Friday, January 9, 2009

There Ain’t No Justice

I wasn’t there to see it — I think I was out on a task with my airscent dog, Pip — but better-half Heather described it vividly enough that I think I have a pretty accurate picture in my mind.

As the dog handler stood in front of her, waiting for a search task in a search for a missing turkey hunter, she reviewed the standard form that our search managers have all dog handlers fill out. It lists a number of the possible certifications that a search-and-rescue dog-and-handler team might have earned to demonstrate their competency in searching for lost people.

Too often, “dog handlers” check off none of the boxes; I think that I’ve been able to check two of them [1]; we’re happy when we get handlers with one cert.

This guy had checked off pretty much every one.

“I notice you have DCNR certification,” I can clearly hear Heather saying in my head. God, I know that tone — head for cover when you hear it, brother. “Who was your evaluator?”

“I can’t remember his name,” came the foolish reply. He should have been running, not talking.

“That’s interesting,” she said, “because I’m the only DCNR evaluator in this part of the state, and I don’t remember you.”

What happened next may have not exactly been dramatic — the search managers simply didn’t give this individual a search task to perform — but over the next few weeks the bureaucratic equivalent of a Tsunami came down on this truth-impaired individual. Posts to NASAR and DCNR confirmed he’d never tested with either organization; both sent him cease-and-desist letters. And as far as I know, nobody who’s at all integrated into our local SAR command structure has used him since.

“Heather is my hero,” Vicki Coup, the head canine evaluator for DCNR, told me later.

It was one of the few times I’ve ever seen bald-faced misconduct in the SAR community meet with anything approaching effective punishment, at least from the community (a few have fallen afoul of the courts, I’m afraid); probably that Vicki had ever seen, too. That’s because even fairly serious misbehavior tends to elicit only groans and protestations that “nothing can be done.” People just don’t have the stomach to be the bad guy, to take the time and trouble to follow through on dispensing punishment. In this case, the consequences happened only because Heather wouldn’t let it go.

But here’s the rub: in Pennsylvania’s decentralized commonwealth system, many of the local law enforcement agencies are not well connected to the SAR community and don’t know whom to turn to — and whom to avoid — when they have a lost person on their hands. For all I know, someone may be counting on this guy, who maybe doesn’t know the first thing about what he’s doing and certainly isn’t trustworthy, right at this moment.

And that, boys and girls, is the topic of my late-but-under-the-wire post today [2]: The cost of punishment to the punisher, and the difficult scientific job of understanding why people and other organisms who get no immediate payoff from doing anything but look out for Number One engage in altruistic behavior.

My spur was a recent paper by Hisashi Ohtsuki, of Tokyo Insitute of Technology and Kyushu University, and crew in Nature, and accompanying commentary by Bettina Rockenbach of the Univesrity of Erfurt, Germany, and Manfred Milinski of the Max Planck Institute for Evoltionary Biology in Plön. Ohtsuki carried out a series of theoretical calculations to see what conditions could make the cost of punishing a bad guy persist.

There’s a broad mismatch between scientific thinking on altruism — which stipulates that, in order to have evolved in the first place, altruism somehow has to offer a payback that covers (or exceeds) its cost — and common-sense observation. As a one-time biologist myself, I can’t get around the former. On the other hand, folks like Kristen Monroe have written pretty persuasively about the latter: how this theoretical underpinning sometimes falls on its face in view of how people actually act.

What the current papers point out is just how far (assuming they need to get payback) people will go to avoid taking on the cost of punishing someone. While I’m with Monroe in the larger sense, I have to admit that my own experience in the world of policing misbehavior among volunteer SAR responders tracks with Ohtsuki findings.

The problem, in the Tokyo-led group’s computer simulations, is that punishing a bad guy costs the punisher enough that rational decision makers would tend to avoid it [3]. If there’s little or no information on who the good guys and bad guys are, everybody tends to assume the worst and simply look out for themselves. If there’s reasonably good identification of good guys and bad guys — particularly when people can trade information on past behavior — the best strategy ought to be “CD,” for cooperate with good guys and defect, or just decline to work with bad guys. This is probably the most common strategy I see in real life among SAR teams faced with problem teams and individuals.

But. There is a Goldilocks set of conditions — when reasonably good information is available on past behavior, and punishing bad guys can establish you as a good guy — in which “CP,” for cooperate with good and punish bad — can arise and persist.

“Heather is my hero,” you may recall the head DCNR evaluator telling me.

Even more interesting was a bit that Rockenbach and Milinski added, to the effect that their own research suggests that CD and CP can co-exist and were actually more stable than CD-only, when participants had the option of avoiding bad guys but punishing really bad guys.

Again, for reasons that I hope to write about in the not-too-far, Monroe poses some serious challenges to the simple idea that there has to be a payoff; even on a theoretical basis, Rockenbach and Milinski say of the more complex regime in which reaction to bad guys is conditional, “Such a possibility sets a challenge for theorists.” And Ohtsuki and pals admit that a system can persist, for quite some time, even when it’s not completely optimal.

Read Heart of Altruism if you want to know more right away about Monroe’s work, I can certainly recommend it. But I’m damned if the virtual actors in these latest reports aren’t, under what amounts to “what’s in it for me” rules, acting a lot like some people I know.

One word of advice, though: if you’re going to piss somebody off, try not to make it Heather.

[1] Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Air-Scent K9, and my current cert, National Association for Search and Rescue Canine SARTECH II.
[2] I’m embarking on new territory, seeing if I can get permission to republish figures from several journal articles for a series on the structure of airborne scent plumes and what nature has to tell us about how best to follow them to source. Wish me luck.
[3] Yes, I know. The trick is, then, that irrationality must offer a payback that makes it persist, which almost takes you back to square one — though it can in fact offer a payback for some other context, unrelated to altruism, that offsets its cost in the altruism context.


Heather Houlahan said...

If you are going to lie, don't lie on paper, don't lie about something that is so damned easy to verify, and don't lie stupid

This guy claimed that he couldn't remember the name of either his NASAR evaluator or his DCNR evaluator, because "it was so long ago."

Dude, you wrote here that your dog is a year and half old. How long ago could it have been?

Of course, the punch line is that we were using uncertified dog teams on that search because the RA was insisting on it. At least one of them was found by a grid team butt-lost, sure they were searching their assigned area, but really half a mile away.

If Tommy Flanagan hadn't given in to the temptation to puff himself up... Yeah, that's the ticket ... I'd have had to task the jackass.

That was the same search where I got the lecture on "scent" from the guy with the man-eating bloodhound -- the one who pretends to be a haunted, brooding Vietnam vet, but who is like 45 years old.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm a 48-year-old Viet Nam vet myself. I was with that first group of eight-year-olds LBJ sent over just after Tet. They wouldn't let us use firearms--only M16-shaped water guns--but man, did we soak some VC!