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Of Fire Ants & Feedback Loops

| 11 Comments | 1 TrackBack

by Benjamin Kuipers

Callimachus' "War or No War" post provoked some excellent discussions. Including a comment by ChangeThis manifesto author Benjamin Kuipers re: the USA's interesting experience with fire ants, as an illustration of surprising "second order effects" where a successful short-term response results in the opposite of what people were trying to do over the longer term. With Benjamin's consent, I've stripped out the (very few) references to terrorism in his comment and posted it here as a full Guest blog, because it's an interesting true story with lessons for a much broader variety of situations.

Many complex systems include multiple feedback loops, often both positive and negative ones. These can interact in ways that lead to counter-intuitive responses to what seem to be obviously correct actions. Let me give you an example.

Here in Texas, we have a nuisance called fire ants (solenopsis invicta). Nests of little biting ants that leave infected pustules from their bites and stings. They migrated in from South America somewhere, and for a while were confined to about a square mile near Houston1. A few prescient scientists suggested spending several million dollars to saturate that area with the appropriate insecticide and kill them off. They weren't listened to.

A decade or so later, people decided they had a serious problem, and went all out to kill them off....

This very expensive effort came to be known as "the Vietnam of entomology". The fire ants won.

They are now a permanent part of the American south, and we learn to deal with them. Here's the interesting thing about feedback systems.

Suppose you discover the first few fire ant mounds on your property, and you decide to move quickly, and eradicate them completely, just like people should have done in Houston, many years ago. You buy a good strong ant poison and kill every last one of them.

The next year, or possibly the year after, instead of 10% fire ants on your property, you have 90% fire ants. Why?

It turns out that fire ants move quickly into unoccupied territory, but they are not all that great against other species of ants who are already established there and aren't bothering you at all. However, if you spread general-purpose insecticide around, you kill the fire ants, but you also kill all the other indigenous ants. The next year, there's this nice big empty territory, with no other ants to compete with, and the fire ants move in a lot quicker than the other species.

(Incidentally, if you really want to control your fire ants, instead of broadcasting a general-purpose ant poison, you use slow-poisoned bait, and sprinkle it by hand into the foraging area around each individual mound. They take it home, feast and die, leaving their territory to their neighbors. Fortunately, fire ants have conspicuous mounds.)

But notice the paradoxical dynamics. An "obviously correct" strategy ("kill all the fire ants") that successfully defeats fire ants on the time-scale of days, actually encourages the fire ant population on the time-scale of seasons. A slower strategy requiring more patience ("feed them tempting poison") actually works. (For people who don't even have the patience for the bad plan, a popular approach is pouring boiling water onto the mound. This is a lot of work and gives you the bodies of a bunch of dead worker ants, but it has virtually no effect at all on the mound.)

This analogy shouldn't be pushed too far. But with a little practice at looking for these kinds of second-order effects, and particularly looking for paradoxical responses where the long-term effect is in the opposite direction to the short-term effect, it is amazing what you see out there.

People will persist in doing things that seem sensible, but then turn around and bite them on a longer time-scale, and they'll never understand that they are causing their own misery. Simple aphorisms like "Don't eat the seed corn" are compiled warnings about this phenomenon.

David Blue would respond to Bejamin in the comments with an unconventional take on this story's applicability to the war. "The Fire Ants of Allah and Second-Order Effects" is a good jumping-off point for people who wish to discuss that aspect.


1 See reader comment #1, which disputes this and says they spread from Mobile, Alabama beginning in the 1930s.

1 TrackBack

Tracked: May 2, 2006 2:44 PM
A post of its own from The Glittering Eye
Excerpt: Joe Katzman the concierge of Winds of Change has promoted the comment there that I linked to yesterday to a post of its own.  This is a must-read!  Also, don’t miss the elaboration/critique of the observation from Aussie David Blue which has al...


Except this is wrong.

Fire Ants came into Mobile Alabama in the 1930s and spread from there.

The only way they could spread was if there was an energy source they could exploit better than the current exploiters and if the level of parasitism and disease does not prevent them from having enough energy to reproduce.

The things they prey on have to learn to avoid them. Parasitism and diseases have to evolve to kill them. Humans have to adopt practices to retard them.

Its not a one time whack, but a whole series of measures to control them.

The fire ants story relates to Boyd's OODA loops.

You can't change your tactics until you see the results and interpret them and come up with a better plan. That takes time.

So if you pour boiling water on a fire ant nest, and you compare to a similar nest that you've left alone, you can compare the results at 6 hours and at 1 day and at 1 week. That's probably sufficient time to see that you haven't killed the nest and haven't done it enough harm to justify the effort.

But if you use insecticide you might find quickly that you have killed the nest. And then it takes a year to see that you're worse off compared to an untreated lot. Meanwhile you've spent a year improving your techniques for mass insecticide.

It's just so much easier to improve when you have a short OODA loop, when you're going after short-term results. But you might be improving the wrong thing.

The US military OODA loop in iraq is about 6 months. Every 6 months they figure out why the current strategy isn't working and come up with an improved one. We'll know they're making progress when they actually start meeting the 6-month goals and it takes longer to see that it isn't working.

Our weapons projects have about a 20 year OODA loop. If a weapon system doesn't work it takes 20 years to get a product and see that it doesn't work and cancel it. And if it does work as advertised -- what's the chance the mission it was designed for is still there after 20 years? Of course, the weapon design continues to evolve throughout the project. As the mission changes the design must continually change, resulting in increasing costs and increasing tradeoffs between radical changes versus poor adaptation of the old system which was designed for something different....

You get different results on different timescales. Inevitably you improve quicker at the things that give quicker results. So to prepare for the long term, the best I can think of is try not to do things that are hard to undo. Try to do things you can change if you find out later they aren't working.

We've seen from vietnam and iraq that it's hard for us to stop occupying a foreign nation once we get started. We do OK with little nations -- grenada, panama, dominican republic, etc. Go in fast, take over, set up a new government, leave. It's no big deal to leave a little place in the western hemisphere. If we decide it was a mistake to pull out we can always go back in with minimal trouble. But when it's a reasonably large country somewhere on the other side of the world, it's a lot of trouble to occupy them and it's a very hard choice to pull out. So we need to try to avoid getting into that sort of thing in the first place.

Instead, rather than face them in their strengths, you attack their economy. Anybody with a decent pair of boots can eradicate fire ants at will -- give them a good soccer kick at the height of the day, when it's hottest out.

A real good kick, so that the nest is completely trashed. If you're lucky, eggs are showing now, and the fire ants are going nuts. Walk away and let them.

The next day their nest will be smaller. Kick it again. When they're spending all their energy rebuilding their carefully-engineered nests, rather than gathering food, and the heat is killing them, it's actually pretty easy to wipe them out... without squishing a single ant.

(Not that yours truly has EVER been known to take them out with a half-pound of diatomaceous earth. Nope, never, nuh-uh.)

Another method of dealing with the fire ants is to sprinkle instant grits over their mound. They attack the grits and eat until the moisture in their stomachs cause the grits to expand and kill them. If you have felt their sting, it is a pretty satisfying way of dealing with them. Pouring mineral spirits over teh mound also works, but the EPA might not approve.

I'd say "Boxing Alcibiades" is on to an interesting counterpattern here.

I've always thought of our Iraq strategy as aiming to win the WoT through 3rd/4th order effects.

1st order: eliminate Saddam, cutting off subsidies for terror groups (and other reasons)

2nd order: divert jihadi resources to fighting in Iraq instead of taking the offensive elsewhere

3rd order: support Iraqi democracy/capitalism to create an ally/neutral in WoT

4th order: spread democracy among other Arab nations, drying up funding and recruits for jihadis.

Getting enough data to judge success on the fourth order term will probably take a decade or more.

With a layered there's a lot of conflicts between the short-term and long-term goals. For ex, putting in enough troops to police every streetcorner makes Iraq an effective colony and postpones success in the 3rd order loop. But letting Iraqi politicians and soldiers sink or swim increases the danger of defeat on the 2nd order. No easy calls here.

That's the idea, Joe. The "drying up the swamps" notion isn't a bad one... but if you've got the Fire Ants of Allah, and you want to get rid of them, why not create conditions that denies them the ability to engage in productive activity, and instead forces them to engage in behavior that on the surface follows their interests, but is instead its own death spiral?

"We've seen from vietnam and iraq that it's hard for us to stop occupying a foreign nation once we get started."

Vietnam is a small country.

Islamic terrorism is the newest battle in a war that has been going on for 1400 years. The enemy is over a billion strong and claims vast territories and resources vital to us: oil. We do not have the resouces nor the will to engage this enemy directly. We deparately need allies. Allies need not be willing nor need they be pristine.

The effects of the US toppling the Afghan and Iraqi governments has been salutory. The Pakistanis have cooperated wonderfully well. They are actively pursuing terrorists on their soil. The Libyans caved. The Egyptians have changed course. The Saudis are now fighting their indigenous infection with great vigor. All that is left is Iran.

We did not gain these allies by diplomacy or quid pro quo. We presented them with a stark choice. In the words of GWB "you are with us or you are against us". Scaring the living bejesus out of them does not make friends but it does influence them.

Red River [#1],

You're right. I remembered it wrong. Here's a source.

I knew it played a formative role in E. O. Wilson's life, though. He's the very distinguished scientist who coined the phrase, "the Vietnam of entomology".

We did not gain these allies by diplomacy or quid pro quo. We presented them with a stark choice. In the words of GWB "you are with us or you are against us". Scaring the living bejesus out of them does not make friends but it does influence them.

Will Rogers is attributed with the quote "Diplomacy is the art of saying 'Nice doggy' while you look for a rock.".

It's a murky situation. Kind of unclear whether we're better off with a bunch of "allies" who're looking for rocks.

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