Friday, November 19, 2004


I ran across this article while looking up the definition of "reductionism" while writing the NSF essays. Is "Systems Thinking" anything new or just new jargon for stuff we already know? It references some books about management, so I'm suspicious of the latter. Perhaps it's the title of a new seminar that will be taught at businesses around the country for exorbitant fees. Maybe it's an accurate description of concepts that I agree with but that are too high-level and generic to be directly useful. Nonetheless, I liked the Weltanschauung sketched in this paragraph:

"Systems Thinking is a worldview based on the perspective of the systems sciences, which seeks to understand interconnectedness, complexity and wholeness of components of systems in specific relationship to each other. Systems thinking is not only constructivist, rather systems thinking embraces the values of reductionist science by understanding the parts, and the constructivist perspectives which seek to understand wholes, and more so, the understanding of the complex relationships that enable 'parts' to become 'wholes' as noted in the example below."

We can't just be reductionists. We've got to think about the whole too. We've got to do it all. All at the same time. We've should think about everything up and down the scales in everything we do if we want to do things right. Interactions between components of the system. Functions of the individual components. But paradoxically, if we try to do it all, we'll get nothing done.

So how do we translate this desire to do "systems sciences" into actual systems science? What are some good examples of this type of science in practice? Or are these concepts so general that they are meaningless?

I know, I know, the easy answer is that we can't do it all, and that's why science keeps going forever. But because it's reasonable to expect to make at least some progress, how do we then start moving in the direction of systems science?


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