Embracing Complexity / Science

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SEED magazine recently posted on the concept of early warning signs in complex systems that I found quite provocative and important.

Science is a creative human enterprise. Discoveries are made in the context of our creations: our models and hypotheses about how the world works. Big failures, however, can be a wake-up call about entrenched views, and nothing produces humility or gains attention faster than an event that blindsides so many so immediately.

There are so many key points in this one phrase that is worth discussing at length.

Science is a creative enterprise. For reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, I think that science needs to embrace its creative side more than ever and embrace design. This isn’t a universal, but if we (scientists) approached problems from the multidimensional manner in which designers typically approach them, we might create new innovations and discoveries that are different than the ones we’ve made before. Why is this important (beyond the obvious to those whose business it is to discover)? Complexity. The problems we are dealing with now more than ever are likely to be complex ones, which require different ways of approaching them and (some) different science and practice.

And as Albert Einstein famously said (or at least many people have attributed this to him — I can’t verify it, but it works nonetheless):

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Discoveries are made in the context of our creations: our models and hypotheses about how the world works. In public health where I work, the dominant models remain those rooted in reductionist science. We are asked to ‘prove’ the links between certain activity and the outcomes they produce. This works relatively well in areas like sanitation, toxicology, (some) pharmaceutical or vaccination interventions, and injury prevention. It is for these reasons that the top achievements in public health, including massive increases in life expectancy and reductions in premature death took place in the 20th century. But that was then. The challenges we face now are into the realm of complexity, unless we fail to support fundamentals in public health and then we’ll have both simple and complex challenges on our hands. The point here is that our models will only take us so far without some acknowledgement of the complexity of the problems they seek to explain. The context of our creations is complexity.

Big failures, however, can be a wake-up call about entrenched views. The key term here is “entrenched views” . My colleagues Alex Jadad, Murray Enkin, Shalom Glouberman and others once had a group called the Clinamen collaborative that wrote a great piece on the problem of complexity when dealing with entrenched health care practices. Their recommendations are essentially:

1) there are no recipes for universal success,

2) pay attention to local conditions,

3) intervene small and often and then scale,

4) aim for stability first, then change.

In science, we’re failing a lot and rather than see this as a potential positive, I see more conservative approaches to science based on risk aversion. Providing support for smaller, rapid response scientific studies that are encouraged to fail will do more than these big, non-adventurous team projects that provide high-level window dressing for grant funders and avoid making anyone look bad.

and nothing produces humility or gains attention faster than an event that blindsides so many so immediately. Humility is a word that is too often absent from my profession. I’m not talking about the kind of humility that comes from acknowledging the limitations of a scientific study or the recommendations of a report. I am speaking of true humility, where one “seeks to first understand, then to be understood”. Indeed, I would argue that we are lousy at both more often than we’re successful. Our understanding comes from a scientific perspective that holds us up as experts.

Once you’ve labelled someone or yourself an “expert” conversations immediately shift. Watch a classroom where the instructor insists on pure lecturing, being called “Dr.” and where “right” and “wrong” are regular parts of the conversation. Then watch a classroom where students learn from each other, are encouraged to share their experience and challenge the material, where the professor doesn’t push her or his titles and credentials, and where there is an interaction between everyone. You’ll see a very different sense of humility from students and teachers alike.

When I encounter others on a genuine, authentic and intimate levels of learning I never cease to be left in awe. That comes from humility and is something I was fortunate to have modelled to me. I was once told by a retiring professor who was leaving on the day I was convocating from my undergraduate degree:

“When I was an undergraduate, I knew everything. Now that I am a retired professor, I realize I know nothing. Every year of learning serves to teach me that I know less and less.”

The SEED article goes on to point to the current problems in science in dealing with complexity and the imperative towards collaboration and cross-disciplinary engagement:

Examples of catastrophic and systemic changes have been gathering in a variety of fields, typically in specialized contexts with little cross-connection. Only recently have we begun to look for generic patterns in the web of linked causes and effects that puts disparate events into a common framework—a framework that operates on a sufficiently high level to include geologic climate shifts, epileptic seizures, market and fishery crashes, and rapid shifts from healthy ecosystems to biological deserts.

The main themes of this framework are twofold: First, they are all complex systems of interconnected and interdependent parts. Second, they are nonlinear, non-equilibrium systems that can undergo rapid and drastic state changes.

Complex systems require the kind of deep attention that science brings, the spirit of engagement and problem solving that designers offer, and a space to bring them together. With their focus on reductionist science and the lack of embrace of design, universities haven’t been the home to this kind of thinking. But things can change because, after all, this is a complex dynamic system we’re talking about.

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