Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mathematical Politics: Part 7

Expecting the Unexpected.
The “super complexity” of human beings means that they are capable of throwing up unexpected “anomalies” and by “anomalies” I don’t mean phenomena that are somehow absolutely strange, but only something not covered by our theoretical constructions. Just when you think you have trapped human behavior in an equation, out pops something not accounted for. These anomalies strike unexpectedly and expose the limits of one’s analytical imagination. They can neither be treated statistically, because they are too few of them, or analytically because the underlying matrix from which they are sourced defies simple analytical treatment.

Take the example I have already given of the supermarket check out system. This system can, for most of the time, be treated successfully using a combination of statistics, queuing theory and the assumption that shoppers are “rational and selfish” enough will look after the load-balancing problem. But there is rationality and rationality. For example, if there is a very popular till operator who spreads useful local gossip or who is simply pleasant company one might find that this operator’s queue starts to lengthen unexpectedly. The simplistic notions of self-serving and ‘rationality’ breaks down. Clearly in such a situation they is a much more subtle rationality being served. What makes it so difficult to account for is that it taps into a social context that goes far beyond what is going on in the supermarket queue. To prevent these wild cards impairing the function of the check out system (such as disproportionately long queues causing blockages) the intervention of some kind of managerial control may, from time to time, be needed.

In short, laissez faire works for some of the people for some of the time, but not for all the people all of the time.

To be continued.....

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