Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Contributors, slackers, quitters, and Bull-Dog Sauce

If you saw the news on Japanese TV yesterday, the top story was the Bull-Dog Sauce take-over and specifically the morality of the High Court decision in this matter. It just so happens that the latest Science issue has a paper on a new model of collective action showing how socially beneficial punishment can arise and evolve. Color science relies heavily on mathematical models, so this is an interesting case for us.

In well oiled successful societies, there is a strong sense of community and solidarity. Periodically, this sense of community can weaken and a subculture of social parasites or slackers (scientific term: defectors) can emerge an grow. Society can then punish the slackers to remain competitive.

Dr. Joseph-Ignace GuillotinA historical example was the aristocracy in XVIII century France. When at the end the illuminated created a philosophy and Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin popularized an efficient punishment tool, the problem was tamed. We can explain this superficially by arguing the contributors got fed up and boiled over, but this is not a scientifically tenable explanation, because punishers pay a social price and are not motivated.

Worldwide, from Bucharest to Tokyo, but especially here in the US we see a rapid increase of these defectors. This takes many forms, from insurance fraud to frivolous litigation, elder abuse, family member blackmail, phishing, pharming, and identity theft. Some are legal and some are not, but the common thread is that currently the defectors usually are not punished. At the moment there is no effective punishment mechanism and the situation is worsening, so there is a collective interest in understanding how punishment evolves.

Christoph Hauert et al. have published new research results in their article Via Freedom to Coercion: The Emergence of Costly Punishment in the 29 June edition of Science, who also published the perspective A Narrow Road to Cooperation in the same issue. The editors summarize the research as follows:

Collective endeavors among individuals are often accompanied by risk. Defectors (those who do not invest but who share in the return) fare better than cooperators (who do invest), but a third type of participant, the punisher, who acts against the defectors, can stabilize a cooperative group of individuals. The Science paper now now provides a theoretical basis for the emergence of such punishers, who incur costs that mere cooperators do not and would thus be expected to suffer in evolutionary terms. Allowing for a fourth type of individual — the abstainer — leads to population dynamics where punishers flourish. In essence, it appears that voluntary submission to social norms is a prosocial act.

The mathematics behind this paper is elegant and beautiful, but does a slick mathematical model entail an accurate and useful description of reality? Can it explain the Bull-Dog Sauce debacle? Can it differentiate between the Japanese perception of Bull-Dog Sauce as victims versus the American perception of Bull-Dog Sauce as whiners and loosers?

Personally, this paper leaves me with more questions than answers. How about statesmanship, idealism, passion, etc.? How about the current population pressures of flourishing societies with rapidly decreasing birth rates versus less efficient societies with high birth rates?

And what does it mean for us in research? I do not believe large collaborative research efforts in research labs have disappeared because of defecting researchers. And the abstainers, are those the researchers who are unemployed and working out of their Silicon Valley garages? I am not even sure abstainers are socially relevant, as an abstainer would still need a good connection to a venture capitalist to fund his work and eventually sell it.

What are your thoughts? How does this affect your research, your personal life?