Friday, July 15, 2011

...reset button, push here

By kay.e.strong

If your head is still locked into the “we versus them” dichotomization of the world, please, hit the reset button!  The reboot will jettison you into the real world where Einsteinian witticism succinctly applies: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."  Or if you’re prefer, this update from E.O. Wilson in the forward to Rebecca Costa’s book, The Watchman’s Rattle, “The clash of [insert your own pet peeve] is not the cause of our difficulties but a consequence of them…The primary cause of all threatening trends is the complexity of civilization itself, which can’t be understood and managed by the cognitive tools we have thus far chosen to use (xi).”

At the core of our difficulty is reductionistic logic…drilled into us from infancy by a system infatuated with the cognitive tool set of “dead white men of old”, translated--those Renaissance guys!  As the only game in town for centuries, the Western mind has been formatted to see every problem from a “mechanicalistic” perspective.  Got a problem, just break it down, find the errant part, fabricate a new one and slap it back into the machinery…all is good as new!  Agreed, this process works incredibly well on cars and planes and tinkertoys.  But complex problems do not respond so easily.  Our contemporary reality is replete with complex problems--Great Recessions, ethnic violence and terrorism, global climate change, depletion of resources, failing education, devastating poverty—each one defying solution.   

Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute and Harvard University prof reasons in his book, Making Things Work, “Everything we do and everything that works and doesn’t work around us is embedded in the complex system of our social context and our society (10).”  In essence, complex systems generate complex problems, problems that persist, or appear to defy solution.  A solution applied to a complex problem typically exacerbates the situation, igniting a myriad of unexpected responses from hidden links in the system.  In failure we relapse to programmed behavior and find our catharsis in assigning blame or joining in the witch hunt for the individual responsibility.  Ironically, only the victim is banished from the system not the problem!

Rebecca Costa in The Watchman’s Rattle exposes another dimension in our battle against complex problems.  She writes about having reached our cognitive threshold, that gap between the slow rate at which the human brain is capable of evolving and the rapid rate at which complexity escalates.  “When faced with complexity, our first response is to retreat to the familiar, even if the familiar means failing.  But in addition to reverting to what is familiar, we also have another reaction: fear.  We are hardwired to perceive real change as threatening, so we instinctively reject it (80).”

As a first step in learning to thrive in the real world we must move to the next level of the game, unlocking a pattern of thinking diametrically opposed to the cognitive tool set of “dead white men of old.” A complex systems perspective focuses on wholes, patterns of behavior nested in relationships between parts not the parts, solution sets not a solution and it cultivates divergent thinking, tolerance for ambiguity and resistance to premature closure.  All the stuff they don’t teach in school!  Maybe, it’s time?

Kay Strong, Ph.D., Southern Illinois University, M.T., University of Houston, M.A., Ohio University; Associate Professor at Baldwin-Wallace College; Areas of expertise: international economics, contemporary social-economic issues, complexity and futures-based perspectives in economics. E-mail:

1 comment:

  1. The line that caught my eye was the one about being "hard-wired" to fear change. Hard wiring is not necessary. The laws of Physics say change is probably going to deal with adjustments we can't foresee. No need for hard wiring to respond that way.


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This blog lives under the auspices of the Department of Economics whose mission has been to hold high the lantern beaming an "economic way of thinking" onto the world. Selfishness, rationality and equilibrium have been central to the teaching of an economic way of thinking rooted in the Renaissance. And, in this regard, the department has faithfully stayed the course. The intent of this blog, thinking out loud..., however, is to entertain exchanges which may challenge the centrality of economics as we teach it.