Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Fable of the Bees

This is a really great piece of research that I'm going to try to digest more tomorrow. From the blog post anouncing it: "If you were to rely on media reports alone, you might be inclined to believe that honeybees and honey are now in short supply. Based on the recent documentaries about Colony Collapse Disorder, you might believe that crops are at risk of going unpollinated and that we are heading towards a different “silent spring”—one in which the familiar springtime buzzing of the bee is no more. Yet, somehow, the honey is in the cupboard and farmers across the country are still able to supply food to stock our shelves, all with little or no economic impact from CCD. How can this be? As two prominent agricultural economists, Walter Thurman and Randal Rucker, discuss in a new PERC Policy Series, the market response of beekeepers provided a solution to the problem. Despite early predictions that CCD would cause billions of dollars of direct loss in crop production, beekeepers reacted so swiftly that virtually no changes were detected by consumers. While overcoming the difficulties of CCD has been no easy matter, beekeepers have proven themselves adept at navigating such changing market conditions."

I've been thinking of writing up something for a while about how we really bear a big cost when natural scientists don't accept social science as an important science to consult. Social science is a crucial scientific enterprise. We are studying the social behavior of a highly evolved, highly intelligent primate species that has a tremendous impact on the planet. We ignore it or dismiss it as something wishy washy or not "hard science" at our peril.

This is one good example about how understanding both bees and humans would have been very helpful - much more helpful than just relying on knowledge of bees.

Other examples include, of course, climate change. Someone like Lomborg, Mankiw, Nordhaus, Krugman, or friend of F&OST stickman (an environmental econ blogger) who know how our particular branch of the primate family tree reacts to adversity, can often provide much better commentary about what to expect from climate change than Al Gore or a climate scientist.

Another example I like a lot is nuclear weapons. At the dawn of the nuclear age lots of physicists got very concerned and got deeply involved in the anti-nuke movement. But prominent economists came up with the antithesis of the anti-nuke movement: the strategic concept of mutually assured destruction. Credible threats. Game theory. Instead of ridiculously imbuing an inanimate object like a nuclear weapon with moral content, these economists used what they knew about the human species to figure out a system that was most conducive to a lasting peace (or at least freedom from nuclear war).

There are likely many other examples - I'm interested in hearing any that you have.


  1. If you don't know the origin of my title, I think you will be edified by googling it.

  2. Thanks for the props, DK. Of course, I agree strongly with what you are saying here. The disconnect between scientists -- say nothing of environmentalists! -- and economists is extremely frustrating at times.

    On nuclear disarmament from a game theory perspective... I've referenced him often enough in the past to betray my undying fanboy-dom, but Thomas Schelling has obviously written the definitive word on the matter. His Nobel lecture is one of the best I've seen. (Many laureates give fairly disappointing lectures IMO, largely due to the limited time afforded them.)

    Side note, but I don't know how you have managed to keep up regular blogging in the face of your PhD studies. I've certainly had to shelve most other things to the side... although I'm told that the first semester is (was!) the worst. Plus, I'm thick enough as it is!

  3. 1. Thomas Schelling is a really incredible economist. Unfortunately I've only read Micromotives and Macrobehavior - I want to read The Strategy of Conflict, which covers this stuff. I'm considering writing up a piece on this question for a journal called The New Atlantis, which does a lot on science, ethics, and policy. This is the fiftieth anniversary of Linus Pauling's Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-nuke work, which I thought would be a good motivator. Actually - let me know if that's something you'd be interested in and we can talk.

    2. The regular blogging will take a nose dive as it did at the beginning of last semester. This is just my first week, so I've started my first problem set but not a ton of work yet. I'm an early riser, though - that's how. Not as much time during the day. But yes... I anticipate that will go down. Last semester was pretty brutal - this one looks like it will be tough, but a little bit easier than last semester. How is your semester going?

  4. 1) Sounds promising and I would obviously be interested in collaborating along these lines. (As it stands, I've been mulling a quasi-related research question, concerning public risk perceptions on nuclear power vs climate change. The former is going to have to play a pretty major part if we want to do anything about the latter and yet the general attitude to nuclear plants remains pretty phobic. We've got a strong experimental group over here, so perhaps something along those lines...) Much depends on my workload this semester though, as I'm also busy revising a paper following referee comments. I'll drop you an email.

    2) Brutal sounds about right. I was even starting to envy my friends in consultancies; their work hours didn't seem so bad anymore ;) Good news is that I'm through. Got macro and game theory this semester and then I'll be done with the mandatory coursework. (Please God.)

  5. One of my family was a beekeeper for while. The article is interesting to me because it describes beekeeping in the US. In the UK it's quite different, there's much less moving around.

    The depletion of topsoil problem that environmentalists often talk about is overblown for quite similar reasons.

  6. I am not so sure that natural scientists dismiss social sciences altogether - the very important field of sociobiology is an example, and while some of the members may dance around the naturalistic fallacy (it works this way in nature, therefore it is good), they don't always. A good example, I think, is the argumentation by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in her book "Mother Nature."

    Oftentimes, though, it seems like natural scientists are hard up against a need to try to explain the subtleties of their findings or arguments (from a few months back, my reply on the chicken-or-egg question is an example of this) and so they are unable to engage with social implications or make policy recommendations without risking a distortion of their own findings.

  7. Also, I would have to say that this can work both ways. On the abortion debate one finds lots of people who ignore basic facts of life on the planet - the facts of fecundity (most babies are not going to make it, and that is the "design" apparent in nature), the reality of dynasticism and games-playing to ensure offspring in many socially advanced animals (people, not the least) are two examples.

    So wow, nature is pretty bad about respecting our wishes for not enforcing needless suffering, but we don't have to consider ourselves hopelessly entangled in "the way things are" (the naturalistic fallacy). It doesn't make sense to try to design social policies or even formulate personal goals without understanding some of these basics, however.


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