Of Flowers and Man

Imagine you are a visitor to a primitive society. And lets say that, for whatever reason, you are treated as something of a magician, or wise man, not quite a God, but just because you’re an outsider you are treated very specially and definitely listened to.

Now lets say that the religion, or superstition if you will, of the people involves sacrifices to the weather god or gods (or goddesses or whatever, its not important), in the hopes of bringing favorable weather. Let us also suppose that the great divide between the society is two camps, one of which believes that humans should be sacrificed, the other that flowers should be sacrificed. There’s quite a bit of rhetorical fighting between the two sides as they argue about which is correct.

Furthermore, lets say that the position in favor of human sacrifice is generally considered more correct (the society is divided about 60-35-5 for Human, Flower, and everybody else factions respectively), and (in what is of course a totally unlikely development), the society, although quite primitive in their understanding of weather, has developed advanced statistical methods, and the standard regression seems to re-inforce the human sacrifice position. For the sake of argument (of course, granting that this whole example, if not whole blog, is for nothing but the sake of argument, as nothing like this is obviously some sort of analogy that I hope is going somewhere), the popular regression compares rainy days per time period with human sacrifices in the same period, and that the formula is something like:

Number of Rainy Days = Constant + A (number of sacrifices) + B (Season)

Where season is a dummy variable on whether its the rainy season. ¬† A has the right (in this case positive) sign on it, and is statistically significant, but only at the 10% level. (I know there’s probably a lot of ways you can attack this regression and there are any number of scenarios which are non-causal but may lead to this relationship, for instance, perhaps the society is more likely to sacrifice when rain seems likely, such as on cloudy days, but I’m already spending way too much time on analyzing an argument that doesn’t actually exist so I’m not going to put any more effort into trying to make the mathematics behind an imaginary regression analysis more sound).

The human sacrificers don’t like human sacrifice per se (ie, they have no attachment to it outside of the fact that they think it brings rain), but they argue that the small number of lives lost due to the sacrifice are a tiny cost compared the large number of lives saved by the better weather.

The question posed to you as an outsider is, which faction do you support, those who would sacrifice humans, or those who would sacrifice flowers? Even though, from the viewpoint of the people involved, the human sacrificers have the better case, I would absolutely argue for the flower faction, not because I think they are more likely to be correct (in fact I think that neither action would have any effect on the weather), but because the costs of flower sacrificing are much smaller.

The point is that we often view arguments and debates on which side we find to be more likely to be right, without taking the entirety of the decision making process. We can do similar things. If we think that there is a 51% chance that our flight will crash, we absolutely will not get on it. But if we revise our estimates to think that there is only a 49% chance that our flight will crash, well, we still won’t get on it. I don’t know what the tipping point is, but its probably something well below a single percent (humans, myself included, are very bad at interpreting very low probabilities, so we’d probably do something like put the odds at 1 in a thousand justify getting on the plane, when in reality they shouldn’t, but I’m on a tangent).

The original argument that I was thinking of regarding the flowers vs the human sacrifices is of Keynsian Economics vs Monetarism (or market monetarism, or Chicago school, or whatever); that is should we, at the zero interest rate bound, use government deficit spending Fed Open Market purchases to stimulate the economy? My guess is that they’re probably both equally wrong, but the Keynsian process is more costly, so I tend to support the less costly option. If in fact, you do believe that Keynsianism works, than by all means support it, but the question you should be asking isn’t “what economic theory is most likely to be correct,” the question should be “What is the probability that Keysnianism is effective” and then have some sort of bar from which you would support it. The question of “what is most likely to be correct” is a perhaps useful for academics for determining what to study, but not for which policy to support.

(this post is an analogy: I’m not trying to actually compare Keynsian economics to human sacrifice).