Missing the Point


I’m not sure which political stance is more precarious: the know-nothings or the rationalists. Anti-science, that is the refusal to accept the findings of bona fide scientists, is a cornerstone of the leading Republican Presidential candidates. The debates among those vieing for the nomination have trashed evolution and climate science. The Democrats miss out on this early process, expecting to nominate Obama for another term. Obama epitomizes the cool, rational leader.

The danger is that the problems we face are not tractable by either framing. The policies that would emerge from either are constrained by ideologies, although very different ones. Given my history as an engineer and analyst, I should be jumping onto the side of the rationalists, but I am just as uncomfortable there as on the other side. My unease is magnified by recent findings claiming that rationality is nothing more than a methodology to win arguments, not to find the truthful path forward.

By keeping within the blinders of their respective ideologies, both the left and the right misunderstand the nature of the problems plaguing this nation and others. The right errs more in reducing serious problems to sound bites and solutions to old worn out bromides. The left errs by pushing policies based on analytically derived programs and expecting to win arguments based on the merits of their cases.

Both miss the essential nature of the problems of today. They are what I have referred to in this blog and other writings as “wicked problems.” They cannot be cleanly defined and bounded. The problems taken on are always parts of other interconnected problems. They arise in complex systems, the kind that characterize the global, highly interconnected world. The rationalists act as if the world was a machine and the people in it merely needy parts simultaneously feeding and being fed by the economic system. The know-nothings act as if ignorance of how the world works is unimportant. What matters is how loud are our cries expressing the values we are sure should dominate the political economy.

In earlier, simpler times, we might have gotten away with either for a while. The velocities of important social processes were much slower early in our history. The world was not so interconnected as it is today by economic ties, rapid transportation and the Internet. The history of the United States is punctuated with periods where one or the other side prevailed. But not for long. Punctuated has the right metaphorical sense. These periods were thrust into history, producing as much heat as light; there have always been winners and losers.

The important issue is that neither side appreciates the complexity of the situation. Governing big culturally mixed societies like the United States means dealing with technically complex systems. They don’t follow the rules that are taught in political science departments or Tea Party rallies. Complex systems can stay within a limited range of behaviors for long times and then suddenly move into a new and unconnected pattern of behaviors. That’s what happened in the financial collapse of 2008-9. Complex system theory shows that the presence of fast processes can be destabilizing when the slower processes (the system’s memory) wane. The same theory shows that governance requires accumulating an understanding of the system by carefully watching, reflecting and adjusting, that is, by learning. Successful gardening works that way.

Holding the truth as revealed from above, from the heart, or from a computer display is an obstacle to successful stewardship and leadership. I don’t see where the pragmatism that emerged in FDR’s time can come from, given the bunker mentality that pervades political thinking and talk these days. But come it must if we are to roll with the punches that are very likely to come. When one of the causal agents of instability is speed and the solution is to go even faster, there’s certainly trouble ahead. Simplicity and stubbornness are not the remedy for the ills we face. Obama seems to recognize this, but is working within a system that is not only running faster all the time but is becoming ever more rigid. That’s a red flag, signaling increased possibilities for change, but not the kind we may want.

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David M. Carter said:

Brilliantly written piece! Thanks John.