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RQ | GM Crops, Kiran Shaw, NN Taleb and Pascal’s Wager

Sun, 11/16/2014 - 04:26

I was a witness to a small discussion on twitter today. It started with Biocon MD Kiran Mazumdar Shaw tweeting this article in the Economist which talks about a massive recent study that indicates that genetically modified crops have “widespread benefits” (disclosure: I’m yet to read that article). @Devinder_Sharma please read this report n then comment. I would welcome your response

— Kiran Mazumdar Shaw (@kiranshaw) November 15, 2014

Next, an anonymous tweeter called Sleuth Stock drew the attention of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, former banker, risk scientist and author of Fooled by randomness, The black swan and Antifragile, and a prominent opponent of GM crops to the tweet. This indicated a link to a paper by Taleb that indicates that GM crops have an embedded systemic risk that has not been exposed yet.

You need to read @nntaleb on why GMOs pose a systemic risk! @kiranshaw @Devinder_Sharma @ShekharGupta @sgurumurthy

— Sleuth Stock (@sleuthstock) November 15, 2014

Taleb himself then responded to the tweet, with a snapshot of a paper that he is in the process of writing regarding why GM crops are dangerous. The paper is basically a lot of math, with some Greeks, and beyond the reach of this Resident Quant. It was this tweet, by Taleb, mentioning Kiran Shaw, Shekhar Gupta, Devinder Sharma and S Gurumurthy that drew my attention to this discussion.

This is my summary of PP @sleuthstock @kiranshaw @Devinder_Sharma @ShekharGupta @sgurumurthy

— Nassim NicholنTaleb (@nntaleb) November 15, 2014

Then Sleuth Stock responded, saying that people had ignored Taleb when he had talked about systemic risk in banking, and then people started worshipping him when Lehman happened. And now that he is talking about systemic risk in GM crops, we should listen. Bizarrely, Taleb retweeted this tweet (but then some people have the habit of retweeting any faint praise they get on twitter) .

When @nntaleb mentioned systemic risk of derivatives nobody believed until Lehman! @kiranshaw @Devinder_Sharma @ShekharGupta @sgurumurthy

— Sleuth Stock (@sleuthstock) November 15, 2014

First of all, by Taleb’s own explanations in his first “popular” book Fooled by randomness, that you’ve got a forecast right once in one domain has no bearing on your getting your forecasts right in another situation in another domain. While Taleb had very good reasons to call out the systemic risk in international finance, that the risks he cautioned against were actually borne out has an element of randomness to it. Which is why Taleb’s retweet of Sleuth Stock’s tweet is rather bizarre.

Now that that is out of the way, let us get to GM. Cutting through and ignoring all the math in Taleb’s paper, this is my perception of what the matter is about. The basic idea is genetically modified crops (modified as they now are, rather than by means such as grafting, cross-breeding etc. which has been practiced for millennia) carry an element of risk – we do not know what the probability that they are going to be harmful is, but it is yet to be (and never likely to be, according to RQ) proved to be zero. So there is a non-zero probability (which is known to be small, but whose quantum is unknown) that GM crops might be harmful.

Related to this, it is not known what the potential damage caused by GM crops could be if the risk embedded in them bears out. Given the experiments and trials so far, scientists have not been able to quantify the extent of the damage (however small the probability) that might be caused by GM crops in case of the risks embedded in them being borne out.

The expected value of the “trouble” caused by GM crops can be defined as the probability of trouble multiplied by the extent of the damage caused by such trouble. The trouble (pun not intended) is that neither of these two numbers are well defined. We know that the probability of trouble is small, but only have a very loose upper bound on it, and we will never be able to narrow down the precise probability. We know that the damage caused by the trouble can be potentially large, but we don’t know how large, and we don’t know with what probability the damage can be that large.

When you multiply a small unknown number with a large unknown number, where the order of magnitude of either number is itself unknown, the range that the product of these two numbers can take is rather large. This means that there is a small (and again unknown, but not zero) probability that the costs of introducing GM Crops might be higher than the perceived benefits (as measured by the studies referred to by The Economist). Taleb’s argument is that since such a possibility exists, and the extent of expected costs of GM crops is not known, we should not embrace GM crops.

While it is true that there is a small chance the costs might embrace the benefits, the simple truth is that we don’t know, and we never will know. The probability of the “trouble” is so small, and the possible damage so large that even with a large number of studies and spending long years on it, it is going to be impossible for us to get a handle on either of these two numbers, and consequently the expected value. So the expected value of the “trouble” from GM crops is a classic “unknown unknown”.

Given that this unknown unknown will never even become a known unknown, adoption of GM crops is going to necessarily have, albeit however small, a leap of faith. The question is if we should take this leap. If we are extremely conservative, as Taleb normally is, we would be wary of taking even this small a leap of faith. Given the amount of scientific testing we have gone through already, and the lack of information value in any further testing, though, and the facts of growing world population and the need for food and commodity supply to keep up,  it would be well worth it to make the leap of faith. We should also keep in mind that such a leap of faith when it comes to GM crops is not so much longer than the leaps of faith we have taken while adopting many other scientific advancements. So we should go ahead with GM crops, but know that there is an unknown unknown in the “tail risk”.

Finally where does Pascal’s wager come in? The basic philosophy there is that even if the probability of God’s existence is infinitesimal, His power is so great that if you were not a believer, you shall be damned. The greatness of God’s power, according to the wager, implies that even if the probability of existence of God is infinitesimal, the expected value of being a believer is positive, and hence you better believe!

It is similar to the arguments of the likes of Taleb in the GM case in that potential harmful effects of GM can be so large (and yet unmeasured so far) that even if there is an infinitesimal probability that GM crops might be harmful we should not be adopting them.

Catalyst | Purnaiah and Talleyrand

Sat, 11/15/2014 - 22:16

Two statesmen and survivors lived curiously similar lives around the same time and in far sides of the world.

In high school, we learnt of the attempts at collaboration between Napoleon Bonaparte of France and Mysore’s Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. Both powers were implacable enemies of an expansionist British empire near the end of the 18th century, and tried to coordinate their efforts against the British in different parts of the world. Napolean tried to conquer Egypt and capture the Suez, largely in part because he wanted access to the Red Sea and India.

Many British individuals ended up playing significant roles in both theatres of conflict, including a young Arthur Wellesley. who participated in the final siege of Srirangapatna. Wellesley became a governor of Mysore and won a decisive victory against the Marathas at Assaye, before being spotted back home and pulled to the campaign in Europe against Napoleon. His military successes eventually led him to become the first Duke of Wellington.

Tipu, Hyder Ali and Napoleon were strong personalities in their own way, and some comparisons have been drawn between them both back then and later on. The novelist Walter Scott (of Ivanhoe fame) allegedly* had this to say, at the abdication of Napoleon in 1814:

Although I never supposed that [Napoleon] possessed, allowing for some difference of education, the liberality of conduct and political views which were sometimes exhibited by old Hyder Ally, yet I did think he might have shown the same resolved and dogged spirit of resolution which induced Tippoo Sahib to die manfully upon the breach of his capital city with his sabre clenched in his hand. [Wikipedia*]

However, the most astonishing duo were not the heads of state, but the Mysorean and French ministers Purnaiah and Talleyrand.

Krishnamacharya Purnaiah (also spelled Purnaiya) started managing the finances of Mysore under Hyder Ali, slowly moving to manage much of the state’s administration as well. Helping manage an easy transfer of power to Tipu upon the death of Hyder Ali, Purnaiah continued to be a close confidante and aide to Tipu Sultan. After the defeat of Tipu, he continued on under the British and was then appointed Dewan as the British allowed the Wodeyar family back into power in the early 19th century.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was a French politician and diplomat, who grew up and trained as a clergyman during the last years of the Ancien Régime. Early in his diplomatic career, Talleyrand was unsuccessfully sent to Britain to prevent war. This was just a year before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads in the French revolution. Though he had to seek exile during the tumultuous early years of the French revolution, he managed to make it back and become the Foreign Minister. In this time he also started working alongside Napoleon Bonaparte and continued as foreign minister under him.

Talleyrand had a significant role to play in improving peace at stability through treaties between Napoleonic France and other European powers – complementing the emperor’s conquering zeal. Like Purnaiah, Talleyrand made it back again as the foreign minister when Louis XVIII was restored to power after Napoleon.

Purnaiah had an uncanny ability to be found indispensable, no matter who was ruling Mysore. A realist and a statesman in his own right, he managed to continually save his own fortunes as well as promote the public interest. As Vikram Sampath notes,

After Tipu was vanquished, when the British forces traced [Purnaiah] and compelled him to surrender he supposedly declared ‘How can I hesitate to surrender to a nation who is the protector of my tribe from Kashi to Rameshwaram?’ Of course the alternate view point has been that it was Tipu himself who urged his Prime Minister to flee and serve the next ruler of the Kingdom. [Statesman and a survivor, Deccan Herald, 2011]

The case was not very different with Talleyrand. Both Purnaiah and Talleyrand had conflicted relationships with their longest patrons – Tipu and Napoleon respectively. Both fell out of favour at times, and acted on their own interests when they had to, but remained important and impossible to ignore or completely sideline.

Here’s to two statesmen and survivors, from far sides of the world. Purnaiah and Talleyrand.

PS. I first heard of Talleyrand through a quote of his. “The one thing you cannot do with a bayonet is sit at it.”

Photo: Crops of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), Metropolitan Museum of Art & Purnaiya, Chief Minister of MysorYale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

*I say allegedly because I can find this on Wikipedia but am unable to find the original source.


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Acorn | Overpopulation is not the problem

Sat, 11/15/2014 - 20:02

The real problem is undergovernance

People say and believe many things to explain India’s failings. The most popular is that many things are broken in India because “India is a poor country.” A discussion on this is for another day. The second most popular explanation is that India’s problems are because “India is overpopulated.” Let’s interrogate this further.

The claim that any place can be overpopulated presumes that there is a optimum level of population. Well, there isn’t. Whatever the geography, there is no ideal number of human beings. To argue that there is an optimum population would be to ignore history, geography, biology and technology.

The human population has grown, and the population at any time appears shockingly large to a person from an earlier epoch, perhaps even an earlier decade. That same person is also likely to be shocked by the advances in material well-being over time. There doesn’t seem to be an ideal population beyond which human well-being falls apart…in living memory and fossil record.

It is easy to believe, like Malthus, that human beings are outstripping the capacity of the land to provide for their food and other necessities. Educated people in the 18th century can be forgiven for believing this. Educated people in the 21st century believe this only by ignoring three centuries of empirical evidence. Current day environmentalists, like Malthusians of an earlier era, ignore or underestimate the capacity of human beings to adapt, innovate and thrive in any environmental context. Yes, the great march of human innovation can stall, ingenuity can come to a halt, and humans might take the ecosystem to a point where the species will be destroyed. One serious response to it is “so what?”. The other serious response is to put the onus of those who believe in such things to show why innovation and ingenuity should falter now, when it has not done so in living memory and fossil record.

Humans will transform the environment—driving some species to extinction, creating entirely new species, changing the physical landscape—but only those romantically wedded to any particular status quo will place a negative value judgement on this. The rest will enjoy brave new worlds day after day as we have throughout living memory. (Imagine how beautiful the countryside in Wiltshire, England would have looked before those humans put some big, ugly stones there).

So there is no ideal population size. Some of those who accept this conclusion will argue that that being so, surely overcrowding is a problem. The evidence for this argument is weak: Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and the Netherlands have higher population densities than India and few would argue that they are worse governed than India is. Yes, Indian cities have among the highest population densities in the world, but there are many cities outside India with high densities that do pretty well on the governance front.

The overpopulation argument does not hold up. That should lead us to ask what is the problem that we are describing as overpopulation. The answer is undergovernance. To say that our public institutions have the capacity to handle only so large a population is not an argument to reduce the population. It is an argument to enlarge the capacity of our public institutions. Like Procustes, we cannot chop off the legs of sleepers who were too tall to sleep on his bed. We need longer beds. Enlarging capacity is about better ideas, better technology, better people and more people engaged in governance. It is wholly wrong to attribute our failure to scale up governance to keep pace with population growth to ‘overpopulation’.

The overpopulation argument is prevalent in many democracies where the state has to perform welfare functions. It is particularly popular in India because of our history (why only history, our current reality) of being a socialist welfare state. When “mouths have to be fed” then having more mouths than the money to feed them is a problem. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the most socialist government of them all was also the one attempting the worst methods to control population growth.

If the governance mindset changes to equipping people to feed themselves then the number of mouths is less of a concern. Straitjacketing human capital, limiting its ability to grow, constraining its ability to develop and then complaining that there are just too many people is an astoundingly self-defeating argument. It is time to stop indulging in it.

(This is an unedited draft. There might be typos)