On the radio the other day, I heard a trio of eminent scientists – a mathematician, a psychologist and one other – provide a layperson’s explanation of a branch of mathematics called Game Theory. It was described as the mathematics of decision making. So influential has this mathematics become, that governments use it, economists use it etc., etc. The games discussed on the programme included a well known one called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, an important application of which is analysing how two countries might behave when locked in an arms race. Apparently over 2000 scientific papers have been published on this game alone. Other games include the Hawk and Dove, Chess and a game, not given a name, where two people meet on the pavement and each has to make a decision about passing the other before going on their respective ways. Underpinning Game Theory are two human behaviours: cooperation and competition.
Several things about the programme jumped out at me.
First of all, consider the ‘game’ of two people meeting on a pavement and passing each other. This game, the scientists claimed, is very simple. I disagree. As soon as two people come close enough to pass each other on the street, they are close enough to be communicating and so a supposedly ‘simple’ scenario actually becomes a very complex one. That the scientists were unable to appreciate this complexity raises questions right from the start. It could, therefore, be seen as alarming that government, economists and military strategists increasingly rely on these mathematical fantasies. Nor is it insignificant that one of the instigators of game theory had such ‘a beautiful mind’ that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a mental condition which severely distorts a person’s view of other people. A man who suffered delusions and hallucinations, who lived in a completely hallucinatory world where every human being was a monster, a demon or an alien, is renowned and respected for his insight into human behaviour. Am I the only one who sees a flaw in this?
As previously mentioned, underpinning Game Theory is the belief of the scientists that they understand and can distinguish between cooperative and competitive behaviour. However, it is quite clear that they confuse teamwork with cooperation. They also completely fail to understand that these are not behavioural choices. If you are cooperative, you exhibit cooperative behaviour (harmony is a good word to use here), whereas if you are competitive, you exhibit competitive behaviour. A competitive person can never be cooperative, nor can a cooperative person be competitive.
Another factor that reveals the scientists’ failure to understand the difference between cooperation and competition is that they totally misinterpret behaviour in the natural world as very predatory and competitive. Scientists have put much time and effort over the years into investigating whether or not there are any instances of altruism which would imply cooperation in nature (the Hawk and Dove game is an aspect of this). The distinction drawn between selfishness and altruism is shockingly revealing of an abysmal failure to understand the difference between cooperation and competition. The simple fact is that to be selfish, to act with your own true and complete self-interest in mind, is not to compete with other people, is not to damage or hurt other people, but is to live in harmony with them. (I do acknowledge, however, that nature is red in tooth and claw, but all is not what it seems.)
Finally, some thoughts on the modern phenomenon of making science understandable to the layperson, as the scientists on this programme were attempting to do.
Imagine you have never seen or practiced cookery in your life, but have heard of a thing called baking. You ask someone to tell you what is this ‘baking a cake’. It is described to you in great detail so you think you know what ‘baking a cake’ is. You then get an opportunity to try ‘baking a cake’. But you then discover that you do not know what ‘baking a cake’ is after all. Only AFTER the experience of ‘baking a cake’ do you know what ‘baking a cake’ is. In the same way, you cannot understand what higher mathematics is about unless you have done it for yourself. So, what are these people doing who purport to be educating the lay public? They are advertising themselves and their subjects by jumping onto the celebrity bandwagon. Having said which, one can be very sure that there is very little truth in what one is hearing.
Since Gilbert and Sullivan coined this lyric “Things are seldom what they seem, skimmed milk masquerades as cream…….” the situation has become much, much worse and one might now say "sewage masquerades as cream.."