Command and Control?

Bioinformatics, Economics and Everything

When I started the website, my intention was that it would be about bioinformatics. I have other interests, such as economics, but I thought I might start other websites related to that. Then I began to realise that it's hard to separate these areas. Bioinformatics relates to drug development, and ideas of a more open approach to bioinformatics must lead on to ideas on how drug development should be funded - maybe non-profit organisations should be involved more. Then there's healthcare costs - is it reasonable that these should become an ever larger proportion of our expenditure, or should we hope that they might decrease - perhaps new technology will mean that a lot of what now requires expensive treatment facilities can be done more simply at home. And suppose new 'wonder drugs' came along meaning that people lives were substantially longer - what effect would that have on the world economy? I quickly realised that, although bioinformatics should be the prime topic of this website, it doesn't make sense to try to separate out my interests among different websites, especially in a blog. Hence I expect this blog to cover a wide range of topics: bioinformatics, economics, computing, mathematics and so on.

The immune system

As part of my interest in bioinformatics, I decided I needed to read about the immune system and Infection and immunity
Infection and immunity
A compact treatment of an important subject
by Playfair and Bancroft seemed to be a good place to start. It's impressive how our cells can present snippets of internal molecules and the immune system determines whether there is a need to take action against an invading virus. The trouble is I began to think 'How can that possibly work?'. Behaviour on a molecular scale is driven by thermodynamics, which involves a large amount of randomness. This can be used to drive directed motion as explained in the book Life's Ratchet
Life's Ratchet
A fascinating explanation of how biological order can arise from randomness
, but it's hard to see how it could make binding decisions. If the checking done by the immune system involved a significant amount of randomness, how could it be sure that the snippet being presented really was a piece of a virus, rather than a piece of self which it hadn't checked for yet? There has to be something else going on.

Free markets?

The world economy has great inequalities, with high unemployment in many areas. Sometimes we are told that this is due to an over-reliance on laissez-faire economics - on free markets. The trouble is that I don't buy this explanation. Economics says that free markets should approach an equilibrium state, in which (my intution tells me) unemployment should tend to zero, and although there would be some inequality, it shouldn't be anything like as great as what we see in the world today. There has to be something else going on. If we can work out what this something else is, then maybe we can work towards lower unemployment and greater equality.

Command and Control!

I began to realise that it was important to have a better understanding of randomness. Clearly this plays an important part in the thermodynamic behaviour of biological molecules, but it also plays a part in economics. It's not just coincidence the great economist John Maynard Keynes also wrote A treatise on probability
A treatise on probability
It might rain today. Are you going to take an umbrella?
, and a poor understanding of risk and probability was implicated in the world economic problems of the last few years. While looking for books on risk I came across the book In search of certainty
In search of certainty
The familiar notions of command and control are being thwarted by realities of a faster, denser world of communication where choice, variety, and indeterminism rule
by Mark Burgess. Now I haven't read this book yet, but one of the things in the blurb struck a chord. It talked of the opposition between randomness and 'Command and Control'. This got me thinking of how command and control structures could emerge from randomness and thus take on a life of their own, maintaining a system away from its equilibrium position.

In the case of biology these structures are components of living organisms. In economics, command and control structures explain why we don't behave in the way economics says we should. We are more concerned with maintaining or raising our position in the command and control hierarchy than in maximising our utility, and this behaviour helps to maintain the existence of the command and control structures. I feel that these structures really do take on a life of their own. We think that the people at the top have all the power, but in reality they face a lot of constraints. For instance in Don't even think about it
Don't even think about it
How come most people agree that climate change is a problem, but so little is done about it?
George Marshall explains how oil companies talk about moving away from fossil fuels - but feel they need their customers' 'permission' to do so. With this frame of mind I begin to see command and control structures elsewhere. For instance, academia seems not so much a collection of independent thinkers combining to push knowledge forward at the greatest rate, but as a command and control structure which may have its own agenda.

So what to do?

Do we need command and control structures? If living things are such structures then obviously we do, but equally we might think of a cancer as a command and control structure that we don't want. In the case of economics, getting rid of command and control structures might help to promote equality, but is this really tenable? The French revolution seemed to be based on this idea - individuals interacting via Liberty, Equality, Fraternity - and that didn't go well. It was only after Napoleon imposed his own command and control structures (all the while claiming to be acting in the interests of the revolution) that things settled down. It should be obvious that proposing some great revolution to sweep away command and control structures isn't going to work - that will just install new ones. It's more a case of modifying our behaviour. For instance in the recent financial crisis, it seemed that the banks could use our money to make large profits when risky investments paid off, but expect to be bailed out when they didn't. How did they achieve this? It seems to me that it is related to the fact most people are reluctant to switch banks, indicating that we are not keeping an eye on what they are doing with our money - we are allowing banks to avoid the rigours of market forces

I have to say though, that I don't have any quick answers to the questions of whether we should oppose command and control structures, or how we should go about it if we decide that we should. These are questions which I hope to explore in this blog, as well as (in the longer term) trying to build simple online models (maybe economic models, maybe biological models) which can be used to investigate the roles command and control structures play and how they maintain themselves.

Published on Friday, August 14, 2015