Saturday, May 03, 2008


[Cartoons by Eric Allie]

Or, as Michael Crighton observed in his lecture on "Complexity Theory and Environmental Management" (read the whole enchilada):

We live in a world of complex systems. The environment is a complex system. The government is a complex system. Financial markets are complex systems. The human mind is a complex system---most minds, at least.

By a complex system I mean one in which the elements of the system interact among themselves, such that any modification we make to the system will produce results that we cannot predict in advance.

Furthermore, a complex system demonstrates sensitivity to initial conditions. You can get one result on one day, but the identical interaction the next day may yield a different result. We cannot know with certainty how the system will respond.

Third, when we interact with a complex system, we may provoke downstream consequences that emerge weeks or even years later. We must always be watchful for delayed and untoward consequences.

The science that underlies our understanding of complex systems is now thirty years old. A third of a century should be plenty of time for this knowledge and to filter down to everyday consciousness, but except for slogans—like the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane halfway around the world—not much has penetrated ordinary human thinking.

On the other hand, complexity theory has raced through the financial world. It has been briskly incorporated into medicine. But organizations that care about the environment do not seem to notice that their ministrations are deleterious in many cases. Lawmakers do not seem to notice when their laws have unexpected consequences, or make things worse. Governors and mayors and managers may manage their complex systems well or badly, but if they manage well, it is usually because they have an instinctive understanding of how to deal with complex systems. Most managers fail.


An important feature of complex systems is that we don’t know how they work. We don’t understand them except in a general way; we simply interact with them. Whenever we think we understand them, we learn we don’t. Sometimes spectacularly.

Spectacularly is generally how Congress fails to appreciate the unintended consequences of the laws they pass.

But we meant well !
--the plaintive cry of every dictator-wannabee do-gooder, as they blithely and self-righteously go around making rules for everyone (else) to live by.

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