Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Well Informed Futility and Complexity

I learned a new phrase on Friday's PBS TV program Moyers and Company - well informed futility.

“In the absence of federal policies that are protective of child development and the ecology of the planet on which our children’s lives depend, we serve as our own regulatory agencies and departments of interior…. Thoughtful but overwhelmed parents correctly perceive a disconnect between the enormity of the problem and the ability of individual acts of vigilance and self-sacrifice to fix it. Environmental awareness without corresponding political changes leads to paralyzing despair….We feel helpless in our knowledge, and we’re not sure we want any more knowledge. You could call this well-informed futility syndrome. And soon enough, we are retreating into silent resignation rather than standing up for abolition now.”
Sandra Steingraber, Raising Elijah

This syndrome is much larger than the issues Steingraber talks and writes about. It captures well how I feel most of the time on almost all of the wicked problems we face that I have researched.

It seems to me that this syndrome may be why people don't want to talk about complexity. More knowledge only adds to their frustration as they don't feel they can do anything about it.

And, we know that's not true. Every system is likely a combination of simple, complicated and complex subsystems. Our normal ways of forecasting work well on simple systems and will usually give you optional futures to deal with through scenarios for complicated systems. Complex systems in disequilibrium are less tractable but in most cases will yield probabilities of occurrence and/or alternate potential futures (strange attractors). Complex systems composed of intelligent agents in dynamic equilibrium yield to massively parallel modeling. Systems composed of adaptive intelligent agents in  dynamic equilibrium are the least tractable.

Can you diagnose the types of systems and can they be  parsed? Then, like a doctor, can you prescribe a treatment? Or, is it a non treatable disease?

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