Complex Systems ~10, Western Science 0

Hamilton at WUWT commented:

It really does get up my nose that the media and governments think the people can only cope with a simple cause and effect situation – one factor causing one effect. So, more CO2 = hotter and less CO2 = colder has become a simple mantra which all can understand; it fits well with this patronizing view of general intelligence. Daniel’s piece on cloud seeding, suggesting that both atmospheric chemistry and cosmic rays are influential is probably closer to the truth. But of course there are now two influences which may well work in tandem. Far too difficult for the simple masses to cope with so let’s just stick with CO2 – it’s also got a better tax raising potential too.

It isn’t just the general populace.  I’ve been underwhelmed by the inability of scientists to handle more than one variable.  That is what reductionism is all about from what I know:  Break everything into the simplest components and then analyze all of those, and Viola! you’ve got a whole scientific reality.

But the whole system breaks down when they can’t handle more than a simple cause-and-effect situation, like you say.  But these are scientists, not just Joe Main Street.  They can handle compound, to some extent, just by separating out all the pieces.  But dealing with complexity is another story.  Then it is just handled by creating reductionist models and letting the code do all the hard work.  But they don’t seem to understand that it is still not a system – just a bunch of pieces – pieces that will act differently in tandem than they will by themselves.  (Ask any pharmacist about that some time.)

I would imagine the next really big thing in science will be when someone comes up with math that will deal with complexity and do it well.  I don’t think Chaos Theory or Catastrophe Theory are it, because we’d have seen an explosion in understanding by now.

It is all over my head, so I don’t know the answers, either.  But reductionism never made sense for trying to understand complex systems.  I don’t think we’ve gotten to first base yet.  And climate is perhaps the canary in the mineshaft about that.  Research on understanding the beginnings of life have been spinning their wheels for 60 years.  (Freeman Dyson – a climate skeptic – was a young man palling around with Albert Einstein at Princeton when a solution to that seemed right around the corner; that was the early 1950s.  Dyson is now the old man of science, with the accent on old.)  Hot fusion is the same story.  And don’t even ask about Quantum Theory; Physics has gone basically nowhere since that dead end took over, looking at smaller and smaller pieces, thinking if we find enough of them it will explain reality.

Really complex phenomena just seem to be over our heads so far.  We go into them assuming simplistic things, and go off in reductionist directions, thinking it will eventually turn the tide, and then full careers (or two consecutive) go by and nothing is accomplished.

It doesn’t help that the reductionists dominate in so many sciences.  It produces a lot of general use products for the consumer marketplace, so it has its place.  But for understanding some of the bigger issues, it is failing in the marketplace of knowledge.  Hopefully there is a Newton out there somewhere to take the first step toward really tackling complex systems.

So far the score is Complex Systems ~10, Western Science 0 (…I don’t know about Eastern Science).


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