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May 28 2009

Goliath’s Rules

One of the fun parts of WisCon is always getting to meet people I should have met long ago. This year, I finally got to spend a little time talking to Lynne and Michael Thomas. Amusingly, I found a link to the following article on Lynne’s blog while checking out how productive she’d been at WisCon.

David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.

It’s a fascinating New Yorker article on how effective throwing away the rules–particularly the unacknowledged ones–can be and on the consequences of breaking them. Keep reading past the chunk in the middle that’s padded with a business profile. Some of the best parts are at the end.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Philip H.

    Stephanie,Now’s here’s an interesting thesis in the middle of a major recession – what happens if we throw away the rules? I can see all sorts of nattering naybobs running up to natter as why that would be a really bad idea, but the old rules/worldviews got us into a mess, so what makes us think they will get us out of it?Same thing could be applied to the political process . . .

  2. 2
    DuWayne Brayton

    Phillip -I think that’s ultimately what we are heading into – albeit probably very slowly. If we don’t, we’re pretty much fucked. And applying it to the political process, the same is true. We’ll either change the rules significantly, or we’re fucked.Stephanie -This means that I am likely to defeat you and your ravaging barbarian hordes!!1!111!!!!

  3. 3
    Stephanie Zvan

    Phil, which rules do you want to throw away? There are some rules about debt that are definitely not helping right now, but the larger rules of property are pretty fundamental to our system. Not to say they’re inviolate, but you should probably know the scope of what you’re asking. :)DuWayne, that all depends on how barbarian we’re willing to be.

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