The music of the warming spheres

Posted on 24/01/08 | in people, society

So, when I was coaxed out of the house last night, little did I know I’d end up discussing Borat with climate change guru Mark Lynas in a village pub.

It was after a talk he gave in the same village hall (Ramsden) where I went to a previous talk on climate change (which I wrote about here and here). Lynas is an excellent speaker and very accomplished at effortlessly marshalling bucketloads of data, as well as fielding complex questions without pause. He provides an admirably sane view of the whole issue, very much from the perspective of a scientist rather than a campaigner. My only worry is that he is over-optimistic about human psychology, ie a reliance on co-operation between nations (though I don’t really doubt that his solutions are at least possible). To me the issue smacks heavily of the prisoner’s dilemma, and the evidence from studies of that doesn’t suggest co-operation is a likely strategy for people in a world where fighting habitually takes precedence over common sense.

He’s also an entertainingly sarcastic sod, and it was fun talking with him. (I’ve only just discovered he was two years below me at Edinburgh, too). My lingering memory of the evening – other than the talk itself – is of the crazy, beer-filled notion of turning his book Six Degrees (a documentary version is being broadcast by National Geographic next week) into a musical. I can’t help thinking about it. It’s horrible, but it could almost work. Mark, get your people to talk to my people. Or, better, get them to sing.

12 Comments on “The music of the warming spheres”

  1. julietk Says:

    The problem with PD studies is that a) they’re typically done on populations of 1st year economics/politics students, & b) they’re often one-shot.

    If you run multiple-shot versions (especially with no fixed end-point), get subjects who haven’t met the theory, or increase the extent to which the subjects know each other, then co-operation crops back up again.

    There’s also the stuff in The Selfish Gene about PD-playing automata – as I recall Tit for Tat came out best as a strategy. (so, co-operate unless the other party has a history of not doing so, roughly).

    Agreed that there are cultural/social factors discouraging this in some circumstances, though – notably in cases where for whatever reason there is social payoff for *not* trusting or co-operating with the other party. In general, co-operation strategies are more likely to wind up in effect in populations where there is frequent (real-world?) interaction and where reputations matter.

  2. hatmandu Says:

    Thanks for this – interesting.

    At one point Lynas said that although in every single case where there was a problem of diminishing resources in the past, humans have ended up fighting to the death over it – but this time it will be different, partly thanks to globalisation (the internet, plane travel, etc) facilitating communication.

    I wish I could share this optimism to wholeheartedly. That said, it seems that humans are going to have to decide which side of the fence they fall on: altruism or selfishness. I guess overall, as ever, we’ll have a crazy muddle of them both. Who knows, some of us may even survive it!

  3. htfb Says:

    Surely his premise is wrong. There have been plenty of examples where populations have diminished or emigrated peacefully in response to a diminishing resource. Gibbon is full of them. How about, irrigation water in Mesopotamia under the Abbasids?

    Surely you mean a Tragedy of the Commons, rather than a prisoner’s dilemma, anyway?

  4. barnacle Says:

    I’m really sorry we didn’t come now, as we were umming and ahhing over it. And we’re closer to Ramsden than you anyway. But K’s paper goes to press today, so we were at home proofreading pages and chewing pens.

    “This bit where it says ‘TITLE HERE TITLE HERE TITLE TITLE HERE’ – is that right?”
    “… Shit.”

  5. hatmandu Says:

    Marvellous – and of course “title here title here title title here” is a perfectly grammatical sentence!

  6. drcosmos Says:

    I was actually reading about the Prisoner’s Dilemma the other day and how one of the most successful strategies is Tit-for-Tat so if you screwed me over last time, I’ll do it to you this time. Not really certain that it bodes well for international cooperation.

  7. julietk Says:

    But the flipside to that is that if no one starts the screwing-over, everyone lives happily ever after.

    (Why yes I am an optimist!)

  8. julietk Says:

    I do think that better communication is likely to increase communication.

    However, better communication as currently implemented is rather unequally better & therefore may be a divisive force, furthering an “us” (highly connected, well-off, usually white & Western) vs “them” (none of the above) attitude.

    I certainly think that the altruistic version is possible; I don’t think that it’ll be unanimous. It might win out overall, though.

    I oscillate wildly between optimism & pessimism on the subject. Um.

  9. hatmandu Says:

    I rather fear the screwing-over began several centuries ago!

  10. vigornian Says:

    Tragedy of the Commons is where an asset is underused because *no-one* owns it and no-one can claim the fruits of labour, isn’t it? Without stepping on Andrew’s toes, I don’t think that’s what he means at all.

  11. vigornian Says:

    Alas, while in a pool of many strategies those who trust, but briefly recriminate mistrust, will prosper – especially amongst each other – it doesn’t quite work in the real world where the effects of mutual distrust extend so catastrophically beyond the two participants.

    What I heard in the pub, anyway.

  12. sillage Says:

    Indeed, as a former game theorist enthusiast I can confirm up until I last read about it (about 10 years ago) there was no system, however complex, that against a host of different strategic players ever did consistently better than co-operate the first time, second time do what the other bloke did first time and so on. They used to run competitions for this every year.