Where you start is key

March 26, 2023

635b7957 b5b2 8d71 16c1 77095083124eThis past week saw me head up to the University of Hull to give the Michael Jackson Lecture.  It was an enjoyable affair starting with dinner with Mike along with Gerald and Amanda, Co-Directors of the Centre for Systems Studies where I hold a visiting Chair.  The Centre was set up many years ago by Mike and is probably one of the if not the such Centres worldwide.  There were some good conversations with the Vice Chancellor before and after the lecture – he had worked on issues with landslips in South Wales and elsewhere.

There was also an interesting conversation with John Seddon who turned out to be less than happy with my recent post which surprised me a little as I thought it was complimentary!  But there is a price to be paid for curmudgeonly behaviour and I’ve acknowledged that on two occasions, once in conjunction with cynicism and contrarianism and again as an art and a science, apposite in terms of what I aim to focus on in this post.

I chose to talk about sense-making as that would allow me to talk about the body of knowledge I and colleagues have been developing which encompasses complexity science as a part of a wider trans-disciplinary approach.  It meant I could start with my recent focus on granularity and abstraction which de facto challenges the whole idea of thinking holistically about any complex problem and focuses instead on managing rich micro-interactions and then scanning for emergence.  Estuarine Mapping is obviously key for this and I finished there by way of basic Cynefin and the Children’s Party Story.

The real value for me in the event was the conversation with Mike that followed and one of the main focus points there was the nature and role of science in understanding human systems.  It was good to have a stimulating conversation about this rather than some of the nonsense I’ve been sucked into around ideas of coherence or more importantly incoherence in recent months.   Having an intelligence exchange in which the participants don’t run away from the implications of their answers, or non-answers is a real pleasure and that engenders respect.  One thing, in particular, came up towards the end when Mike made the valid point that a purely natural science approach could not explain everything that actually happens.  Now I agree with this, but I started to see where some of the confusion could arise and suggested that what we were saying is that natural science is key to understanding where you start and what you pay attention to.  That we could have done with an extra hour or so but the post-lecture dinner and drinks beckoned before we could really get into that.  So today is a chance for me to start to explore that aspect in a little more detail.

My approach to sense-makings is one of five acknowledged schools (which do not contradict each other but are different) and talks about naturalising sense-making.  Naturalising as a term comes from Philosophy and I am using it in the context of making natural science an enabling constraint to any enquiry or action in social systems.  Now to me, the meaning of this is self-evident but I do need to acknowledge it is less clear to others.   For a lot of people, it seems to mean that I am asserting human systems can be understood in terms of some predictive causality.  What we used to call Seldon Man in the early days of this work, we contrasted that with another Asimov creation namely the three laws of robotics which appear straightforward but can produce radically and unexpected outcomes.  The former we used to characterise as complicated the latter as complex and I wish I had remembered this difference in the conversation as it might have helped.  But then the whole idea of emergence and what we can call essential or necessary ambiguity is alien to much of social science which is often consumed in odd polarities on the subject: modernism v postmodernism, critical realism v social constructivism and so on.  More people should study physics, although the confusion between the quantum level and system level effects indicates many of those who attempt it fail in the effort.

Emergence is key in all of this, the properties of wholes cannot be deduced from the properties of the past.  Given that level of uncertainty, it is pretty vital to see emergent patterns early enough, to reinforce or disrupt them and to get the starting conditions of any analysis or intervention right.  An ‘anything goes’, or the assertion that all views and beliefs are equally valid perspective wastes energy and increases vulnerability to the risk of ideological imposition of a pet hypothesis (policy-determined evidence), despair, perverse incentives in targets and a host of other all too common errors.  The phenomena of emergence in social systems mean that we can only give an explanation of the whole retrospectively and the problem there is that tend to create history as a series of causal chains, we join up the dots as we want things to be logical, based on motivation rational choice etc.   In practice, it’s mostly a series of accidents beneficial or otherwise with varying degrees of effective intentional intervention.

So in taking a naturalising position on all of this does not mean I am saying there is a conventional scientific insight possible into systems as a whole.  There are many things we don’t know.   But creating silly dichotomies, (to use an actual example) between indigenous and modern scientific understanding is to demonstrate you know little of either.  Pharmacology alone has seen indigenous knowledge as a key to the discovery of new compounds, modern sustainable farming practices depend on it etc. etc.   And there are also things about humans that remain mysterious. I’ve previously acknowledged that there are “There are more things in heaven and earth” than are “dreamt of”  in conventional understanding in a post on the magic of landscapes.  The social aspects of science also need greater insight and new models of intervention – the recent post by our newest member of staff Lizzy raises really interesting questions here.

But how we start matters. If I am looking at evolutionary theory then I don’t explore the nuances of young earth creationism, it’s simply incoherent to the facts.  But I do respect the different takes on epigenetics and don’t try and close those down to ones I agree with.  The principle of conflict resolution in Cynefin is that you run with any coherent hypothesis in parallel as a set of probes, but you don’t waste time and energy on those which are incoherent.  And yes the boundary may move a little from time to time but it’s pretty clear at the extremes.   Similarly, if we know 83% of people will not see a gorilla in a batch of x-rays if they are not expecting to see it then we need to build systems that increase the probability of finding the 17% before their voices are drowned.  We need to work in the tails of a Pareto distribution not the centre of a gaussian one but that doesn’t mean that we accept any idea.

On a wider level, the same applies to the ethics of which pathways we exclude.  I can recognise the diversity of moral positions within some limits, but there are boundaries to that.  The attempt to promote moral relativism and an ‘anything goes, all beliefs are equally valid‘ approach is morally wrong and in effect rewards those with a disproportionate ability to influence opinions.

One project here is to expand our existing tests for coherence and start to explore those in the area of aesthetics and ethics.  I may not do that in the next post, but I will in subsequent posts and hopefully in other dialogues.  Creating a base set of principles and processes for this in organisational design, community engagement etc. would have utility and hopefully make things clear

To say that some things are wrong is not to assert you are right …


Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

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