The rat problem


Another school shooting, and yes, the same arguments will be brought out.   One friend passed this on: ; the upshot from the article is that the Left is responsible, not the Right.  In a few days, I’m sure a friend from the Left will forward me an article that the Right/NRA/Trump is the reason these things are happening.

There are a host of reasons on why these things happen, and there may be a nugget of truth in every one of them; these don’t need to be trotted out here.   There may be darker reasons, that folks on the left or right may not like to consider, and that might have a far larger influence.   Part of the reason we may be having these troubles may be biological, and rooted in things that either political party has no real control over.

There are two points that might be considered:

1) We have exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet by a large extent due to our use of cheap fossil fuels; we are overcrowded.  Talking about overpopulation is sometimes ‘an elephant in the room,’ but it needs to be addressed.   There’s a good free book online (with some classic quotes about overpopulation) by here.   Overpopulation (and overconsumption) can cause serious glitches in societies.

2) With the ubiquity of social media and smart phones, we have eliminated private space. There is little to no space for contemplation, and the outside culture (which usually plays to the lowest common denominator) can have too much sway over our development.

Comparing the behavior of mice/rats and people may not be perfect, but with both being social animals, studies which look at the overcrowding of organisms show some eerie similarities.  A quick search on ‘mouse/rat overcrowding experiment’ turns up many articles, including these:

The original thought was that it was “obviously” the overcrowding, but from reading a bit further down in the texts, it could be that private space/time is what makes for better societies.  It is very difficult to get those things when you are overcrowded; but as one of the articles points out, populations with the same density can have different outcomes if they are set up differently.

One the the key quotes in the second article was “Moral decay resulted “not from density, but from excessive social interaction.”  “Moral decay” seems too strong a word, but the concept that excessive social interaction might cause sub-optimal behaviors doesn’t seem too far fetched.  As far as “moral decay” goes, if someone claims that homosexuality and promiscuity are effects of overcrowding, that would seem a very large stretch.   Homosexuality has been with us for a very, very long time, and promiscuity may be a result of technological changes (one of Niven’s Laws is “Ethics changes with technology.”), rather than overcrowding.  Excessive social interaction seems like a good description of what we’ve got now, especially with smart phones in everyone’s pocket.

The concept of shooting up a school, would seem to be a new thing, but a quick search on a history of school shootings does turn up incidents from as early as the 1700s.

Wikipedia has this plot, showing school shootings as a function of date:

US Census data doesn’t exist in 1760; using the school shootings data from Wikipedia, and dividing by US population during the time periods for which we do have US Census data, this plot emerges:


(Own work, CC-SA)

There are a host of questions on this below; it was a bit of an eye-opener.

Someone made an observation to me many years ago (paraphrasing here):

When we were young, we came home from school on a Friday afternoon, and went back on Monday morning.  In the intervening time, we were in the company of our families and neighbors, not subjected to the onslaught of whatever culture was out there.

Perhaps high speed Internet, social media, and smart phones aren’t the best for society, or at least for those who haven’t matured.   This doesn’t mean more background checks are a good thing or bad thing, nor does it mean concealed carry by everyone, everywhere, anytime is a good thing or bad thing.  Folks all along the political spectrum may wish to solve this plague by their own pet methods, but we may need to look deeper.   There’s an old skit from Saturday Night Live, with Steve Martin (Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber) that might be of use here.   After losing a patient from excessive bloodletting, he says with authority:

You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter’s was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.

Perhaps we need some new ideas in handling this scourge, and we may be a long way off from knowing why people go off the rails.  If someone is mentally ill, or is motivated enough, practically any energy dense technology controlled by a single individual or small group can be used as a devastating weapon.  As noted in a previous post on stopping terrorism, we generally don’t have to worry about people blowing up our cars every morning.  Stopping this at the source seems the more logical solution.  “Solutions” that appear to work for a short while eventually won’t, and we’ll be left with the root causes (whatever they are) that will continue to cause damage and societal rot.


  • The thesis that overcrowding/social media/too much socialization could be a cause of these behaviors – could this theory be valid?  How could you test this?
  • A recent post suggested marrying off potential terrorists; could there be a similar program for troubled youth?  Not so much marrying them off (a bit early for teens) but getting them involved in helping others, and being part of a community?   Even when you have a strange community of people, you still have a community, and that alone might help anyone who is in distress.
  • How does someone “go off the rails” like Nikolas Cruz?  It appears people did try to intervene, on multiple occasions, but still he was not stopped.
  • Were school shootings/violence in the 1800s a serious issue? Did they really bottom out in 1940-1950, on a per-capita basis? Has this issue really been rising since 1940-1950? And why is this an issue now?  Perhaps instead of using total population, this should be school-going population.  In looking at the details of the shootings, some of them were not perpetrated by students, but by adults, so this may skew this very simple five-minute back-of-the-envelope plot.  The amount of violence in schools on a per-capita basis, even in the 1800s, was shocking.  If someone has a better analysis, or knows where to find one, please let me know.  This is one place where we could use a good social science statistician and researcher.
  • As mentioned above, excessive social interaction seems like a good description of what we’ve got now, especially with smart phones in everyone’s pocket, and the ubiquity of social media.  Even some folks at Facebook have said that it has been made deliberately addictive.  Is this a possible contributor to having people go “off the rails?”




One thought on “The rat problem

  1. Cassandra (@Cererean)

    “It is very difficult to get those things when you are overcrowded; but as one of the articles points out, populations with the same density can have different outcomes if they are set up differently.”

    I wonder if there’s a prisoners dilemma going on here, to some degree? I’m thinking of urban design specifically. If traditional compact design is used, everyone benefits from being able to access nature (assuming the town is small enough). However, people also like having space, and if you have a suburban house on a quarter acre lot whilst everyone else follows traditional design, you have the best of both worlds – hence, there’s an incentive to defect. Unfortunately, if everyone defects you get standard suburbia, and now there’s no room to escape to nature because they paved it for a parking lot.

    Come to think of it, the banning of private outdoor space (you can have gardens, but you’re not allowed to put walls around them, and most of the garden has to front the street and have no privacy), doesn’t help. Good fences make good neighbours.

    I wonder what other prisoners dilemmas like this exist in society?


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