Category Archives: Complexity

The “Grand Myth of Scientific Superrationality” and Pinkwater’s Borgel (a Christmas story)

Shanghai Skyscape
Shanghai, China
photo by Peter Morgan
Seoul, Korea
Seoul, Korea, near by Han River
photo by Patriotmissile at the English language Wikipedia
New York City
New York City, Overview of Manhattan from the Empire State Building
photo by Hakilon

Starting into Murry Code’s book on Whitehead today, I have the sense that Euro-American imperialism hasn’t ended, but has shifted to a pervasive form that is transmitted culturally, so global now that it is generally taken as a given, invisible as the ocean is to the fish in the sea. At its core is

…a Grand Myth of Scientific Superrationality – the idea that science exemplifies the epitome of rational thought.

This powerful myth appears to be the principal support for an inherently violent and imperialistic reason. It would therefore be well for me to try to spell out what I mean by imperialism. Following Edward Said, I understand this to refer to ‘a political philosophy whose aim and purpose for being is territorial expansion and legitimation.’ But he goes further and notes that the term refers not merely to a violent conquest of foreign
territory; it also alludes to attempts to subjugate the belief systems of others. No modern mode of thought seems more efficient in this respect than science, whose usurpation of the vital function of meaning-making tends to be legitimated by contemporary natural philosophers who style themselves as naturalists even as they turn their backs on nature and anchor their philosophical investigations in scientific theories.

A culture that is in thrall to a burgeoning technoscience recalls, in other words, the Eurocentric imperialism of the nineteenth century that, as Said puts it, granted itself the right to intervene wherever and however it chose. Acting under the assumption that they were representatives of a superior culture, its agents set out with the conviction that ‘laying claim to an idea and laying claim to a territory – given the extraordinarily current idea that the non-European world was there to be claimed, occupied, and ruled by Europe – were . . . different sides of the same, essentially constitutive activity, which had the force, the prestige, and the authority of science.’ It is therefore ‘a serious underestimation of imperialism,’ says Said, to overlook the fact that a ‘hegemonic imperial design’ also presumes a right ‘to treat reality appropriatively.’ The importance of this observation is borne out by non-Western critics of the scientistic ideology who maintain that a sanitized violence has been institutionalized on a worldwide scale in the name of scientific values (e.g., efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and economy of effort).

Murry Code, Process, Reality, and the Power of Symbols: Thinking with A.N. Whitehead, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, p. 2.

Alternative ways of being and doing are suppressed in the presence of this myth and its cultural and material expression. But I suspect, like the mammals living in the shadow of dinosaurs, that they will continue to evolve and survive, to re-emerge when conditions change in their favor.

Looking at the extent of religious expression in the midst of the Grand Myth of Superrationality, it seems that the dominant paradigm develops its own counter-currents as it becomes apparently monolithic, and within that complexity there is hope, actually more than hope: the expectation of possibility. I’m reminded of the Great Popsicle in Daniel Pinkwater’s Borgel (one of the great novels of all time), whose joyous life-giving characteristics re-appear in new forms when the previous form is suppressed and presumed exterminated.

Re-reading what I’ve written here, I realize it’s Christmas day, celebration of the liberating incarnation entering the world. It’s an appropriate time to reflect on dominating paradigms, the tendency to be constricted by them unaware of alternatives, and also their  impermanence and the possibility of release.

Should a young scholar with an interdisciplinary bent go into a standard grad program to attain full proficiency in a single discipline first?

Is interdisciplinarity a skill in itself?

Enjoyed a conversation yesterday with my long-time friend Yaakov Garb, who does interdisciplinary research at Ben Gurion University in the Negev. He does great research, I think, integrating multiple frameworks and perspectives to address complex situations, ranging from Eastern Europe urban sprawl issues to green building standards and sustainable organic farming in Bedouin villages. He and I have been able to attain pretty good, but not excellent proficiency in the variety of fields required to understand such topics. Yaakov commented he can see ways his incomplete proficiency has limited his work.

So, we discussed, what advice do we give a young person who wants to engage complex issues? Better to go into an interdisciplinary grad program, gain experience working with that complexity, and attain maybe a 60% expertise level in multiple subjects? Or first put the years into a standard, single-discipline program to get full professional skills there?

I’m not sure of the answer (probably depends on the individual student and the specific academic program), but reflecting on that conversation, it seems to me that the ability to do interdisciplinary work requires skills equivalent to what’s required for expertise in a discipline. These include ability to see & understand context and ability to work back and forth between multiple frames, seeing analogies, overlaps, differences and implications.

Given the time and effort required, it’s difficult if not impossible for a single person to attain highest proficiency in both interdisciplinary skills and in a discipline. Also, some people are genetically predisposed to be proficient in contextual thinking/multiple frames. So, encourage the abductive thinker to go the interdisciplinary path? –while also emphasizing respect for disciplinary expertise, the need to consult with those experts, the importance of getting to that 60% level which enables conversation with them, and the interpersonal skills for engaging in that conversation.

Chaisson Relational Thinking Styles coverThe wife of my friend Hal here in PT, Phyllis Chiasson, an expert in thinking styles, reports that it’s about 1 in 20 people who genetically are abductive thinkers. (See her Relational Thinking Styles and Natural Intelligence.)

On the value of getting multiple diverse learning experiences, rather than a single one in greater depth, there’s Einstein’s story: Failing to get an academic physics position, he worked in the patent office, reviewing ideas for synchronizing railroad clocks. That put him in position to apply the railroad  line & clock model to the physics situation, helping enable the theory of relativity. But his math skills were only good, not great, so sometimes he had to get help from more narrow thinkers with full expertise in math.

In most institutional settings, the abductive thinker’s role wlll be unusual, difficult, and perhaps uncomfortable, because it is intrinsically (and necessarily: imagine a society of just abductive thinkers!) a minority position and challenging to the status quo. There will be the temptation to conform. But the role is probably necessary for essential functional creativity in human communities. In our Saturday morning discussions here with Hal, Dr. Kimber Rotchford, et al., we’ve talked about how that 1/20 proportion of abductive thinkers in the population probably evolved as optimal for both maintaining ongoing stable function and generating sufficient innovation.

Intuition, uncertainty, doubt, trust, confidence & happiness

Excerpts from today’s reading  (boldface mine):Minding the Markets book cover

Doubt, trust, and confidence are subjective mental states which intertwine with the stories we tell ourselves about what is going on. Economic life involves human relationships of exchange of longer or shorter duration. Such relationships are accompanied by the stories we tell ourselves about what is happening to them and the mental states that are stimulated. At their simplest, human relationships of exchange involve a story being told to create a belief that continued attachment to the relationship will be excitingly rewarding or a source of danger and disadvantage. The word ‘credit’ is actually based on the Latin verb ‘to believe’.

In summary my argument is that what happened in the recent financial crisis (like in many before) was the product of a shift in mental states.

organizational failures followed from the power phantastic objects exert on mental states and the way institutions have increasingly stimulated this power for advantage and then increasingly become ruled by it.


Hsee, Christopher K., Luxi Shen, Shirley Zhang, Jingqiu Chen, and Li Zhang. “Fate or Fight: Exploring the Hedonic Costs of Competition.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 119, no. 2 (November 2012): 177–186. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.07.005.

Contrary to lay intuitions, we found that individuals in an unequal assignment condition, including the disadvantaged individuals in that condition, were happier than individuals in an equal competition condition, but that this effect held only if the inequality was irreversible, the advantaged and the disadvantaged were segregated, and the disadvantaged were given some enjoyable alternative resource to consume.

current research advances the peace-of-mind notion that irreversible fate prompts one to make peace with it and feel happy. Furthermore, it breaks down the peace-of-mind idea into two different varieties: choice-free peace and opportunity-free peace. Although previous research has documented extensive evidence for choice-free peace, the present research offers initial evidence from a controlled laboratory experiment for opportunity-free peace.


Dane, Erik, Kevin W. Rockmann, and Michael G. Pratt. “When Should I Trust My Gut? Linking Domain Expertise to Intuitive Decision-making Effectiveness.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 119, no. 2 (November 2012): 187–194. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.07.009.

Research suggests that even for tasks well-suited to intuition, the effectiveness of intuitive decision making may relate to the level of expertise one has attained in the focal domain.

for certain tasks (and, perhaps more generally, for certain expertise domains), the effectiveness of intuition may begin to approach the effectiveness of analysis well before one achieves task (or domain) mastery.

It is conceivable that when individuals have at least a moderate level of domain expertise, analytical decision making disrupts or disengages the intuitive operations that typically serve experts well.

our studies suggest that, on non-decomposable tasks, intuition may indeed prove effective – to the extent one has accrued expertise within the focal domain

the greater one’s expertise within the focal domain, the more likely one’s intuitions will prove effective – particularly if the task at hand is non-decomposable. By extension, however, individuals should be cautious of ‘‘trusting their gut’’ when these conditions are not present. Likewise, organizational managers should be wary of prescribing intuitive decision making indiscriminately, even on non-decomposable tasks. Given that individuals differ in their tendency to favor intuition and analysis respectively …, domain novices who are naturally inclined to take stock in their intuitive judgments may do so with misplaced haste, particularly when intuitive decision making is widely accepted or advocated within their work context

our results suggest that as individuals attain what might be viewed as a moderate level of domain expertise, the effectiveness of intuitive decision making on non-decomposable tasks increases.


Milkman, Katherine L. “Unsure What the Future Will Bring? You May Overindulge: Uncertainty Increases the Appeal of Wants over Shoulds.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 119, no. 2 (November 2012): 163–176. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.07.003.

This paper examines the effect of uncertainty about the future on whether individuals select want options (e.g., junk foods, lowbrow films) or instead exert self-control and select should options (e.g., healthy foods, highbrow films). Consistent with the ego-depletion literature, which suggests that self-control resembles an exhaustible muscle, coping with uncertainty about what the future may bring reduces self-control resources and increases individuals’ tendency to favor want options over should options. These results persist when real uncertainty is induced, when the salience of naturally-arising uncertainty is heightened and when individuals are able to make choices contingent upon the outcomes of uncertain events. Overall, this work suggests that reducing uncertainty in a decision maker’s environment may have important spillover effects, leading to less impulsive choices.

Can information expand to enable solving complex social problems, without requiring unsustainable energy consumption?

graph from Tainter, Complexity, problem solving and sustainable societies
Figure 4.1: Diminishing returns to increasing complexity, in Tainter, “Complexity, problem solving and sustainable societies.”
Would considering the potential consequences of information flow, instead of or in addition to energy, affect this graph?

Energy has always been the basis of cultural complexity and it always will be.

Getting Down to Earth coverJoseph Tainter. “Complexity, Problem Solving and Sustainable Societies.” In Getting down to Earth: Practical Applications of Ecological Economics, Island Press, 1996.

horizontal white space

The common view of history assumes that complexity and resource consumption have emerged through innovation facilitated by surplus energy. This view leads to the supposition that complexity and consumption are voluntary, and that we can therefore achieve a sustainable future through conservation. Such an assumption is substantially incorrect. History suggests that complexity most commonly increases to solve problems, and compels increase in resource use. This process is illustrated by the history of the Roman Empire and its collapse. Problems are inevitable, requiring increasing complexity, and conservation is therefore insufficient to produce sustainability. Future sustainability will require continued high levels of energy consumption to address converging problems.

Tainter, Joseph A. “Energy, Complexity, and Sustainability: A Historical Perspective.” Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 1, no. 1 (June 2011): 89–95.


If readers have leads to answers to the following questions, please let me know. I’d guess the literature may well address the first set of questions. Applying physics and information theory to spiritual asceticism may be opening new ground? Unless the Dalai Lama’s seminars have gotten into it? —

What would happen if Tainter substituted the notion of “information” for “complexity?” Can information expand to support sustainability, without requiring high levels of energy consumption? Can major shifts in the organization of society, or some parts of society, result in a much greater level of function, without increase, or maybe even with decrease, of energy and materials use?

What happens if an analysis like Tainter’s, or one that considers information along with or instead of energy input, is applied to problem-solving methods practiced in spiritual communities such as Christian monasticism and Buddhist sangha?

Also, I’m curious about what happens if ecological and evolutionary notions are applied to developing organizational responses to complex management issues, such as, for example, wildlands management in a complex national park like Wrangell-St. Elias, which is the size of Switzerland, with many engaged landowners, jurisdictions and stakeholders, and conservation and preservation issues. Would it be useful to evaluate networked/collaborative management models vs hierarchical/authoritarian approaches, using information and energy input-output considerations? Could doing that give insights into how best to respond to agency budget and staffing declines, which are happening at the same time that management issues are becoming more difficult and complicated?

Networked/collaborative vs hierarchical/authoritarian management also likely differ in outcomes, beyond those typically identified in agency or business planning, but which other cultures, including but not limited to Christian or Buddhist ascetic communities, might feature. I wonder if applying information & energy input/output analysis in the planning process might tend to open up the process to an expanded set of alternatives. Maybe just by breaking set patterns of thinking & behavior?

I realize all this needs much more research and thinking to be clear & useful. Comments welcome.

Risk landscapes


which looks at the risk of spotted owl extinction in landscapes of various patterns, including evaluation of mathematical landscape models used for that purpose:

Leads me to the notion of “risk landscape”  —
To what extent can understanding the physical landscapes of the owl forest, and the mathematically modeled landscapes developed to approximate them, be useful in seeing other risk situations as metaphorical landscapes, e.g. medical treatment decisions or political strategy decisions. If so, then terms like “paths” through these metaphorical landscapes could apply, and factors could be added to the model equivalent to climate in physical landscapes, the adaptability characteristics of the traveler through the landscape, etc.

diagram of an adaptive landscapeEcologists have used “fitness landscapes” to visualize how natural selection brings populations to optimal points. (See also, e.g.,  Chris Colby 1996.) I wonder how much further the landscape metaphor can be expanded to other uses.

But also perhaps flip this around:
Taking it another step, is it (or to what extent is it) that what we perceive as physical landscape is our human way of modeling incoming information or data. In other words, could it be that the physical landscape, as we know it, is a model that we create to make useful sense of the incomplete, diverse, complex information that comes into us, and that we combine with what’s inside of us already? The physical landscape, the physical world, as we understand it, is in that sense a human construction. Worth remembering that all models are simplifications, usually created to be useful for specific purposes.

What is the reality beyond the model? Is there a way of accessing that, other than through other models? Religious answers beyond modeling include faith, and practice.

Core of economics is inquiry into the nature of wanting

Economics is often defined as the study of the allocation of scarce resources. But “scarcity” doesn’t simply exist: it is produced by the interaction of our wanting and what exists or is produced, viz. the interaction of demand and supply. Hence, the fundamental economic problem is the management of the tension between what is produced and our desiring, our wanting. At the core of the study of economics and the systems that arise from it is an inquiry into the nature of our wanting.

Graphic display of complex information: A challenge for both the strategic advocacy and natural history projects

For his Vanderbilt Law School class on advocacy strategies, Roger Conner is having his students work on an event timeline describing the history of Tennessee’s state level health care reform effort, TennCare. It’s complicated. Following Kingdon, Roger segregates events into policy, political and problem streams. The problem stream has many numbers in various categories: how many people enrolled, annual costs, and the like. In the system Roger and I are developing to help advocates understand the situations they’re in, such a complicated story becomes the basis for further analysis using Elinor Ostrom, et al.’s IAD framework, which is complex in itself. For most people, it takes quite a bit of study of explanatory text to understand the basic IAD framework graphic:

Basic Components of the IAD Framework

Activists working in the real world need to apply these concepts and relationships, and more, quickly and effectively. That means it must appear clear and straightforward to them. Figuring out how to teach this system and to provide the tools to use it is a big task for us.

Turns out that common elements in both our strategic advocacy project and my work in the Wrangell-St. Elias natural history project are timelines like this, that tell a complex history with multiple, interacting event streams. And in each, there’s the need to zoom in on details of shorter intervals within a long timespan. Conveying this information is a central challenge for my work overall, and I think for teaching and writing in both areas. This shared attribute of the advocacy and natural history projects is one indication of their similarity, too. The goal is clarity of vision in complex circumstances. Achieving that has moral, aesthetic and political and personal consequences.

Tufte Beautiful Evidence

Yaakov Garb and I talk about the “Van Andel” factor of any piece of written work. Tjeerd H. van Andel’s New Views on an Old Planet has long set the standard for us in clarity of presentation, both text and simple graphics. More recently, I’m appreciating Edward Tufte‘s masterful teachings on using layout and graphics to convey complex data. Yesterday, I enjoyed his Beautiful Evidence, which models great visual design as well as describing it. National Geographic’s large-format graphic displays, which it folds into its magazine, are another outstanding model.

I think it’ll be worth considerable effort to apply these models to explaining our strategic advocacy framework and to presenting the geological-ecological evolution of the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains. For the Wrangells, I see working on getting the essence into a single large-format sheet, à la National Geographic. Perhaps the same could be the goal for the strategic advocacy framework. Whether or not the required combination of density and clarity of ideas is achievable in this form, its pursuit could help gain clarity of vision, which can also be pursued in other ways.

Visually powerful landscapes: Seattle waterfront & skyline

Here’s two versions of a photo taken looking back at Seattle from the Bainbridge ferry on my return from Alaska a few weeks ago: a reminder that urban landscapes can be as visually powerful as natural landscapes such as the Wrangell Mountains. Both urban and wild scenes embed infinite complex stories.

Take a look at the effects of subtle differences between these two versions. One is slightly compressed laterally, with some very slight perspective distortion. To me, that landscape is more inhumane, impersonal and alienating than the version which has objectively correct proportions. I presume that our brains are always modifying perceptions, perhaps similar to what can be done in Photoshop, to adjust what we see to fit preconceptions, hopes and fears. If I believe the city is alienating, do I see it visually consistent with and re-enforcing of that belief? What can be accomplished by training the mind to be aware of perception biases and able to consciously alter them?