June 06, 2013

Cook It Down

I am staying away from Twitter and most social media today, which has become mostly dysfunctional over the NSA stories. As with any other complicated topic dealing with national security, the vast majority of immediate output is garbage. However, perennial source of inspiration Jay Ulfelder has thankfully produced something interesting and worthwhile from--of all things--a Michael Pollan book.1

It was also enough to make me feel better, as I'm blogging this from an iPad in a truck carting my numerous books from my old apartment in DC to the new setup. Moving is a tremendous headache :(

So what has excited the man that national security analysts call on when they find themselves spontaneously transforming into dart-throwing chimps? I'll reproduce one of Ulfelder's quotes of Pollan:

To their surprise, microbiologists discovered that nine of every ten
cells in our bodies do not belong to us, but to these microbial species
(most of them residents of our gut), and that 99 percent of the DNA
we’re carrying around belongs to those microbes. Some scientists,
trained in evolutionary biology, began looking at the human individual
in a humbling new light: as a kind of superorganism, a community of
several hundred coevolved and interdependent species. War metaphors no
longer made sense. So the microbiologists began borrowing new metaphors
from the ecologists.

Cool if you're my friend , a man unaturally excited by things such as "QUORUM SENSING WITH CHROMOBACTERIUM VIOLACEUM" as he once wrote to me in all caps (Christina Agapakis, if you're reading this, please holler at him). But why should anyone else care?

Ulfelder moves from quoting Pollan and breaks it down in an extended comparative politics freestyle:

Exponential growth in the production and distribution of information to
and from all parts of the world, and in our collective capacity to store
and process and analyze that information, are to the social sciences
what genetic batch sequencing is to microbiology. Our libraries and
limited professional networks were our petri dishes, and now they’ve
been shattered—in a good way. .....a comparable gestalt shift [to microbiology] is occurring in some corners of social
science, with similarly dramatic implications. For decades, we’ve
cranked out snapshots and diagrams and typologies of objects—states,
parties, militaries, ethnic groups—that we’ve assumed to be more or less
static and distinct and told just-so stories about how one thing
changes into another. Now, we’re shedding those functionalist
assumptions and getting better at seeing those objects as permeable
superorganisms embedded in ecosystems, all of them continually
coevolving in ways that may elude our capacity to narrate, or even to
understand at all. The implications are simultaneously thrilling and

Understanding ecosystems of violence and systems of politics is something I try to encourage over here at Abu M, albeit in a much more impressionistic fashion than the microbiology metaphors that Ulfelder is talking about. But I agree with him about the problem of binaries and bins. They really are at the core of much of what is wrong about the way analysts often approach national security problems. Whether R2P, drones, or the political economy of CERP money, we often fail to think about political and social systems and how our actions influence them. Think of feedback loops, folks!

At the same time, I do have one important caution. Ulfelder talks (and I agree) about the problems of binning into binary categories  and reductionist analysis. But binning is an inevitable effect of limited cognitive resources. We face a problem of infinite regress without binning, since---without buying into hippy-dippy Gaia hypothesis nonsense---the entire planet can be considered a system. And so and so on. So we have to bin more wisely.

Trying to see the whole is great, but it's rough to do so without moving into New Age-ism. The fighter pilot and strategic thinker John Boyd was always perched on the boundary line (and sometimes tipped over) between mysticism and sound military thinking. Everyone wants to think outside the box, but bona fide gestalt ain't cheap.

Second, rhetoric about systems and complexity are often associated (at least in DC) with overly expansive views of the national interest. "Everything is so complex, adaptive, and interrelated! Therefore when Johnny Jihadi in Nowhere-istan detonates a bomb in a local cafe, America must put boots on the ground!" Sure, a lot of it is based on misreadings of natural science---especially complexity. But them's the breaks. Lastly, an expansive view of systems doesn't always produce clarity for the end-user. The famous Afghan squiggly graph is a respectable and decent systems diagram of Afghan politics. It still became a laughingstock anyway.

Despite these caveats, Ulfelder is on strong ground in looking outside the sometimes stagnated world of social science and political science to understand real-world systems. And I also know from Ulfelder's writings that he himself would never make any of the mistakes I just mentioned. Nor would Peter Turchin, who has done interesting work with ecological ideas of politics. It's just the person that picks up the "OMG COMPLEX ADAPTIVENESS!!" popsci book or watches the TED talk that I'm worried about. Simplified intros are fine. But I read the James Gleick popsci book and then started grokking Cosma Shailizi because I want to actually understand the science before I apply it to politics. As a obscure (beyond military humor) cartoonist once noted, the "good idea fairy" is one of the American defense establishment's most formidable opponents.

Borrowing whatever useful metaphor I can find from the non-socsci world is a longterm project for me both as an PhD student and a security and international politics analyst. More power to what Ulfelder is doing, and if you're not already reading his stuff (as Carl Prine would say) you're wrong!2 And, ironically enough, the microbio people are learning from the international security greats!


* Title is a ref to one my favorite recent rap songs.

1. Pollan isn't a great guy to listen to about science reporting. See Keith Kloor's work for why.

2. Ulfelder may enjoy these two pieces as an alternative to the microbiology model. Also, my other perennial source of inspiration, Lynn Rees, applies his compsci background to thinking about politics.