Friday, April 24, 2009

Collective decision making…

Consider following situations

  • An engineering project is being executed; engineers are facing some technical difficulties in achieving the expected performance. Due to novelty of the project, nobody from the project executing organization has faced exactly same problem before. They are under financial pressure to finish the work at earliest.
  •  A patient is undergoing a surgery in an operating theatre and the team of doctors is facing some unexampled situation.
  • A large scale, completely automated, industrial manufacturing plant handling some hazardous chemicals is having some unusual problems. The control system, by giving out safety alarms, has passed the onus of restoring the plant to safe conditions towards its operators.

In all the above situations a decision, which is going to have some serious consequences, needs to be made in a short time. The urgency, however, is below a threshold at which one is forced to act intuitively. Following situation would help me to explain the threshold better.

A commercial aircraft is landing in auto mode with the help of a well tested (?) state of the art control system. Everything goes fine until the aircraft is just few meters away from the airstrip when its control system suddenly tips its nose towards ground at ridiculous angle (as they would discover it later, a bug in the program was responsible for the incidence). Thankfully the pilot was alert enough and pulled the lever in no time; his action saved a major accident. Forget about consulting his fellow travelers, the pilot can’t even think consciously before taking action.

….You must be thinking that my imagination is producing some impossible examples. The incidence, however, is real. I would have liked to post it with more details but right now I don’t have the reference available with me…

Coming back to the situations described in the beginning… The process of decision making in such situations is very interesting as nobody has experienced the same situation before. Everybody will have his/her opinion. The person in-charge first needs to decide about how the decision should be made. He/she can call all his teammates and consider their opinions, he can ask for some advice from outside if possible, or he himself can take the decision. As the time available is limited, all this needs to be done rather quickly.

I have seen that many a times the person in-charge takes decision on his own. The reasons could be

  • he thinks there is no time to consider all opinions
  •  according to him, he is the best person to take decision (and that’s why he is holding the post)
  • he is too confident about the solution in his mind
  •  or some combination of above and many more possible reasons

Such situations need to be handled very carefully. All of us are subjected to many biases, many of which have been proven scientifically, while we make decisions. The environment, our recent experiences, and our state of mind in general play a significant role in decision making. The opinions of team members should be taken in to account as far as possible to better the decision.

Now it is being proved scientifically that a collective decision is, in general, much better than individual decision. Even though it seems very difficult to distinguish, quantify, and generalize the benefits of one way of decision making over the other, scientists working in this field are somehow managing to do it.

Jonah Lehrer has given some interesting examples of such scientific evidence. The process of decision making in one large hospital was changed deliberately. The doctors, who undewent specialised training, were asked to implement collective decision making processes. It was observed, with the help of some quantifiable parameters, that the decisions which came out of such a process were quite better.

Similar process is also being implemented by some airlines for their crew members.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Freedom is the recognition of contingency

For many years I had a strong belief that there are only two categories of people. The categories can be named Good People and Bad People. Some people may have mixed characteristics but at their core everybody is either good or bad. Moreover I was convinced that there are some universally accepted characteristics that define any person to be either good or bad.

Later on I used to think there are some distinct, comprehendible forces which decide how a person will behave in certain situation. For example money will be a force deciding behavior or decisions of some people, for some it might be respect of their peers, for some it could be happiness of some close family member, and so on.

In the last few years, however, I have realized that behaviors of people are simply too complicated to be categorized, modeled, or predicted with some degree of certainty. The happy realization came through experiences some of which are memorable and some haunting.

In fact, as I understand through some readings from economics (which still believes that behavior of people can be descibed as rational and selfish), psychology, and neuroscience (recognizing the connection between these three seemingly unrelated disciplines is an experience in itself) understanding behavior of people is still far beyond the boundaries of human knowledge.

Probably engineers are trained to analyze artificial systems which can be broken down in small parts and their inter-relation can be established comprehensively. This, however, does not apply to natural systems. Ignorance of this very fact has led to many blunders and disasters, consequences of which are being faced by all of us. (More about this later)

Recently I read a quote by Richard Rorty, which exactly reflects my feelings at this point in time; “Freedom is the recognition of contingency”.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Recession!! (Experts Part 2)

On September 18th, 2008 a company called Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. The event marked the beginning of another global financial crisis. All over the world, lives of quite a few people started changing overnight as many lost their jobs, investments burst, businesses were blowing up. Within a matter of few days everybody around started saying that major economic recession has started!

In my opinion a change, of such intensity and taking place so hastily, in the state of the world can only be justified some major natural calamity, a war, or an alien attack. It is simply incomprehensible that fall in the value of some virtual financial instruments so profoundly affects lives of people all over the world.

Why are our systems so vulnerable to such seemingly small changes beyond our control? Don’t we have any control over the situation? Who would answer these questions, our so called experts? If they were the once in charge, we shouldn’t have been here.

One of the reasons behind current global financial crisis is probably overconfidence on mathematical models by our ‘expert’ bakers. As I have understood from some of the readings in last few weeks (Sorry I can’t give exact references right now) the bankers did some foolish mistakes in using these models. Mistakes like ignoring the assumptions on which the models are based or ignoring possibility of events which even though are highly improbable can take us to a point of no return. They probably don’t believe that the world we live in is too complicated to be modeled mathematically.

Thankfully not all the experts get carried away at the same time. Here is an interesting clip of two ‘experts’ who saw this disaster coming. People like Bill Gates and Michael Dell were waiting for more than an hour to listen to these guys during last World Economic Forum.

Here is a similar example showing how unintelligent use of models can lead us to a disaster.

As explained here by Jonah Lehrer, the financial crisis has helped expose a powerful bias in human decision-making, which is our abhorrence of uncertainty.

Can we really conclude anything out of this mess? Probably nothing concrete; understanding the environment we are living in is probably beyond our intellectual capabilities. As put by Nassim Nichola Taleb in Fooled by Randomness.

“The real problem is, as I have mentioned, that such a natural habitat (the one which we are living in for thousands of years) does not include much information…. Much of our problem comes from the fact that we have evolved out of such a habitat faster, much faster than our genes. Even worse; our genes have not changed at all.”

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Communicating in Vietnam

Staying in Vietnam without knowing english is a test of your acting skills and patience. Here are some incidents during my stay

This was during my first visit. I was very enthusiastic about tasting different dishes (rather animals) in vietnam. After progressing gradually from pork, beef, ostrich, seahorse to octupus, my curiosity and venturesomeness were at peak. Somebody told me that they even eat Frogs. Me and some fellow venturers were now asking our cook to prepare Frog for us. Needless to say we didn't know what is Frog called in Vietnamese and she was not knowing the word Frog. We tried to explain it to her by making different sounds, expressions, and gesticulations but everything was in vain. Finally I googled for images of frog and showed it to her.

We were leaving from the plant for lunch when some operators asked us about where are we going. Now isn't it easy to answer the question without any word? Well, not quite as we reailzed. Even though they nodded to our movements we could clearly see that they didn't understand anything. The puzzle was later unfolded by a fellow Indian living here since last two years. Vietnamese people have their food with a bowl held just below mouth by left hand and chopsticks in the right one. So if you want to indicate lunch/dinner, any movement of right hand is not enough; you need to use your left hand as well. 

This one is the best so far. It was my birthday and we were going to have a blast. I was searching the grocery shop for some food items as sidedish (I guess, I dont need to mention the purpose..). In vietnam, it is very difficult to find anything hot in taste; everything is either sweet or sour. After trying some such items, finally I had an idea, to prepare boiled eggs with some masala. Now I was not hoping store-keepers to understand the word egg. I went to our driver (they are the best translators you get for free) but even he didn't get it at first shot. I spelled the word on my hand and even drew a small figure but with no success. I was very determined to find out eggs and there I saw some chickens kept for sell. I thought now I can definitely tell him what I am searching for. I took him near the chickens and even tried some gesticulations. Still no success. Finally I started searching for eggs in the stores by myself. And there he came back to call me, eureka, he had understood what I was trying to tell him. But it was too late, by that time I had also found eggs in one of the stores.

There are many more incidents like these and I will post them as I recollect them.

Experts… well, not quite (Part 1)

Note: If you don’t wish to spend your time reading a long post by a rookie, directly go to the example in the closing part of the post.

Who do we call an expert? I think somebody who has been trained in a particular field by a reputed institute and has sufficient experience in the same field. The definition is not a comprehensive one but that’s not what I want to discuss here, rather this is regarding the credibility of all those whom we can refer to as experts. This includes professors, scientists, pundits, senior engineers, and all those who occupy some ‘top’ positions in organizations. (I am very curious about why do we need to create so many levels in an organization? Assistant Vice President, Vice President, Sr. Vice President, President… common, give me a break. More about that later...)

It is very natural for any of us to turn to experts when we are faced with situations we are not confident to handle or when we want some predictions about a very complicated system. Who is more likely to form the government after upcoming elections?, how should India handle terrorism?, or how can we solve traffic problem in Pune? Even though each individual can have his own opinions about such issues; any sensible person, if put in decision maker’s shoes, would most probably discuss the matter with experts in the particular field before deciding anything. Same is true for day to day decisions, either professional or personal. An engineer facing a technical problem which he has never faced before or falls outside his expertise will most probably go to his senior. (Provided the poor fellow is not working under a prof from COEP.)

In some situations, like technical problems, the solution is objective which can be endorsed by sufficient scientific references. Most of the times, however, we are forced to take decisions which cannot be weighed against objective standards. From a minister addressing the issue of national security to a site engineer dealing with customer, each one of us faces different dilemmas.

….I just realized that I have written three paragraphs without actually coming to the point I wanted to write about. I had never faced such a situation before, whenever I was writing an essay (and it goes without saying that it was during some damn exam) I always had to keep on adding something so as to cross the minimum limit….

Coming to the point… To what extent can we really depend upon opinions/judgments of experts for making decisions, especially the ones without any objective standards?

Psychologists and neuroscientists have proved over the last four decades that we humans do not make decisions by deliberately evaluating all the possibilities, especially in complicated situations. Rather, as the great duo of Kahneman and Tversky say in their legendary 1974 Science paper (Ref 1),

“...people rely on a limited number of heuristic principles which reduce the complex tasks of assessing probabilities and predicting values to simpler judgmental operations. In general, these heuristics are quite useful, but sometimes they lead to severe and systematic errors.”

And this process of decision making is not limited to laymen, even the experts are subjected to the same for a simple reason as put by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“We are, whether we like it or not, prisoners of our biology.”

Here is what Kahneman and Tversky say

“The reliance on heuristics and the prevalence of biases are not restricted to laymen. Experienced researchers are also prone to the same biases-when they think intuitively. For example, the tendency to predict the outcome that best represents the data, with insufficient regard for prior probability, has been observed in the intuitive judgments of individuals who have had extensive training in statistics. Although the statistically sophisticated avoid elementary errors, such as the gambler's fallacy, their intuitive judgments are liable to similar fallacies in more intricate and less transparent problems.”

I think the post is already too long to be read by any practical person. So I would stop here for today and continue with the same topic later. I will close it with following example from Fooled by Randomness.

"The following quiz was given to medical doctors

A test of a disease presents a rate of 5% false positives. The disease strikes 1/1,000 of the population. People are tested at random, regardless of whether they are suspected of having the disease. A patient’s test is positive. What is the probability of the patient being stricken with the disease?

Most doctors answered 95% simply taking into account the fact that the test has a 95% accuracy rate… Less than one in five professionals got it right."

What do you think is the right answer? Even if you don’t like probability, you should give it a best try as someday you can be the one being diagnosed.


  1. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. "Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases" Science, Sept 1974, Vol. 185 (4157), pp. 1124-1131.
  2. Nassim Nicholas Taleb. “Fooled by Randomness”.
  3. Jonah Lehrer. “How We Decide".

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Knowledge it still too slow?

Today, people all over the world, irrespective of their economic status, social status, and geographical location, are equipped with very easy means to communicate with each other. A celebrity staying in Manhattan can put his/her thought on a blog and a reader staying in a remotest village in India can read them on very same day and can even write back his/her comments. The situation was definitely far different just a few decades back. There must have been many scientists working on a same problem but having very limited means to know what their colleagues in some other part of the world are doing.

The vast improvement in the means of communication naturally accelerates the process of knowledge transfer among people.  For example an engineer working in the field of renewable energy should know, within short time, about a breakthrough in material science which can substantially improve the efficiency of solar cell. Similarly a student studying physics in some small town should get to know about a breakthrough discovery in nuclear science taking place at NASA. In reality, the process of knowledge transfer, however, seems to be taking a very long time. Consider following observations

  • For many years economics assumed that people are rational and selfish. Not later than 1970s, these assumptions were challenged and then scientifically proven wrong by many psychologists. Economists have also accepted the fallacy in there earlier assumptions. This is clearly evident from theories such as Bounded Rationality, Prospect Theory. However, many elementary books, either targeted to economics students or general public, still teach economics based on same old assumptions.
  • As far as I know, people, in genearl, still believe that genes of an animal are like a computer program and completely control the behavior, traits and many other important things regarding the animal throughout its lifetime. However scientists working in the field of genetics have long ago realized the limitations of genes in controlling behavior or traits of animal. One of the reasons behind this particular knowledge gap is probably the propaganda adopted by MNCs in the field of genetics.

It is understandable if discoveries in a very specialized and narrow field are taking time to reach people. But discoveries which shake the very foundations of disciplines (like the ones described above) must reach people, at least those working in the same discipline, within short time.

Trying to find out reasons behind above observations, I think

  • Probably discoveries like fallacy in basic assumptions of economics are not instantaneous. They take place over a long period of time as scientists debate for a long time before concluding anything.
  • In some cases, like genetics, there are some entities that are benefited, directly or indirectly, from incorrect beliefs of people.
  • Even though we have easy access to all the developments taking place around us, the capacity of a human being to assimilate knowledge limits the rate of knowledge transfer.
I am very happy to post my first blog. Hope I will continue the process.

  1. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. "Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases" Science, Sept 1974, Vol. 185 (4157), pp. 1124-1131.
  2. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. "The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice" Science, Jan 1981, Vol. 211 (4481), pp. 453-458.
  3. Daniel Kahneman. "A Psychological Perspective of Economics" American Economic Review, May 2003, Vol 93 (2), Pages 162-168. 
  4. Fritjof Capra. "The Hidden Connections", Flamingo, 2003