoner's Dilemma and variants of it like the Tragedy of the Commons.

You've put your finger on something very significant here, something that leads to a much more robust understanding of the Tragedy and, for that matter, any game. (If you've never heard of game theory before, just substitute the word "scenario" for "game". It's not about fun pastimes. Usually.) But this doesn't actually undermine the model of game theory. Rather, it shows us how to make full use of it.

The first thing to understand in game theory as applied to the real world is that the payoffs -- that is, the benefits and costs to each actor given certain outcomes -- aren't entirely limited to what we might call the immediately practical. As you note, there is a lot more to be considered here than just how many sheep and sheep products that someone has. The payoff can also include much more intangible factors such as approval or disdain of the community, comfort or concern over the future security or danger to the commons, smugness or guilt about one's role in it, and so on. In a good game theoretical analysis, all of these factors should be considered if they might influence an actor's decision.

As an example, in a similar game, the Prisoner's Dilemma, the police attempt to plea bargain with two separated accomplices in an attempt to get them to turn upon each other. The game is naively presented in terms simply of years served in jail by each criminal given their actions and the actions of the other player, and is set up so that defecting (turning on one's partner) always results in fewer years served than cooperating (not turning on one's partner), and yet the pair are collectively better off for cooperating than defecting. In theory, they will both defect, because their rationality is individually-based rather than collectively-based. But it doesn't play out like that in practice very reliably. This isn't because game theory is flawed, or because the actors are being irrational. It's because game theory is being misapplied. Thinking more deeply, one realizes that there are other considerations other than just years in jail that could be at play. The accomplices might feel a strong sense of loyalty and friendship towards one another, providing an intangible but very real benefit for cooperation that isn't present when the analysis is reduced towards simple years in prison. They might have a code of honor that disdains snitching, or be worried that their partner will take revenge, or that word will get around prison that they cooperated with the police, any of which factors can be seen as an additional, ignored cost of defecting. When factors such as these are considered in a more accurate model of the scenario, the payouts change. When the payouts change, so to does the "rational" choice, and we get a model in which rational actors make the same choices we see in reality. It's not that the prisoner's dilemma has changed. It's that the situation we're in is no longer the prisoner's dilemma. The game has changed.

Going back to your observations about the Tragedy, the Tragedy is too simple a model for someone of your intellect. It models shepherds who won't face, or at least don't recognize that they will face, a degrading of the commons, who don't think their neighbors will frown upon and disdain them for their overuse of the shared lands, or who do not care about these things, or for whom more immediate concerns are of greatly overriding importance. Their expectations of the future given their actions might not be rational, but their choices IN LIGHT OF THEIR EXPECTATIONS are, and that is what is meant by rationality in the context of game theory. If they were smarter shepherds, such as yourself, the expected outcomes would look very different, with increased intangible benefits for cooperating (keeping one's sheep to a limited number), and decreased benefits for defecting (adding more sheep). This might shift expected outcomes to the point where the rational decision is to keep one's herd a reasonable size... at which point, that is exactly what a rational person will do. And at that point, the game has changed. It is no longer the Tragedy. It is something else.

The REALLY smart shepherds will discover that this is a repeating game (one in which the decision is made again and again and again) allowing cooperative strategies to emerge through selective retaliation against defectors, as well as a game in which coordination with other players is possible, and above all an evolving game, one in which one's options and perceived awards can be deliberately changed by oneself or one's fellow players. The smart shepherds will educate the ignorant ones so that the ignorant ones will see the costs of overgrazing, or band together to threaten the ignorant shepherds with ostracizing, either of which can change the expected payout of the ignorant shepherds so that they (reluctantly) cooperate rather than defect. Alternatively, the smart shepherds might sell their sheep to the ignorant ones and diversify into other industries, so that when the sheep industry inevitably collapses their exposure will be limited.

Note that all of these are, inherently, self-interested strategies. One is not being wholly self-sacrificing here. Even if someone is acting altruistic or cooperatively, there might be issues of pride or warm-fuzzies that mean they are benefiting intangibly or avoiding some potential cost, even when on the surface they appear not to be.

And when you get down to it, the REALLY smart shepherds are the ones who find a way to change the game, so that everyone can profit from everyone else's self-interest.

And when you look at most of the environmental issues in the real world that seem pretty Tragedy-of-the-Commons-esque? That's a very accurate model for how they are playing out.
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15-12-2014, 11:38 PM
RE: What bio class taught me about the negative associations with the term "rational"
(15-12-2014 10:43 PM)Reltzik Wrote:  And when you look at most of the environmental issues in the real world that seem pretty Tragedy-of-the-Commons-esque? That's a very accurate model for how they are playing out.

Awesome post aha, you hit a lot of the points I lightly touched on. Though I never did think to put it in the terms of game theory!

In the end, I'd say the real "tragedy" of the commons is that no one in the scenario cares about the commons to their own detriment in the long run. It's a tragedy that a shepherd wouldn't think of maintaining the commons when it suits their desires more so than totally using it up.

And yeah, just like in the tragedy our real world solutions lies in spreading awareness of what actions are actually in our (of most of our) own interests. And then coercing everyone to participate

Even the wiki article on the tragedy of the commons calls for clarification, since going "according to self interest" simply does not mean one central thing. martyrdom seems like self interest in certain circumstances to some people, killing and murdering can mean the same. Humanity has the privilege of having subjective self interests that aren't mutually exclusive to our personal gains. (well, whether or not other animals do isn't for me to say) Admittedly our ideas of well being tend to mean the same thing to an extent but that's besides the point. The fact that self interest has been made to seem like a bad thing smells of something religious (and graeco roman with all of those themes of hubris) but I've always thought that we as a species have had a dangerous curiosity in self loathing and making ourselves seem worse off than we truly are.

It's only a debate if both parties are willing to let each other's opinions change their own.
If you aren't willing to change in light of learning more about what you fight for, what the hell are you doing expecting the other party to want to change?
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16-12-2014, 07:22 AM
RE: Biology and the negative associations with the term "rational"
I'm not sure why that discussion was in biology class. Consider

When you are talking about rational actors, you are talking game theory.

In evolutionary terms, the tragedy of the commons only applies to non-intelligent players, like trees.

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16-12-2014, 09:52 AM
RE: Biology and the negative associations with the term "rational"
(16-12-2014 07:22 AM)Chas Wrote:  I'm not sure why that discussion was in biology class. Consider

When you are talking about rational actors, you are talking game theory.

In evolutionary terms, the tragedy of the commons only applies to non-intelligent players, like trees.

I'd say the tragedy affects the intelligent actors just as well, though yeah I think the point in our ecology lecture was just to show why global warming got to be as bad as we made it.

But the tragedy has been worded weirdly all over so the author's point might have been to point out the tragedy the trees go through

It's only a debate if both parties are willing to let each other's opinions change their own.
If you aren't willing to change in light of learning more about what you fight for, what the hell are you doing expecting the other party to want to change?
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16-12-2014, 09:56 AM
RE: Biology and the negative associations with the term "rational"
(15-12-2014 11:38 PM)le_bard Wrote:  Awesome post aha, you hit a lot of the points I lightly touched on. Though I never did think to put it in the terms of game theory!

Yeah, my first thought when I read this was how it reminds me of the Prisoner's Dilemma and how acting selfishly is only one solution.
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16-12-2014, 03:08 PM
RE: Biology and the negative associations with the term "rational"
(16-12-2014 09:56 AM)RobbyPants Wrote:  
(15-12-2014 11:38 PM)le_bard Wrote:  Awesome post aha, you hit a lot of the points I lightly touched on. Though I never did think to put it in the terms of game theory!

Yeah, my first thought when I read this was how it reminds me of the Prisoner's Dilemma and how acting selfishly is only one solution.

Pretty much. While I think the dilemmas have merit there really should be clarifications with the preconditions.

It's only a debate if both parties are willing to let each other's opinions change their own.
If you aren't willing to change in light of learning more about what you fight for, what the hell are you doing expecting the other party to want to change?
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16-12-2014, 03:16 PM
RE: Biology and the negative associations with the term "rational"
(16-12-2014 07:22 AM)Chas Wrote:  non-intelligent players, like trees.

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16-12-2014, 03:44 PM (This post was last modified: 16-12-2014 03:53 PM by Reltzik.)
RE: Biology and the negative associations with the term "rational"
(16-12-2014 07:22 AM)Chas Wrote:  I'm not sure why that discussion was in biology class. Consider

When you are talking about rational actors, you are talking game theory.

In evolutionary terms, the tragedy of the commons only applies to non-intelligent players, like trees.

Evolutionary Game Theory can be applied to non-intelligent actors, like trees.
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16-12-2014, 07:39 PM
RE: Biology and the negative associations with the term "rational"
(16-12-2014 03:44 PM)Reltzik Wrote:  
(16-12-2014 07:22 AM)Chas Wrote:  I'm not sure why that discussion was in biology class. Consider

When you are talking about rational actors, you are talking game theory.

In evolutionary terms, the tragedy of the commons only applies to non-intelligent players, like trees.

Evolutionary Game Theory can be applied to non-intelligent actors, like trees.

But the discussion involve intelligent actors.

"Evolutionary game theory differs from classical game theory by focusing more on the dynamics of strategy change as influenced not solely by the quality of the various competing strategies, but by the effect of the frequency with which those various competing strategies are found in the population."

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