Monday, March 14, 2005

Complexity and Crime

A four-year study by fifty scientists offers further evidence for the hypothesis that things happen whether you're paying attention to them or not:

The new studies identified toxic mercury contamination in mountain songbirds - the first time contamination was documented in wildlife not associated with water. Mercury is converted into a toxic form in water and mud, but the toxic mercury was also discovered in the song bird, which does not eat fish.

The songbirds may have been exposed by eating insects that ate tree leaves that converted mercury to its toxic form, scientists said. That "dry" route of exposure is new.
These findings are sure to be controversial, since they fly in the face of what I've elsewhere called the "Refusing to Pay Any Attention Principle." This is an epistemological norm that makes scientific research and public policy easier, by reducing the number of possible effects that a given cause can have. The basic idea is that the importance of missing information decreases as complexity increases.

Despite this shocking new evidence that ecosystems are characterized by complex interrelationships and a high degree of context dependence, and are thus more susceptible to the toxic effects of mercury than was previously thought, BushCo wants mercury-spewing power plants to be able to buy pollution "allowances" instead of cutting emissions, on the grounds that this sort of market-based solution has been successful at "curbing the pollution that causes acid rain."

Putting aside the fact that acid rain and mercury pollution are incommensurable as threats, I'd dispute the idea that market-based regulation is a rational response to market-based pollution. When a system leads to disastrous results - widespread mercury pollution, for example - I think one is obliged to question whether it's a good system.

We don't politely ask meth labs to adopt a cap-and-trade system for their hazardous waste emissions, nor do we invite the Mafia to police itself. We correctly see these groups as antisocial lawbreakers, and we don't expect them to reform themselves. I see no reason to view polluting firms any differently. Their freedoms end where ours begin, after all. BushCo's "market-based solutions" should be recognized for what they are: a reward for criminal behavior.


JMS said...

Maybe this is a clever plan by the technocracy to create a huge mercury thermometer.

Logic courtesy South Park
1) steal the underwear
2) ??????

Rmj said...

Well, you see, the market will save us with its invisible hand (and is it right handed, or left handed?)

Because when there's less of a viciously toxic heavy metal such as mercury in any one place (this is the stuff, by the way, some historians think made the French royalty insane; they had pools of it around the house), it's a net gain.

You gotta think of this in terms of infinity: infinite space, and infinite time. See, looked at that way, it's not a problem anymore.

Because by then, we're all dead anyway. And in the meantime, some of us still got to make money.

Ain't that invisible hand wonderful?

JMS said...

By the way, while I kind of kidded around in my first comment, my intent is not to make light of the issue.

It is a result of me having no idea what to about all this poison in our world.

OK, I have ideas, just not effective ones. They are all predicated on sanity in government. Not a perfect world, just sanity. Let's implement those mercury emmissions standards now, not in 2015.

Anonymous said...

Without sanity in government, it's hard to say what to do, except we really should address the mercury problem now. Are there pools with mercury in them around the White House? Now I'm going to kid around too, because I have outrage fatigue.

I think that this can't really be true. Just like global warming, it's part of the vast left-wing conspiracy to discredit capitalism. Remember all those trees causing pollution in the Reagan administration?

Anonymous said...


This is indeed a very serious matter. If I appeared flip or dismissive, I am sorry. I am suffering from outrage fatigue, and good words fail me. When good words fail me, I should keep quiet.

Phila said...

No apologies allowed! My post was flippant too. It's a perfectly natural response. And it's the only one I can stand to have, often. It keeps things at arm's length when they threaten to overwhelm you.