Friday, August 10, 2018

True Believers and cognitive pollution

There is so much cognitive pollution and so many of our communication systems are geared towards high speed emotional transmission rather than considered dispassionate factual reporting that it becomes hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes for decades. Acid Rain, DDT, the ozone layer, plunging frog populations, the coming ice age, anthropogenic global warming - they are all immensely complex systems. We raise the alarm. We do something. We wonder if what we are doing is fixing the problem. Only then do we investigate. We discover the system is more complex than we thought. That our assumptions were wrong or incomplete. Reports start coming out revealing gaps in our understanding of how the system works. We don't have data to support our assumptions. Sometimes the problem turns out not to have been a problem. Sometimes it turns out to be a self-rectifying problem. Sometimes the problem is much more limited to specific circumstances than we thought. Sometimes it is a real problem and our solutions did not work.

There are vested interests on all sides of the debate. There are True Believers who allow for no debate at all. And we are left with a lot of cognitive pollution and little clarity.

Such has been the uproar over Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) beginning some ten years ago. Honey bee colonies, it was claimed, were collapsing all over the world. Then the claim was extended to all bees, not just honey bees.

I ignored it. It had all the hallmarks of a manufactured crisis, whether for commercial profit or communication clicks was unclear. Whether intentional or simply emergent order was unclear.

I saw something today that made think about CCD and made me wonder, whatever became of that crisis?

The answer - hard to tell. Cognitive pollution everywhere. As usually happens it seems the claims were overstated, the natural conditions misunderstood and the data sets were patchy.

This blogger, echoing many such articles I have seen in the past couple of years, claims Bees are not in Danger, and never were.

Wikipedia goes with an article that is closer to the peak hysteria.

This summary from the EPA circa 2015 has much more moderate claims.
Once thought to pose a major long term threat to bees, reported cases of CCD have declined substantially over the last five years. The number of hives that do not survive over the winter months – the overall indicator for bee health – has maintained an average of about 28.7 percent since 2006-2007 but dropped to 23.1 percent for the 2014-2015 winter. While winter losses remain somewhat high, the number of those losses attributed to CCD has dropped from roughly 60 percent of total hives lost in 2008 to 31.1 percent in 2013; in initial reports for 2014-2015 losses, CCD is not mentioned.
I could spend a lot of time researching this but almost certainly the data is incomplete and of variable quality, the vested interests (Commercial or True Believer) are strong, the robust research minimal. I am not sure that there was ever, in empirical terms, a problem in the first place, i.e. any disorder outside of the normal variance in a natural system. I am not sure we know what the real empirical picture looks like for any longitudinal data set. And I am pretty sure we still do not fully comprehend all the variables in this complex, dynamic, evolving, power-law driven system.

So, for the time being, I will continue monitoring but with an increasing assumption that there was never a problem in the first place.

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