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complexity science, wow!

The current recession has induced a barrage of criticism of the economics profession for its failure to foresee the impending crisis. While these criticisms often aim to indict classical liberal economic thought, a more accurate analysis would not label this as a failure of economics, but as a blind spot to all disciplines: the crisis was just the most recent example of a “cascading failure,” a phenomena that no one has done a particularly good job of foreseeing or preventing. Wikipedia cites a few other examples of cascading failure -which the site defines as “a failure in a system of interconnected parts in which the failure of a part can trigger the failure of successive parts”- most appropriately, the power grid failures we’ve all come to know and love, as well as ischemia, a health event I’ve come to known from my time in health care.

I greatly enjoyed Melanie Mitchell’s overview (Complexity: A Guided Tour) of the current state of complexity science for the very reason that complexity scientists are exploring chaos, dynamic, and network theory, which are fundamental to better understanding the dark recesses that frustrate many disciplines. As Duncan Watts says, “Next to the mysteries of dynamics on a network – whether it be epidemics of disease, cascading failures in power systems, or the outbreak of revolutions- the problems of networks that we have encountered up to now are just pebbles on the seashore.”

The best “unorthodox” economists like Robert Schiller can muster are vagueries like “animal spirits,” which really add very little to the much-maligned classical liberal discussion.  Most likely, the insights which will revolutionize our understanding of epidemics, bank runs, power failures, and social revolutions, will come from an unforeseeable corner of this academic continuum; as a variety of disciplines touch upon complex systems, the more academics appreciate and engage these network failures as what they are, the greater the probability that we will see the intellectual advance we seek.

Complexity science is an nascent stage -what exactly makes a system complex itself is still up for debate- but, in my eyes, its value is clear. The discipline holds the promise of discovery because it has already carved out a series of analogical problems that have frustrated disciplines from economics to epidemiology to biology to political science and articulated the values that unite these admittedly complex problems. We don’t have the answers yet, but at least now we can properly define the question. Frankly, were I prognosticator, I would pick the complexity sciences and political economy as the two fields most likely to yield revelations that vastly improve governance and policy. In turn, I would recommend any student concerned with governance and public policy to delve deeply into the fields of complexity and political economy.

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Filed under: General Welfare

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