It is poetic irony on many levels that weeks after Leonard Cohen releases his album about the threat of death that he passes on, mere days after we saw the least poetic, most crass election campaign end in the United States with an equally dramatic outcome. This points to art, but also to the science of complexity and how we choose to approach this problem of understanding– and whether we do at all — will determine whether we choose to have things darker or not.
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame
Canadian-born and citizen-of-the-world poet, literary author, and songwriter Leonard Cohen passed away last night and the words above were part of his final musical contribution to the world. It is fitting that those words were penned at time not only when Cohen was ill and dying, but also as we’ve witnessed the flames of social progress, inclusion, and diversity fall ill.
Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States, a fact that for many is not only unpalatable, but deeply troubling for what it represents. A Trump presidency and the social ills that have been linked to his campaign are just the latest sign that we are well into a strange, fear-ful, period of history within Western democracies. His was not a win for ideas, policy, but personality and as a vector for many other things that simply cannot be boiled down exclusively to racism, sexism, celebrity, or education — although all of those things played some part. It was about the complexity of it all and the ability for simplicity to serve as a (false) antidote.
No matter what side of the political spectrum you sit, it’s hard to envision someone less suited to the job of President of a diverse, powerful nation like the United States than Donald Trump using any standard measure of leadership, personality, experience, personal integrity or record of public conduct. Yet, he’s in and his election provides another signal that we are living in complex times and, like with Brexit, the polls got it very wrong.
We are seeing global trade shrink at a time when globalization is thought to be at its highest. We are witnessing high-profile acts of hatred, discrimination and abuse at at time when we have more means to be socially connected across contexts than ever before. We are lonely when the world and connection is at our fingertips. It is a time of paradox and when we have so many means to cast light on the world, we seem to find new ways to kill the flame.
It is for this reason that those who deal with complexity and seek positive social change in the world need to take action lest things get darker.
Complexity just got real
The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote are two examples that should serve to wake-up anyone who seeks greater accounting of complexity in the making of social decisions.
This is not about voting for a Republican President or for citizens wanting greater control of Britain, it’s about understanding the premise of which those decisions were based on. The amount of cognitive dissonance required to assume that Donald Trump has the qualities befitting a leader of a country like the United States is truly astounding. And just like Brexit, the theories and models proposed post-event by the same people who predicted the opposite outcome pre-event will be just words, backed with too little understanding of complexity or why things actually happened.
Those who understand complexity know that these simplistic explanations are likely to be problematic. But that doesn’t make us better people, but it does mean we have certain responsibilities.
Complexity rhetoric vs science
For those who rely on complexity science as a means of understanding these kinds of events its now time to start matching the science to our rhetoric so we can back up the talk. In crude, but truth-speaking pop culture parlance: “This shit just got real“.
As complexity and systems thinking has gained attention in social science and policy studies we are seeing much more attention to the idea of complexity. Yet, the level of rhetoric on social complexity has overwhelmed any instances of evidence of how complexity actually is manifest, emergent, harnessed, or accounted for in practical means.
This isn’t to say that the tenets of complexity for understanding social systems aren’t true, but rather we don’t know that it’s true for sure and to what extent in what situations. I write this as a true-believer, but also as one who believes in science. Science is about challenging our beliefs and only if we cannot refute our theories through our best efforts can claim something is true. Thus, if we can’t show consistently how the principles of complexity are employed to make useful choices and inform the documentation of some of the outcomes related to our actions based on those choices, we are simply making fables not flourishing organizations, communities and societies.
Showing our work
Without something more than rhetoric to back our claims up we become no better than a politician claiming to make America great again because we’ve got great ideas and will be the greatest president ever because we have great ideas.
This is not about reverting to positivist science to understand the entire world, but about responsible practice in evaluation and research that allows us to document what we do and explore the consequences in context. Powered by complexity theory and the appropriate methods, we can do this. Yet, too often I hear reference to complexity theories in presentations, discussions and papers without any reference to how its been used in real terms (and not just extracted from some other realm of science like bee colonies, natural ecosystems and simulation models) to influence something of value beyond serving as an organizing framework.
Like little kids in math class: we need to show our work.
How did complexity manifest in practice in this case? What methods were used to systematically document the process? How does this fit / challenge the theories we know? These are questions that are what responsible scientists and evaluators ask of their subjects and its time to do this with complexity, regularly and often. No longer can we give it the relatively unchallenged ride it’s been given since first being introduced as a viable contributor to social theory about 20 years ago.
The reasons have to do with what happens when we stop trying to understand complex systems.
Evaluators and social sciences’ new moral imperative
As the US election was unfolding I became aware of some prescient, wise words that were uttered by former US Supreme Court Justice David Souter speaking at a town hall prior to the last election. His words were chilling to anyone paying attention to the world today. In the quote and interview (see link) he says on the matter of government and democracy:
What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible.
His words are not just about the United States or even politics alone. The further we get from understanding how our social, economic, political and environmental systems work the more we all become vulnerable to the kind of simplistic thinking that leads us to someone that embodies H.L. Mencken’s mis-paraphrased words*:
There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong
It is our duty as scientists and evaluators to show the world the work of the programs, policies and initiatives that are aimed at changing systems — no matter what that system is. We need to be better at telling the story of programs using data and communicating what we learn to the world. It’s our role to show the work of others and to let others see our work in the process. By doing so we can make a contribution to helping address what Justice Souter meant about people not knowing who is responsible.
And like Mencken’s message, our answer won’t be one that is all that neat, but we if we approach our work with the wisdom and knowledge of how systems work we can avoid Mencken’s trap and avoid presenting the complex as simple, but we will go further and illustrate what complexity means.
It is our moral duty to do this. For if not us, who?
People do understand complexity. Anyone with a child or garden knows that there is no ‘standard practice’ that applies to all kids or any years’ crop of vegetables all the time in all cases. It’s evident all around us. We have the tools, theories and models to help illuminate this in the world and a duty to test them and make this visible to help shed that light on how our increasingly complex world works. Without that we are at risk of demagogues and the darker forces of our nature taking hold.
We have the means for people to see light through the work of those who build programs, policies and communities to illuminate our world. In doing so we not only create the candles as Leonard Cohen speaks of, but the curiosity and love that keeps that flame burning. We can’t kill the flame.
And we could use some love right now.
Thanks Leonard for sharing your gifts with us. I hope your art inspires us to reflect on what world you left to better create a world we move to.
*Mencken’s original quote was: “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” Alas, this doesn’t make as pithy, Powerpoint worthy comment. Despite the incorrectness of the paraphrased quote attributed to Mencken, it’s fair to say that in many organizations we see this as a true statement nonetheless.
Image Credit: Shutterstock, used under licence.