Tuesday, November 22, 2011

On Meddling (Part 2 of 2) by Lewis Thomas

Lewis Thomas was a well known biologist and essayist who wrote the following piece on meddling with complex systems in 1974. This essay is divided into 2 blogs.  To read part 1 click here.

These were the classical examples of medical intervention in the prescientific days, and there can be no doubt that most of them did more harm than good, excepting perhaps the incantations.

With syphilis, of course, the problem now turns out to be simple. All you have to do, armed with the sure knowledge that the spirochete is the intervener, is to reach in carefully and eliminate this microorganism. If you do this quickly enough, before the whole system has been shaken to pieces, it will put itself right and the problem solves itself.

Things are undoubtedly more complicated in pathological social systems. There may be more than one meddler involved, maybe a whole host of them, maybe even a system of meddlers infiltrating all parts of the system you're trying to fix. If this is so, then the problem is that much harder, but it is still approachable, and soluble, once you've identified the fact of intervention.

It will be protested that I am setting up a new sort of straw demonology, postulating external causes for pathological events that are intrinsic. It is not in the nature of complex social systems to go wrong, all by themselves, without external cause? Look at overpopulation. Look at Calhoun's famous model, those crowded colonies of rats and their malignant social pathology, all due to their own skewed behavior. Not at all, is my answer. All you have to do is find the meddler, in this case Professor Calhoun himself, and the system will put itself right. The trouble with those rats is not the innate tendency of crowded rats to go wrong, but the scientists who took them out of the world at large and put them into too small a box.

I do not know who the Calhouns of New York City may be, but it seems to me a modest enough proposal that they be looked for, identified, and then neatly lifted out. Without them and their intervening, the system will work nicely. Not perfectly, perhaps, but livably enough.

We have a roster of diseases which medicine calls "idiopathic" meaning that we do not know what causes them. The list is much shorter than it used to be; a century ago, common infections like typhus fever and tuberculous meningitis were classed as idiopathic illnesses. Originally, when it first came into the language of medicine, the term had a different, highly theoretical meaning. It was assumed that most human diseases were intrinsic, due to inbuilt failures of one sort or another, things gone wrong with various internal humors. The word "idiopathic" was intended to mean, literally, a disease having its own origin, a primary disease without any external cause. The list of such disorders has become progressively shorter as medical science has advanced, especially within this century, and the meaning of the term has lost its doctrinal flavor; we use "idiopathic" now to indicate simply that the cause of a particular disease is unknown. Very likely, before we are finished with medical science, and with luck, we will have found that all varieties of disease are the result of one or another sort of meddling, and there will be no more idiopathic illness.

With time, and a lot more luck, things could turn out this way for the social sciences as well.

To view part 1 of this 2 part essay from 1974 click here.

Monday, November 14, 2011

On Meddling (Part 1 of 2) by Lewis Thomas

Lewis Thomas was a well known biologist and essayist who wrote the following piece in 1974.  In this essay, he reflects on the unintended consequences of trying to affect (or "meddle" with) any part of a complex system without first understanding the whole (as best you can).  Introduced to me by David Peter Stroh, it's a highly readable piece on systems thinking with indirect application to homelessness policy.

When you are confronted by any complex social system, such as an urban center or a hamster, with things about it that you're dissatisfied with and anxious to fix, you cannot just step in and set about fixing with much hope of helping. This realization is one of the sore discouragements of our century. Jay Forrester has demonstrated it mathematically, with his computer models of cities in which he makes clear that whatever you propose to do, based on common sense, will almost inevitably make matters worse rather than better. You cannot meddle with one part of a complex system from the outside without the almost certain risk of setting off disastrous events that you hadn't counted on in other, remote parts. If you want to fix something you are first obliged to understand, in detail the whole system, and for every large systems you can't do this without a very large computer. Even then, the safest course seems to be to stand by and wring hands, but not to touch.

Intervening is a way of causing trouble.

If this is true, it suggests a new approach to the problems of cities, from the point of view of experimental pathology: maybe some of the things that have gone wrong are the result of someone's efforts to be helpful.
It makes a much simpler kind of puzzle. Instead of trying to move in and change things around, try to reach in gingerly and simply extract the intervener.

The identification and extraction of isolated meddlers is the business of modern medicine, at least for the fixing of diseases caused by identifiable microorganisms. The analogy between a city undergoing disintegration and a diseased organism does not stretch the imagination too far. Take syphilis, for instance. In the old days of medicine, before the recognition of microbial disease mechanisms, a patient with advanced syphilis was a complex system gone wrong without any single, isolatable cause, and medicine's approach was, essentially, to meddle. The analogy becomes more spectacular if you begin imagining what would happen if we knew everything else about modern medicine with the single exception of microbial infection and the spirochete. We would be doing all sorts of things to intervene: new modifications of group psychotherapy to correct the flawed thinking of general paresis, transplanting hearts and aortas attached for cardiovascular lues, administering immunosuppressant drugs to reserve the autoimmune reactions in tabes, enucleating gummas from the liver, that sort of effort. We might even be wondering about the role of stress in this peculiar, "multifactorial," chronic disease, and there would be all kinds of suggestions for "holistic" approaches, ranging from their changes in the home environment to White House commissions on the role of air pollution. At an earlier time we would have been busy with bleeding, cupping, and purging, as indeed we once were. Or incantations, or shamanist fits of public ecstasy. Anything, in the hope of bringing about a change for the better in the whole body.

The "Meddling" image at top is by Mark Wilson.  If interested in T-shirts or hoodies with this design click here.