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We Have Black Swans

By       Message Siegfried Othmer     Permalink
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Class distinctions were maintained throughout the sinking of the Titanic, until victims finally met their end. Class divisions determined outcomes after Katrina. Class also determines fates presently. Those in the top 5% get to live nine years longer, on average, than those in the bottom 10%. The bottom 40% have virtually no tangible assets. In fact, the ledger is negative. They are in debt, and likely to remain so. Their future security rests entirely on communally shared resources. Yet those at the top remain cocooned in their sanctuaries, liberated from any sense of social obligation.

With neurofeedback we are necessarily largely future-oriented. Against the one trillion dollars expected to be spent on pharmaceuticals around the world next year, the two billion or so that will be spent on neurofeedback hardly registers. Given the fact that neurofeedback can only thrive in a future-oriented context, it is of specific as well as general interest to inquire into the state of the larger society that we wish to support.

It is appropriate to take an ecological perspective--a systems perspective. We end up asking a set of questions similar to those we ask about the brain. The most critical issues are those related to the stability of the natural systems on which we depend, as well as of the civil institutions and commercial enterprises we have created. Additionally, we inquire into issues of state regulation. Are the conditions we require sufficiently regulated to be sustainable? Lastly, we inquire into the quality of the interaction of the constituent parts. Is social harmony being promoted?

We have reason to be very skeptical on all counts. What we know to date is not reassuring. Neither the brain nor the natural world operates as an equilibrium system. This limits predictability. At the same time we orient more to the discipline of economics than any other in charting our future. The operative economic theory is an equilibrium model, and along with convention in all of economics, the entire matter of resource limitation lies outside of the framework of analysis. According to standard theory, the only resources that need to be judiciously allocated are capital and labor. The fruits of renewable nature and the exploitation of non-renewables do not weigh in as elements of the model.

In reality, of course, non-renewables are being depleted and renewables are increasingly being over-exploited. A steady-state economic status needs to be approached, and soon. Instead of preparing for that eventuality, however, our exertions are in the direction of restoring the growth model that has gotten us here. We are caught in the grip of the normalcy bias, the expectation that what is working presently is likely to keep working for us. But the growth model is clearly faltering.

The bias in favor of propagating existing arrangements is so pervasive that it is unlikely we will respond to impending challenges with the needed foresight and finesse. It is evident that we are prepared to respond only to crisis, so inevitably we have in store for us a future that will be lurching from one crisis to the next. Crises can emanate out of the technical, the economic, or the political sphere. Of the three, one would expect the technical sphere to be the one that is most competently managed. One look at Fukushima disabuses one of that hope. In fact, all three areas give one grounds for despair.

At Fukushima the water pumps for emergency cooling were in the basement, where they could readily flood. The spent-fuel pool, on the other hand, was located at elevation, where at the moment it is susceptible to sudden rupture with the next major aftershock, leading to rapid drainage with catastrophic consequences. That's why the fuel is being moved as quickly as possible. Placing four reactors close together meant that engineers had created a correlated risk. All these design flaws became immediately obvious to even a non-technical observer after the earthquake. Yet none of these considerations was persuasive to the engineers before the event. This disaster gives us rare insight into the larger reality that our technological society is not organized to be fault-tolerant.

As for the economic sphere, it is a story of perpetual instability. America's financial history is replete with major financial crises. In the history of the world, there has never ever been an economic arrangement that had an extended history of stability. So why is so much credence being given to an equilibrium theory, when the equilibrium referred to has so little persistence?

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Siegfried Othmer is a physicist who over the last 28 years has been engaged with neurofeedback as a technique for the rehabilitation and enhancement of brain function. He is Chief Scientist at the EEG Institute in Los Angeles.

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