Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Green M&M Fallacy

Chowhound opened in July, 1997, and by that fall, it was described as having gone irredeemably downhill by several of our regulars. As the community had grown to 150 or so users, more and more stupid postings by stupid people had appeared, and I was told that they were ruining everything.

The same complaint was heard throughout our eight subsequent years of steep growth. And it completely mystified me, because the smart/stupid ratio hadn't budged. Sure, there were more stupid postings, overall, but we were enjoying a profusion of terrific reports from myriad expert food scouts uncovering massive deliciousness everywhere. How was this ruination?

At some point I had an epiphany, and understood what was going on. I dubbed it the Green M&M Fallacy.

If you hate green M&Ms, you'll prefer a small bowl to a large one, because more M&Ms means more of those nasty greens. Even if you greatly enjoy all the other M&M colors, and would presumably want tons of them, green hatred sharply overrides M&M love as quantities increase. Even if the ratio remains the same. In fact, even if the ratio improves. Mo M&Ms mo problems!

This is a natural consequence of scaling. For example, it explains why rural people are often scornful toward urban life. If you're from a small town in Kansas, and spend an afternoon sightseeing around Manhattan, you'll encounter a dozen openly rude people, two or three doors will not be held open for you, and there'll be instances of drunkenness, foul language, and people saying unkind things to one other. That's more bad behavior and nastiness than you'd see an an entire year back home, so it's understandable that this might be seen as a hellscape. The 6,000 other people you passed, who are quietly thoughtful and kind-hearted, don't register. (Nor does the fact that those 6,000 have made a deliberate decision to be virtuous, party to none of the pressures on small town inhabitants to behave civilly.)

This same fallacy is seen in single-issue politics. That's when a certain contingent - gun owners, pro-choice activists, etc. - are so absorbed by their issue that they support and vote for candidates strictly on that basis. If gay rights is your thing, to the exclusion of other societal concerns, you might have deemed Barack Obama a brutally repressive president for having supported gay marriage only late in his second term, somewhat behind the fast-changing national sentiment. There were political reasons for his delay, but, viewed from single issue tunnel vision, there is no acceptable excuse. At a national scale, the fallout from any delay, any half-measure, is multiplied by many millions. Whenever a president pauses to sip from his coffee mug, he might be wrecking a life or two. But, of course, it's fallacious to look at it this way. You've got to consider the whole.

The Green M&M Fallacy isn't always a fallacy. None of us would eat nine carrots in a single serving, but if you drink carrot juice, that's exactly what you're doing. So even if your carrots contain safe amounts of pesticide on a normal per-portion basis, carrot juice, over time, can be downright dangerous (when juicing or nut buttering, always pay up for organic!). You're not just aggregating vitamins, you're also aggregating the bad stuff. Scaling creates absolute problems above and beyond proportionality.

I've never seen another writer point out Green M&M Fallacy....until today. In his beautifully written New Yorker essay on paper jams(!), Joshua Rothman describes this bane of all offices as

"...a quintessential modern problem — a trivial consequence of an otherwise efficient technology that’s been made monumentally annoying by the scale on which that technology has been adopted."

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