16 Cucumbers and reason

Posted on June 8, 2011 by


The current scare over the EHCH epidemic – and the collateral impact on Spanish cucumbers and teutsche beansprouts – is a good starting point for a reflection about emotions and reason. The subject is as old as Adam and Eve – Eve fancied the apple, and all reasoning could not stop her from eating one and offering it to poor gullible Adam. Is there anything to be added?

Our mind is set to be guided by emotions. Makes sense. When one lives for millions of years in the same environment as deadly predators, behavior driven by neurochemical reaction is faster than reasoning. In addition, contrary to reasoning, which has three possible outcomes: yes, no, don’t know – emotions are always: up or down, fight of flight.

“Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point” – the French philosopher Blaise Pascal argued: The heart has its reasons that reason doesn’t know. Fine by me. I have no problems with letting the heart lead – unfortunately it usually leads with the chin – and – ouch! – it hurts sometimes.

A resistant strain on E. coli emerges. The cases cluster in a region – in our case northern Germany. Adrenaline mounts, we worry. Fine. We are hypersensitive to clusters of events. Flying an airplane is far safer than driving, but when an airplane crashes a cluster of lives is lost. The same number may be lost each week-end in crashes on the highways, but because the events are only linked statistically, we don’t worry. I don’t know anyone afraid of driving, or being driven – but I sure know more than a few that are afraid of flying. We also believe that clusters do not occur naturally. As soon as a cluster of cancers is spotted in the landscape, we worry that there is a common underlying cause –say electric power lines overhead. But in any random distribution we are likely to have “natural” clusters: we would not consider a A B A B… sequence random.

In this particular instance the cluster has a common underlying cause: the search for the source of malicious strain of E. coli is on. The “precautionary principle” is applied with a vengeance. That’s how the “Spanish cucumbers” were fingered as the possible/likely culprit. Sales of all Spanish vegetables collapsed Europe-wide. Imports of all EU-originating vegetables to Russia were stopped. Precaution built on precaution. In the end, however, it was utter scaremongering. The same scenario was repeated a few days later with a local firm producing beansprouts – until it too was cleared. The search continues.

Two “rational” questions stand out:

  • Was the reaction coherent and consistent? The best way to judge this is to see what is done in likely circumstances. If emotions should drive the level of risk we are willing to take, it is only rational that we treat equal risks roughly in like fashion. It turns out that we don’t – as our reaction to clusters of events shows. Acute get more attention than chronic dangers, even though the mortality rate may be the same, and we are particularly afraid of events we can vividly imagine.
  • Who pays for the consequences? The damage to Spain’s vegetable growers from the cucumber scare was very significant –and for those ill prepared to weather it will be irreversible. As emotions ran high, differentiations got lost in the din. Consumers switched to alternative sources. Normality, after the dust has settled, will return  – but slowly, if it will return at all. For prejudices once reaffirmed have a long staying power, even when proven baseless. In a world of materiality the “polluter pays principle” should apply in ruthless and universal fashion. Whoever claims the right to be protected should also be prepared to pay for the privilege.

Beware though: even the “polluter pays principle” is not unambiguous. Assume a train drawn by a steam engine sets the surrounding wheat fields on fire as it chugs through the landscape. One of the two activities has to stop for the duration. Which ought it to be? As Ronald COASE has pointed out in his seminal article on externalities, from the economic point of view it is immaterial whether the farmers bribe the railways not to run its trains, or the railway is obligated to compensate the farmers for their losses. But what about the fairness of it all? The original distribution of entitlements – whether the farmers have the right to sue the railway or not – will make all the difference to the outcome, and to our sense that justice (and not just efficiency) has been served. And how such entitlements are distributed is a historical accident – say “first come first served”, or “the mightier wins”.

Strategy – it is whispered in military circles – is 95% logistics. Strategic thinking may be a matter of intuitions and emotions – the ineffable realm of “what to do” were genius reigns supreme, unfettered by material considerations. Logistics is concerned with realizing the intuition – turning a dream into reality. That’s the world of bthe “how to”. Whether we like it or not, in the end the rational “how to” always wins out over the emotional “what to”. I’ll gladly leave the “what to” to emotions, provided I can retain control over the “how to”. What did that
American politician say? If you hold them by the b… the rest will follow? After all, logic and logistics have the same etymology.