Concrete illustrations of complex theories
June 6, 2012 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Other examples of true stories like Krugman's babysitting co-op and Radford's POW camp that illustrate complex and abstract truths, theories, and ideas with concrete language and more tangible, familiar, or interesting situations?

I'm compiling these for an article. Looking for real-life stories mainly. But perhaps more involved literary examples may do. (Aesop's fables may be too simple; The examples above are quite complex.) Thanks!
posted by AceRock to Grab Bag (6 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", an allegory about the moral calculus of a society predicated on the suffering of others.

Slightly less soul-crushing: Ted Chiang's "Exhalation", for an interesting take on how entropy works.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:13 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You've already mentioned two economics examples. Have you seen Akerlof 's market for lemons which is superficially trivial (such that it was rejected a couple of times), but is the starting point for the economics of asymmetric information?

EconTalk has a number of similar ideas in the podcasts. For example, towards the end of thes discussion, Munger talks about a gang of Chinese coolies who, to improve productivity, hire a supervisor who will whip any member of the gang that's shirking (the overall talk about Coase's theory of the firm). There's also the discussion of bootleggers and baptists here, which illustrates some public choice theory, and, hey, Munger again talking about the Santiago, Chile, bus system. (The Munger interviews actually have pretty good stories that illustrate economic concepts)

Oh, the babysitting co-op example has issues, and doesn't do a good job of illustrating a monetary economy. The basic problem with that model is that there are no "prices" which can adjust: the babysitting vouchers are worth exactly one hour (regardless of when that hour is). There's no adjustment where participants say they want 3 vouchers if they babysit on a Saturday evening, etc. More here.
posted by chengjih at 1:43 PM on June 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Hm. The Abilene Paradox is not exactly what you're looking for (fiction not real, and the theory it illustrates is pretty simple), but you might find it interesting anyway. Sorry I can't link -- on my phone.

It's a little management parable about why sometimes politeness causes teams to do stupid things.
posted by Susan PG at 6:16 PM on June 6, 2012

I recently re-read Le Guin's The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, and it works very well as an abortion metaphor. Note that I am pro-choice, and I read that Le Guin is as well. I'm pretty sure she didn't mean it to be, but once that occured to me, I now can't unsee it as a very powerful story about abortion and society.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:28 PM on June 6, 2012

One of the examples in Freakonomics has to do with late fees at an Israeli daycare and shows how monetizing something that's usually a matter of social pressure can have unintended consequences. It was very interesting to me and I've retold the story a couple of times in the context of library systems ending the practice of overdue fines.
posted by clerestory at 1:38 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Came to post Gneezy & Rustichini, which that Freakonomics excerpt is about but doesn't cite by name (what the heck, Steve?). Here's the original paper (available ungated):

Gneezy, U., and A. Rustichini "A Fine is a Price," Journal of Legal Studies, vol. XXIX, 1, part 1, 2000, 1-18.

See also a review article (also by Uri Gneezy) on incentives:
Gneezy, U. S. Meier and P. Rey-Biel (2011) "When and Why Incentives (Don't) Work to Modify Behavior." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25, 4, 191-210.
posted by L0 at 7:08 PM on June 7, 2012

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