Being Vague about Risk Assessment

pound or two shop. Flickr: whyohwhyohwhyohWhat is the probablity that a 178cm man is tall (or that many items will cost between one pound and two pounds)?

Vagueness is a besetting problem in quantitative risk assessment and it’s often overlooked or ignored in the attempt to find one metric (probability) by which to measure uncertainty. Clearly it’s inappropriate to use probabilistic methods to assess whether or not someone is tall (unless you are using population data to assess, say, the probability someone is taller than a specified height). But many other situations are quantified with probability when they shouldn’t be. Philosopher Mark Colyvan argues that all situations with vague premises should be assessed non-probabilistically. Just as the tallness of a person or the number that constitutes ‘many’ is vague because there will always be borderline cases, so too we should not speak of the probability that, say, biodiversity is declining in a particular ecosystem. Both the measurement of biodiversity and indeed the limits of an ecosystem are vague in the same sense.

This is to highlight the logical assumptions of Cox’s theorem, that ‘Any measure of belief is isomorphic to a probability measure’. Not that Cox is wrong, just that he can be and is used inappropriately whare vague premises are involved.

Colyvan points to a strong claim:

no adequate defense of classical logic in domains employing vague predicates is possible. If I am right about this, then not only are non- probabilistic methods legitimate methods for quantifying at least some types of uncertainty, but are also required for the adequate treatment of uncertainty in any domain where vague predicates are used (2008: 651).

So shouldn’t we just speak more precisely? Wouldn’t this clear up the vagueness and allow us to have confidence in our probabilities? That question brings us to the punchline of this post. Colyvan produces a marvellous quotation from a book on Uncertainty (Morgan and Henrion):

They claim that [uncertainty due to linguistic imprecision]  is “usually relatively easy to remove with a bit of clear thinking” (1990, p. 62). If it were so easy to remove, you would expect them to be able to state this thesis without appeal to at least four vague terms.

What is the probability that vagueness is here to stay?

In case you missed it: Certainty – I’m fairly sure we don’t need it.

References:

Colyvan, M. (2008) Is probability the only approach to uncertainty? Risk Analysis 28.3: 645-652.

Cox, R. T. (1946). Probability, frequency and reasonable ex- pectation. American Journal of Physics, 14, 1–13.

Morgan, M. G., & Henrion, M. (1990). Uncertainty: A Guide to Dealing with Uncertainty in Quantitative Risk and Policy Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Image credit: the vague shop by whyohwhyohwhyoh

New uses for classic theories – Mary Douglas in 2010

There have been some fascinating and diverse applications of the social theories of Mary Douglas in the media lately. Douglas was an anthropologist, best known for her work on risk, on purity and on the grid-group typology which this website explores.

This month alone Mary Douglas has been quoted in relation to the following:

Particularly interesting was the idea that food intolerance might be seen as socially constructed. There was a discussion of this at the Savage Minds anthropology blog. My contribution:

This seems to be a near perfect example of a quite different kind of Mary Douglas’s ‘boundary maintenance’ – that between expert and non-expert. The claim there are too many self-diagnosed food intolerances derives credibility by coming from university-based academics, but is then questioned by connections with the flour industry. Are these experts or not? Is this science or not? Mary Douglas took Durkheim’s ideas of sacred and profane and re-interpreted them in terms of purity and pollution. Is the science here flowing from the ‘pure’ source of academia, or is it ‘polluted’ by association with the Flour Advisory Bureau? Note that the Telegraph reported this as coming from Portsmouth University only, whereas the Portsmouth University media release noted who actually commisioned the research.
The report itself, not peer-reviewed (therefore not scientific???), is clearly labeled as a flour Advisory Bureau report. It mixes medical information from the Lancet journal (pure?) with consumer survey data (polluted?).
Is it scientific enough? Not for publication in a science journal, perhaps. But certainly scientific enough to be ‘distributed to health professionals’ and reported in a leading English newspaper just in time for national allergy week. Mission accomplished?

For more on boundary work among scientists see Brendan Swedlow 2007.
http://www.niu.edu/polisci/faculty/swedlow/Pollution&Purity.pdf

Putting an End to Endianism: the feud you probably never noticed but take part in every day

“This is an attempt to stop a war. I hope it is not too late and that somehow, magically perhaps, peace will prevail again.” (Cohen 1980)

Let’s begin this tale of the conflict you’ve probably never heard about with a quotation from Gulliver’s Travels:

It began upon the following occasion. It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire. It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments. During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefuscu did frequently expostulate by their ambassadors, accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Blundecral (which is their Alcoran). This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text; for the words are these: ‘that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.’

For Jonathan Swift, the wars of religion and generations-long rivalries between Britain and France were precisely as arbitrary as a decision about which end of a boiled egg to crack. Since it really doesn’t matter, everyone should do as they see fit, and ‘break their eggs at the convenient end’. The question remained: which end would that be?

For modern day computer engineers considering which byte order to set their hardware and software to, the decision is still fairly arbitrary, but it matters at least a little which end is adopted. Rather like driving on the left or right, no one really cares which is which as long as everyone agrees on a convention, but also like driving on the left or the right, no one is prepared to shift their preference, and when pressed will provide justifications for the status quo. Unlike driving on the left or right, however, those justifications do have some reasoning behind them. It actually is possible to come up with a list of why a particular byte order is useful for particular purposes, and therefore to prefer one order or the other on somewhat rational grounds.

Danny Cohen’s article, the one that announced the war in the first place, lent its central metaphor of big endians and little endians to the concept of byte order:

“Endianness describes how multi-byte data is represented by a computer system and is dictated by the CPU architecture of the system. Unfortunately not all computer systems are designed with the same Endian-architecture. The difference in Endian-architecture is an issue when software or data is shared between computer systems. An analysis of the computer system and its interfaces will determine the requirements of the Endian implementation of the software. ” (Intel white paper, quoted in Blanc and Maaraoui 2005:2)

For instance, Intel x86 architecture is little-ended (see LaPlante and Mazor 2006 for a history), while Motorola architecture is mostly big-ended. ARM architecture and some others, meanwhile, have switchable endedness, which tends to be set one way or the other by default. The distinction between Intel chips used in most IBM compatible PCs and Motorola chips used in most Apple computers meant that the byte order issue was, to say the least, overshadowed by intense marketing competition and rivalry during the 1980s and into the 1990s. Behind the embryonic “I’m a Mac – I’m a PC” rivalry lay another much less glossy rivalry, between big-endian and little-endian architecture.

In seeking a resolution to these fairly arcane distinctions in computer architecture, Danny Cohen identified a number of alternatives, which, as it turns out and though he probably didn’t know it, relate quite well to the four cultural biases or worldviews identified by the anthropologist Mary Douglas in her Grid-Group Cultural Theory . The first was continued ‘holy war’. This is what Lilliput was pursuing against Blefuscu and, according to Cohen an appropriate metaphor for the standoff between big-enders and little-enders in computer communications architecture. It seemed likely to continue because:

“Each camp tries to convert the other. Like all the religious wars of the past, logic is not the decisive tool. Power is. This holy war is not the first one, and probably will not be the last one either. The “Be reasonable, do it my way” approach does not work. Neither does the Esperanto approach of “let’s all switch to yet a new language”.”

An alternative was to somehow supply a big man like Gulliver to come and sort out the problem from on high. Here we see the strong Grid – strong Group approach of the Hierarchical cultural bias:

“We would like to see some Gulliver standing up between the two islands, forcing a unified communication regime on all of us.”

Yet another alternative offered by Cohen was to trust to chance and abide by the dictates of fate:

“How about tossing a coin ???”

This is a nod to the strong Grid – weak Group cultural bias of Fatalism.

Lettle Endian / Big EndianCohen, like Swift before him, was not terribly optimistic that conflicts over arbitrary decisions would be resolved amicably. He forecast:

“Our communication world may split according to the language used. A certain book (which is NOT mentioned in the references list) has an interesting story about a similar phenomenon, the Tower of Babel. Little-Endians are Little-Endians and Big-Endians are Big-Endians and never the twain shall meet.”

Cohen was writing in 1980. Computer engineers have now had thirty years to resolve the war of the byte order. So how have they fared?

What happened next? How did things pan out? Which end of the egg triumphed?

Continue reading

Mutualism: Flavour of the month

As predicted this time last year, mutualism is the new favourite political idea.  It has been so ignored by policy makers over many decades that it has temporarily lost its left/right label and the Tories are also talking about it.

But it shouldn’t be thought that mutualism is a way of making money grow on trees. You can run money-generating operations on this model, but money-spending operations (eg most public services) require external funding. As Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber puts it:

‘There seem to be two possibilities: either the mutuals have independent sources of funding or they don’t.’

It will be interesting to see how much of the utopian mutualist talk survives the forthcoming UK general election, and how far the resulting government ends up supporting what Rudolf Bahro might have called ‘actually existing mutualism’.

Read: A mutual alternative to markets and hierarchies

On the Death of Colin Ward

The Child in the City, Anarchy in Action and Welcome Thinner City are three of the most influential books for the shape of my adult life. I’m mourning the death of writer and activist, ‘giant of social commentary’, Colin Ward.

Ward’s claim in Anarchy in Action (1973) that the international postal system was a perfect example of anarchist organisation helped me to see the meaning of Wright’s ‘sociological imagination’. Rather than looking for a political party with a headquarters and a manifesto, I began to see self-organising social systems everywhere, spontaneous egalitarianism, an immanent. if distinctly patchy, utopia.

Welcome Thinner City (1989) was for a time my Bible for understanding urban politics and policy at the end of the Thatcher period. Looking back it almost single-handedly made sense of what I did then and caused me to do what I do now.

The Child in the City (1978)  helped me to see how urban policy can be shaped for the benefit of the people who actually have to live with it. ‘making the city more accessible, more negotiable and more useful to the child’ remains one of the most important things we can attempt.

“I believe that the social ideas of anarchism: autonomous groups, spontaneous order, workers’ control, the federative principle, add up to a coherent theory of social organisation which is a valid and realistic alternative to the authoritarian, hierarchical and institutional social philosophy which we see in application all around us. Man will be compelled, Kropotkin declared, “to find new forms of organisation for the social functions which the State fulfils through the bureaucracy” and he insisted that ”as long as this is not done nothing will be done.” I think we have discovered what these new forms of organisation should be. We have now to make the opportunities for putting them into practice.” Anarchism as a Theory of Organisation (1966).

The Google Dilemma Part 3

In this short series of posts on the dilemma Google finds itself in with Chinese censorship, I have attempted to question the idea that it’s all about a clash of national cultures.

In particular, the very idea of a national culture has been called to account for itself. I’ve argued that Grid-group cultural theory offers some insights into the kind of lifting work the concept of the nation is supposed to do for us. It also helps explain why some might not like the idea of national cultures.

The Other Gardener took me to task for apparently supporting censorship. My rely can serve as a conclusion:

I support the line of Amnesty International on Chinese censorship of dissidents, but I’m trying to examine my own biases. This isn’t an idle speculation: we all want the world to be a particular way (in my case, freedom of speech), and find it hard to come to terms with justifications of other ways of being. Is it reasonable to argue that different countries just have different cultures and that this extends to different censorship regimes?  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights claims to be, well, universal. Is any regime exempt? If so, how so? If not, how not? If Google is having trouble with the concept of free speech via Chinese gmail accounts, why is this? How does the ‘universal’ nature of human rights get negotiated with a government that only recognises human rights with a Chinese spin ? Can we even talk like this? Is there anything distinctly and appropriately Chinese in internet censorship, or is that just special pleading?

Conversely, where does the idea of universal human rights gain traction? I’ve argued that this can be seen as an Egalitarian, or Individualist, weak-grid approach to national differences. By understanding this, perhaps the international work of groups like Amnesty can be strengthened in a small way.

To shine the spotlight back on the US, we could ask how this ‘freedom loving’ nation ends up executing so many of its prisoners (and how it comes to have so many prisoners in the first place). Is there something peculiarly and appropriately American that makes the penal regime so distinctive (the US along with China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran carry out more than 90% of all executions)? If we are all expected to be free with our speech, as in the US, are we also supposed to be free with our sentencing to death, as in the US?
Cross-cultural theory seems to assume that we would want to fit in with another nation’s patterns of social activity in order to make our business relationships work better. But what if we really don’t agree with those patterns? I’m concerned that to naturalise national cultures is to concede too much, and that we would be wrong to suggest there’s something Chinese about censorship and something American about lethal injections. But if we don’t make national comparisons, what kinds of comparisons can we make instead? That’s where grid-group cultural theory comes in.

Read Part 1

Part 2

excursus: are the guardians of national boundaries beginning to look pathetic?

References

Abbott, T (1990) ‘The real issue is the changing face our society’, The Australian, 31 May , quoted in Adam Jamrozik (2002) From Lucky Country to Penal Colony: How Politics of Fear Have Changed Australia . Keynote Address to ‘Refugees and the Lucky Country’ Forum, RMIT, Melbourne 28-30 November 2002 , accessed at http://www.tasa.org.au/docs/public/2002/281102%20From%20Lucky%20Country%20to%20Penal%20Colony.pdf

Ailon, Galit (2008). Mirror, mirror on the wall: Culture’s Consequences in a value test of its own design. The Academy of Management Review, 33(4):885-904. Accessed at http://aom.metapress.com/openurl.asp?genre=article&eissn=1930-3807&volume=33&issue=4&spage=885

Delaney, Rob and Ari Levy (2010) China Bosses Davos as Nobody Discusses What Happened to Google. Bloomberg Online. Accessed at http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=aUvrtIRc80JA

Foner, Eric (1999) The Story of American Freedom. New York: W.W.Norton

Hofstede, Geert (1997) Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hofstede, Geert (2005). Cultures and organizations: software of the mind (Revised and expanded 2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hofstede, Geert (2009) AMR Dialogue: Who Is The Fairest Of Them All? Galit Ailon’s Mirror. The Academy of Management Review, Volume 34, Number 3 (July)

Marcus, Aaron and Emilie West Gould (2002) Cultural Dimensions and Global Web User-Interface Design: What? So What? Now What? AIGA Archives [October 11]. Accessed at http://www.amanda.com/resources/hfweb2000/hfweb00.marcus.html

McSweeney, Brendan (2002) Hofstede’s Model Of National Cultural Differences And Their Consequences: A Triumph Of Faith – A Failure Of Analysis Human Relations, Vol. 55, No. 1, [January], pp. 89-118. Accessed at http://www.it.murdoch.edu.au/~sudweeks/b329/readings/mcsweeney.doc

Mill, John Stuart (1869) The Subjection of Women. Fourth Edition. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Prasad, S. Benjamin, Michael J. Pisanib and Rose M. Prasad (2008) New criticisms of international management: An analytical review International Business Review Volume 17, Issue 6, December 2008, Pages 617-629.

Thompson, M and A. Wildavsky (1986) A cultural theory of information bias in organisations. Management Studies 23 (3), 273-286.

Woodrow, Alan (1998) The Church and Human Rights. The Tablet (January 3). Accessed at http://www.thetablet.co.uk/article/6569