Sunday, June 23, 2013

Stable social equilibria

Rajan Parrikar sent me this news-story:
Riot after Chinese teachers try to stop pupils cheating
What should have been a hushed scene of 800 Chinese students diligently sitting their university entrance exams erupted into siege warfare after invigilators tried to stop them from cheating.

Suppose a people are embedded in a situation where cheating is norm, the equilibrium situation. Unless there is isolation where a change can incubate or else a universal impetus to change, it is very difficult to move to the other equilibrium, where cheating is the exception.
Last year, the city {Zhongxiang in Hubei province in China} received a slap on the wrist from the province's Education department after it discovered 99 identical papers in one subject. Forty five examiners were "harshly criticised" for allowing cheats to prosper.

So this year, a new pilot scheme was introduced to strictly enforce the rules.
According to the protesters, cheating is endemic in China, so being forced to sit the exams without help put their children at a disadvantage.

A pilot scheme won't cut it. I do think it is plausible that with a determined national effort, China could move to the other equilibrium.

My point however is that modern pseudo-scientific observers of behavior would however, seek an evolutionary and genetic explanation for an observed equilibrium in the social behavior of a species (say, baboons) without even asking whether the very same species could be tipped to another rather different equilibrium, without any genetic change.

If the evolutionary and genetic explanation actually predict the other equilibrium, or else correctly rule out any other equilibrium for the given species, then they are indeed explanations. Otherwise, they are a just-so story, in exactly the same way some superstring theorists claim that every phenomenon can be explained by string theory - it is a theory of everything - which may even eventually turn out to be true, but the explanation is lacking. From the pre-scientific age, it is like explanations based on an unknowable Will of God, or unknowable karma from past lives.